To Whom It May Concern: The American Association of Suicidology

 

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Update 8/18/21: AAS posted a response today to the letter below. You can find their response here

The American Association of Suicidology has been through a lot of turmoil. Earlier this summer, the national non-profit fired its executive director and didn’t tell any of its members until somebody else posted about it on Twitter weeks after the fact. Many board members have resigned, though AAS hasn’t said a word publicly about this. Even the president-elect resigned. Still no word from AAS.

AAS bills itself as “the nation’s largest suicide prevention membership organization,” but it hasn’t been communicating crucial information to its members.

AAS is 53 years old. It traditionally has been excellent. The organization attracts not only researchers, but also clinicians and crisis workers, community organizations dedicated to preventing suicide, people who have lost loved ones to suicide or otherwise been impacted, and people who themselves have survived a suicidal crisis. It puts on a conference that grows larger every year, attended by people throughout the world. It runs accreditation and training programs, among other efforts.

The recent upheavals and the lack of communication with its members have created concern among many people who care about AAS. Some of those people include eight past presidents of AAS, who today sent a letter to the organization’s leadership and began distributing it publicly. The purpose of the letter is to express concerns and to share with others the facts they’ve been able to gather about what has transpired.

I’m concerned about AAS, too. I wasn’t involved in writing the past presidents’ letter, but I’ve agreed to publish it here so that a link can be easily distributed via social media, and so people can discuss the letter in the Comments section following this post. (Full disclosure: My husband is one of the past presidents signing on to the letter.) If you want to comment on the letter or on AAS more generally, please feel free to submit a comment, with or without your full name. I’m moderating comments and will attend to them as quickly as I can.

Here’s the letter in an embedded PDF. If you’d prefer to read it in this post or if you have trouble opening the PDF, keep scrolling! (Note: I received and posted a slightly revised letter on Tuesday morning, August 17. If you want to see the original, please contact me at sfreedenthal@gmail.com.)

AAS-letter-8.17.2021-from-past-presidents

 

Read the letter here, if you don’t want to use the PDF:

To: Fellow AAS members/colleagues

From: The undersigned past-presidents of AAS

Date: 16 August, 2021

As most of you probably know, over the past several months there has been a lot of upheaval and concerning changes occurring at AAS, with very little information being communicated to the membership.  And unfortunately, the suicidology listserv, where previously we would have shared this kind of information, appears to be censoring any discussion about these sudden unexplained actions at AAS. 

As Past Presidents of AAS, we have an aggregate of 275 years (ranging from 18 to 50 years) of membership in the association.  AAS has been our professional family.  Our longevity as members and our past leadership of AAS attest to our long-standing loyalty and commitment to the mission of the organization.  Because of this standing, many of us have been contacted by AAS members looking for information about what is happening at AAS.  In response, we have pooled our resources and contacts to pull together as much information as we can to help the AAS membership better understand these drastic changes and why they have occurred.

Below we have listed the many facts we have gathered.  We are united in our belief that association business should occur in the sunlight, not in the dark shadows or back rooms, where many of these actions appear to have taken place.  Based on the information we have gathered, we are demanding that Board Chair, Tony Wood, resign.  At the end of this letter, we will make clear our intent if he does not and our “ask” of you.

This is what we have learned:    

