Leading With Lived Experience

May 24, 2024

A mother and a daughter standing outside
News Type:  Director's Corner, Weekly Spark
Author:  Pata Suyemoto, PhD; Chair, SPRC Lived Experience Advisory Committee; Executive Director, National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association; Associate Director of Equity, Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention

When I was voted chair of SPRC’s Lived Experience Advisory Committee (LEAC) last year, I was surprised and honored, as I am routinely inspired by my LEAC colleagues and their confidence means a lot to me. I have been a mental health activist for more than 15 years, and I was an antiracist educator before that. I have also been impacted by mental health concerns my whole life. My mother had bipolar disorder; my father’s sister died by suicide, and my father experienced depression. I have chronic major depression, complex PTSD, and ADHD, and my daughter has similar diagnoses.

I have all kinds of lived experience and I bring all these perspectives to this work, and not just my lived experience with suicide and mental illness. I bring my lived experience as a parent. I bring my lived experience as a mixed heritage Japanese American whose father was incarcerated in an American concentration camp during WWII. I bring my lived experience as a bisexual person who took care of her gay male friends as they died of AIDS. I bring my lived experience of someone who has been on a healing journey for many years.

I currently hold several positions in suicide prevention and mental health promotion. In all these positions, I lead with my lived experience. In addition to LEAC chair, I am the executive director of the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA) and the associate director of equity for the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide prevention (MCSP).

What does lived experience look like in these spaces? LEAC is made up of individuals with diverse forms of suicide-centered lived experience. We advise on all of SPRC’s projects and are working on tools and trainings to help practitioners center lived experience in their prevention efforts. At SPRC, our voices are not only valued but deeply considered and incorporated. LEAC is diverse across other dimensions, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, and age, which allows for expanded perspectives.

NAAPIMHA is a nonprofit that aims to promote and redefine the mental health and well-being of U.S. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities through training, programs, policy, advocacy, and centering lived experience. A key part of our lived experience efforts is a group called the National Asian American Pacific Islander Empowerment Network (NAAPIEN). NAAPIEN is a unique space where those with lived experience who are members of these communities can share our perspectives with one another. This is so important because often the stigma in our homes and communities prevents us from openly sharing our struggles and wins, which can leave us feeling isolated and alone.

At MCSP, I am also able to bring my full self and multiple identities as a mixed-heritage Japanese American, bisexual, cisgender, middle-class, elder, woman who is a suicide attempt survivor with lived experience. So often, even in mental health spaces, there is stigma against those of us with lived experience, so this openness is a blessing.

My mental health activism has been part of what has saved me, along with therapy, medication, and intentional and consistent self-care. In addition to being part of my own healing, this activism has allowed me to use my pain and struggles to help others and bring lived experience perspectives to national and local mental health and suicide prevention efforts. We know that systemic changes are needed to really meet the needs of all people, especially those who are most impacted. People with lived experience need to be at the tables where these efforts are taking place—shaping policy, creating programs and interventions, bringing awareness, and conducting research. It is imperative that lived experience perspectives are present at all levels to expand our knowledge and enrich our work.

Pata Suyemoto, PhD 

Chair, SPRC Lived Experience Advisory Committee

Executive Director, National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association

Associate Director of Equity, Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention