Come with purpose: My top three takeaways from Australia’s National Suicide Prevention Conference

This week I joined almost 700 people in Melbourne for Australia’s national suicide prevention conference. People from all walks of life were in attendance, ranging from people with personal experience of suicide and community leaders, to service organisations, researchers and clinicians; with many of us wearing more than one of those hats.

As with all of these events, there is a lot of information to take in and it can be difficult to remember key points and lessons as you progress from one day to the next of a fairly intensive four-day conference.

I’m a big smartphone notes user for that reason. I’m forever jotting down words and phrases that stick with me or references to look up at a later date. For anyone reading this, if I’m typing on my phone as we talk, take it as a compliment not an insult!

As I sat at the airport last night waiting for my post conference flight home, I browsed through those notes and thought I’d share my top three quotes with you. 

“Come with purpose”

Aunty Janet Galpin welcomed us to Country and the conference on day one with some inspirational words about how people were welcomed as they approached Country boundaries in the old days. They were not simply welcomed on arrival, they were asked to state their purpose and to pledge to do no harm to children or Country before they entered.

Aunty Janet said that this is something her people still live by and suggested that whenever we step onto someone’s land or into their lives we should, “come with purpose”. I love this. Too often we rush through life, barrelling into new lands and lives without pausing to think about our why and the consequences (intended or otherwise) of our actions. “Coming with purpose” each day could be as simple as being more considerate with our interactions with each other. 

Further, to honour this do no harm pledge, I wonder if we spend enough time pausing to think about what harm means to others? If we sought to understand this and think more deeply about others' perspectives, would that change how we enter into their lives? Lots to consider, thank you Aunty Janet.

“Instead of hopelessness, aren’t we simply seeking meaning?”

The words we use matter. We talk about safe language a lot in the suicide prevention sector and, as a professional communicator, I pride myself on interrogating the words I use in every context. However, in listening to one of the keynote speakers, Dr Eduardo Vega, speak this week I realised that I can do so much better when it comes to this.

Eduardo put up some great slides listing the words we use in mental health and suicide prevention and some more positive alternatives. For example, we often talk about interventions and referrals. Would you want someone to do an intervention on you? Does a referral sound like someone really cares what happens next to you?

As a colleague mentioned in a National Mental Health Commission session later that day looking at our aspirations for a better health system, wouldn’t a world where affirming language was used be more likely to encourage people to reach out for support, particularly in supporting those who still experience daily discrimination in life and service provision such as LGBTI communities?

I, for one, have been inspired to look more closely at the words I use when it comes to mental health. Collective effort to turn around our turn of phrase can absolutely change our culture for the better.

“When you go to learn CPR, you don’t sit in a room listening to statistics”

National Director of one of my clients, LivingWorks Australia, Shayne Connell, articulated the need for us all to have practical training in suicide first aid when he said this in a session: “When you go to learn CPR, you don’t sit in a room listening to statistics or information on how many people have heart attacks each year. You get the dummy out and practice. Same goes for suicide intervention training, you need to practice!”

In the National Mental Health Commission Connections Project session, Chair Lucy Brogden and CEO and Advisor to the PM Christine Morgan asked conference attendees to think of one big idea that could make a positive difference to mental health in Australia in 2030. I’m a firm believer that building our individual and community capacity to care for others is an investment we have to make. As Shayne said, it is common practice for people to be trained in CPR or physical first aid. We encourage our children living by the beach to do nippers and learn water safety alongside first aid. But what about first aid for our mental health?

The way I interact with people irrevocably changed the weekend I trained in ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Suicide Training). My Dad may still call me “the dramatic child” but I am serious when it comes to my belief that this type of training delivered to every single Australian has the potential to fundamentally shift our culture and sense of community empathy. When you look at the odds of having to restart someone’s heart or resuscitate someone who was close to drowning against the odds of someone near you having a mental health crisis, it is common sense, right?

I know preventing suicide is complex. We as human beings are complex! There is much to be done at a national and state level to improve health systems and socio-economic supports, but there are also individual actions we can take to contribute to a greater good as a collective. Pausing to think about how we enter each others’ lives, talk with each other and care for each other are surely all good places to start.

Thank you to Suicide Prevention Australia for hosting this year’s conference and to all who presented and attended to share their experiences and expertise.

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