  1. Under Tony Wood’s leadership, more than a dozen board members have resigned their board membership.
    1. Among these resignations are three presidents-elect or presidents of the association, all chosen by you to represent you.
    2. One of these resignations occurred, in part, because Tony Wood resisted this president’s insistence that he (Tony) follow California non-profit law (AAS is incorporated in California).
  2. In a span of just a single week at the end of July, eight (8) board members tendered their resignations.
    1. Among these eight were five Division Chairs representing clinicians, researchers, students, crisis services, and loss survivors; and your current president-elect.
  3. A few resigned board positions have been left vacant for some months with no apparent efforts made to replace them or hold elections to do so. One of these board positions, that of a past-president, has gone vacant since April. This position has been under consideration by the board as potentially “not needed,” hence to be removed from a revised set of by-laws that has been in development since 2019, but exists under the current set of organization by-laws meant to control current board actions.  Concurrently, other non-elected member appointments to the Board have been made by Tony Wood.
  4. In response to these resignations, the remaining seven board members, including Tony Wood, have hired a crisis communications firm, at the expense of the association, which to this date (now weeks later) has communicated not a single word to the membership about these resignations and the reasons for them.
  5. Board members who have resigned have been warned from communicating to the membership “under threat of legal action” and/or being sued for “personal actionable injury.”
    1. We have been informed by an attorney that there is no legal support for the concept that former board members cannot talk to — or express their opinions to — anyone, inclusive of AAS members.
  6. There is a significant concern of a conflict of interest between Tony Wood and an executive Committee (EC) member who lives with him. This relationship should have been disclosed to all board members, particularly in light of divisive board votes.  It was not.  In addition, this relationship concentrated voting power in an EC already diminished in size by the resignations of two of its seven members.
  7. In violation of more than 50 years of association practice and the intent of the By-laws, the EC, under the leadership of Tony Wood, terminated the Association’s Executive Director, Colleen Creighton, without consulting with the full Board of Directors at a time when nothing prevented that consultation from occurring. We do not argue with the board’s right to terminate the executive director, but are of the opinion that this action was taken by the EC outside the explicit intent of the by-laws, as follows:
    1. AAS’s By-laws clearly state (Bolded highlights are ours):
      1. Article VI, Section 2: The Board of Directors shall employ an Executive Director who shall be under the supervision of the Board of Directors and the EC.
      2. Article VI, Section 2: During intervals between meetings of the Board of Directors, the Executive Committee shall act on behalf of the Board when time does not permit full consultation with all Board members.
  • Article V. Section 1. The Board will hire and annually appraise the Executive Director.

It is evident that the EC, under Tony Wood’s leadership, failed to involve the full board in this decision.

  1. Further, Article VII, Section 2F states: The Executive Director shall be evaluated annually by the EC. In the four years of her tenure as Executive director, Colleen Creighton has only been evaluated twice by the EC, both times in 2019.   The first evaluation conducted in mid-2019 covered the period of May 2017 to April 2019; at this she received ratings of “good” or “excellent” in 7 out of 8 categories of evaluation.  At the second evaluation, conducted at the end of 2019 and intended to cover the period April 2019 to December 2019, to now place the evaluation on a calendar year basis, she received ratings of good to excellent in all categories.  Her performance was neither evaluated in 2020, nor until she was dismissed in mid-2021.  It is evident from the above that the EC, under the chairmanship of Tony Wood, failed to meet its responsibility as overseer of the Executive Director, failed to share with the full board their concerns about the Executive Director’s performance and failed to share with the full board a reasonable rationale for their decision to terminate her.
  2. Yet, over the four years of her employment by AAS and in spite of her repeated attempts to secure one, Colleen Creighton was never afforded an employment contract or agreement by the EC.
    1. Lanny Berman, who served as Executive Director for almost twenty years was both evaluated annually and offered an employment agreement by the EC annually.
    2. We understand that the reason given by the EC for this termination was that the executive director “was not a good fit for the association” and/or that “we are heading in a new direction.” We further understand that this alleged “new direction” for the association was not — and has not been– discussed/shared with and/or by the Board of Directors. Nor has it been communicated to the members of AAS.
    3. AAS hired a consultant to facilitate strategic planning for the organization. The person hired produced a report to the Board that, among other items, made very clear that there were significant problems in the Association’s “governance.” Abstracted from strategic planning documents are the following, as examples of AAS’s governance under the leadership of Tony Wood:
    4. “AAS…has potential for significant growth but challenges in governance and accountability…limit its impact and progress.”
    5. “AAS Board and staff overwhelmingly cite governance challenges as AAS’s top limiting factor.”
    6. “The poor systems result in perceptions of backroom dealing, opaque decision-making, mistrust of intentions, and heightened anxiety, all of which undermine the board’s ability to function appropriately.”
    7. A week ago a request was made by one of us to Tony Wood to produce copies of all board and EC meeting minutes for the past 12 months, a request specifically allowed any member of a not-for-profit membership organization by California Corporation Codes 6333 and 8333[1]. To date, he has ignored this request.

