Collaboration Is Key to Upstream Suicide Prevention

November 18, 2022

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Victoria Waugh-Reed, EdD, SPRC Director of Best Practices Registry

I was a lifeguard in my early twenties. During that time, I rescued two swimmers from drowning, which helped solidify my career goal to help others. For me, there was no greater feeling than saving someone in a moment of crisis until . . . I began teaching people to swim.

Swim instruction is an equally fulfilling and life-saving effort, in that it reduces the risk of a swimmer needing rescue later. When I was older, I had the pleasure of teaching my nephew to swim, which brought me the joy of knowing he is better able to stay safe when he’s around water. I share these personal stories to illustrate that drowning prevention can and should take a comprehensive approach, by many different folks, with many different skill sets—just like suicide prevention.

Let’s look at where our work falls on the prevention continuum. Like safety in and around water, preventing suicide requires multiple strategies at multiple time points. That may take the form of intervening in a suicidal crisis, like a rescue from drowning, or an earlier “upstream” involvement that prevents the crisis from happening, like swim instruction.

Reducing suicide risk is known as “upstream suicide prevention.” The U.S. Surgeon General recently called for six critical actions to implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, including the necessity to “address upstream factors that impact suicide.” Such factors may include exposure to trauma, racism, economic stressors, or disparate access to health care. To address them, evidence suggests the following may be most effective:

  1. Promote and enhance social connectedness and opportunities to contribute.
  2. Strengthen economic supports.
  3. Engage and support high-risk and underserved groups.
  4. Dedicate resources to the development, implementation, and evaluation of interventions aimed at preventing suicidal behaviors.

Addressing the big-picture factors that contribute to suicide risk may sound daunting, but it’s happening every day—in schools, juvenile justice systems, faith communities, and many other settings across the country. Upstream work requires thinking broadly about what suicide prevention means and considering how we can partner with diverse groups, sectors, and communities to ensure multiple strategies are working together across the prevention continuum. It requires listening, collaborating, and cooperating in both new and traditional ways.

I’m delighted to announce that SPRC’s new Best Practices Registry (BPR) is coming soon and will include a special focus on upstream strategies for preventing suicide. This BPR is the same one-stop source you know and trust for suicide prevention programs and interventions, guided by a new vision—to increase health equity through expanded access and representation, of which upstream work is a critical part.

To make this vision a reality, we need you:

  • If you or someone you know is doing amazing upstream work, please apply to the BPR. We’re seeking applications for programs and interventions that incorporate best practices and culturally relevant approaches. We’re accepting more forms of evidence than ever before, and we welcome programs based on community and culturally defined knowledge.
  • Start thinking about how to incorporate upstream strategies in your work through new or existing partnerships. What groups in your community are doing work downstream from yours? How might you collaborate to increase your collective impact? I challenge you to reach out to a partner today.
  • Stay tuned on the release of the new BPR by signing up for the Weekly Spark.

Just as lifeguards and swim instructors have different yet equally important roles in keeping swimmers safe, so too do the crisis counselors at the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, physicians, faith and spiritual leaders, school staff, and many others who help prevent suicide every day. Let’s expand and renew our efforts by working together toward the shared goal of saving lives. See you in the water!

Victoria Waugh-Reed, EdD

SPRC Director of Best Practices Registry

University of Oklahoma Outreach

Southwest Prevention Center