What Are We Intending to DO?

In late July, as past presidents, we asked Tony Wood to resign for the good of the association.  He ignored this request. 

Given the above, which we understand to be true, we again are demanding that he accept responsibility for the problems listed above and to provide the association with a new beginning by resigning his position as chair of the board. 

Should he continue to ignore this request, and in the belief that we can no longer support our beloved organization as it is now being led, we intend to resign our memberships in AAS as of the end of August and to no longer attend the annual conferences.

What Are We Asking You to Do?

First, we ask that you examine your conscience and decide for yourself what you consider to be your best course of action given the above.

Second, we ask that you join with us by:

  1. Sending a note under your name to leadership@suicidology.org, similarly asking for Tony Wood’s resignation and an immediate effort by the board to fill the elected positions currently vacant on the board of directors.
  2. Should you feel as we do, consider whether you, too, can and will maintain or resign your membership in AAS; if the latter, to do so as of the end of this month should Tony Wood not resign.

Third, we ask that you further disseminate this letter to colleagues and others you know to be members of AAS in order to maximally share this information via email, social media, or whatever other communication channel available. Because attachments cannot be included in most social media posts the letter has been posted on-line at https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2021/08/16/american-association-of-suicidology/.

Lastly, let us be as clear as possible.  We very much wish AAS to survive and thrive and for us to maintain our relationship to and support of it and its mission.  We simply cannot do so given what in our collective opinion is the destructive impact of Tony Wood’s leadership.  We greatly value the volunteer time that the board of directors puts in on all our behalf, but that board needs ethical and transparent leadership.

We thank you for reading this and for doing the life-saving work that you do.

Respectfully submitted by,

Lanny Berman, Ph.D.      Frank Campbell, Ph.D.    Dave Jobes, Ph.D.            Pete Gutierrez, Ph.D.    

Cheryl King, Ph.D.            John McIntosh, Ph.D.     M. David Rudd, Ph.D.      Bill Schmitz, Ph.D.

[1] AAS was incorporated as a California not-for-profit organization upon its founding in 1968.

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  1. Heidi Bryan says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Stacey. I’ve been wondering what has been going on at AAS and was frustrated by the lack of communication. I’ve let my membership lapse – several reasons but one was my concern about the Board leadership and lack of openness regarding it. It’s shocking to me that the membership has been disregarded. As a membership organization, I can’t believe that new board members have been appointed and not elected, or that members don’t have a say in AAS operations. I doubt Tony is alone in this debacle, but as Board Chair he bears the responsibility. This is so disheartening and saddening. I hope the ship can right itself before it sinks.

  2. Eduardo Vega says:

    AAS is an organization in a tail-spin, or death throes, depending on your personal perspective. It cannot serve its mission, or its members or their communities, as a result of egregious errors and malfeasance at the level of the Board. This fault however, cannot be laid solely on Mr. Wood. Others on the “Executive Committee” which has overreached its internal guideline, but also many standards of practice for good nonprofit governance are also squarely to blame.

    All remaining Board members must immediately resign in order to allow a process for the many communities AAS is intended to serve, to regain trust and re-invest even hope in its survival.

    Without a clear process for emergency restructuring AAS should be considered a failed organization. It is in violation of its own bylaws in several ways, including the requirement of 14 Board members. Failing the immediate resignation of the Board and assignment of staff of an OPEN Public process for interim governance, all members and funder organizations should cease payments and contracting, at risk of their financial investment and credibility.

    The cause of suicidology and prevention of suicide death in America is too important to be held hostage by an organization which purports moral leadership, but has demonstrated the lack of it for many years in many ways. We deserve better, our communities need better. And we will create better, with or without AAS in the future.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This communication is very important. The resignation of more board members since makes it clear that this organization cannot serve our communities or its mission, and should not survive if its current leadership remains. The only caveat I have here is that Tony Wood is not the sole perpetrator of poor, uninformed and self-serving governance. Most of those remaining on the self-dealing “Executive Committee” have actively supported his overreach and/or been personally invested in it including April Foreman and Annemarie Matulis.

    In addition the organization is out of compliance with its required 14 Board member by-law.The entire board MUST resign immediately and the sole remaining staff person of AAS be directed to re-engage an OPEN Public process for re-establishment of governance, review of bylaws and the institution of an Interim Executive Director and Interim Board. Without a clear emergency restructuring process, AAS must be considered a failed organization and non-profit– all its funders and members should decline to pay or contract for any services.

  4. Anonymous says:

    According to a recent interview published online April Foreman is “Deputy Director of the Veterans Crisis Line’s Innovations Hub.” I wonder what that organization thinks about her involvement in this ugly scandal. Government employees should be held to high ethical standards.

    • Anonymous says:

      As someone who has been involved with her in this context, “innovations” is an inaccurate term. We were advised that she was brought in to help us update and streamline our non-phone communications and there have been little to no results to speak of, save for a failed demo of a third-party program that was unable to keep up with systems that have been in place for a decade. Not to mention her insistence that our responders should be handling multiple simultaneous interactions with suicidal veterans. There’s been a lot of sizzle and very little steak since she was brought on to our agency.

  5. Janet Gerl says:

    Are we also filtering comments here???It sounds like AAS needs to clean house Those directing this organization have lost perspective of its true purpose. No better than crooks and thieves. How shameful. We can do better. We must do better. Perhaps start over.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Janet,

      I moderate all comments, mostly because the site receives a high volume of spam. I’ve published all comments submitted for this post except for one that had misinformation, and I communicated privately with that individual.

  6. Paula Marchese says:

    Thank you Stacey for sharing the letter and to the authors of the letter for outlining for us some of what has been transpiring behind the scenes and for having the courage and integrity to stand up for what you believe and for your efforts to fight for an organization that has become a crucial and valued home to so many. It was a beacon well over 10 years ago when I joined with no where else to turn that offered a space for the grief that threatened both my personal and professional life.

    I feel extraordinarily sad, as well as angry, that a place which houses some of the most dedicated and brilliant clinicians, researchers and survivors who have dedicated their lives to reducing the tragedy of suicide and helping to heal the devastation left behind, is now forced to experience the suicide of our own organization. The warning signs were there but as we all are painfully aware, the feelings of shock and grief are not spared. I do not pretend to know the validity of what has been said on either side. What is clear is that power struggles amongst a small number of individuals has slowly eroded an organization that has for over 50 years dedicated itself to saving lives.

    From the darkened corner in which I sit, able to view mere glimpses of information and the organizational changes that have recently occurred, I can only be certain of my own experience. For some time I have felt some kind of shift occurring which has become increasingly painful and uncomfortable. The narrow focus of conferences and how they are structured, the ways in which clinicians are subtly blamed for suicide deaths rather than supported, especially in their grief, nor valued for the tremendous wealth of insight and knowledge that has the potential to contribute to saving lives, the fall of the AAS list serve despite impassioned protests of so many members who repeatedly gave voice to it’s value both professionally and personally. Other than something about some members threatening to leave the organization if it were to continue, I am still in the dark about why an organization’s list serve would be terminated. Every professional list serve is vulnerable to and experiences discourse. It is the role of moderators to apply their wisdom and objectivity (and time!) in order to maintain clear guidelines outlined by its organization. I also have experienced that despite the expansion of divisions within the organization, AAS has felt more and more narrow in its thinking and less welcoming as a professional home. As I read the letter from these 6 well respected past presidents and the response cited, it has become slightly clearer as to the undercurrent of what I have been feeling lately.

    I had debated discontinuing my membership before and now with this disturbing peak into the extent of the conflicts, the lack of transparency in which many things have occurred, and the determination of one person to maintain control despite requests by so many in leadership roles calling for him to step down, it will no longer feel even questionable.

    What it will leave me feeling is incredibly disappointed and angry. That this is happening in the midst of a global pandemic within a nation where this type of political division has created as much toxicity as the virus itself. A nation where conflict between political parties has wreaked such havoc, has contributed to so many deaths and has enflamed the embers of so, so much hatred… I have no adequate words. The executive board of AAS should be ashamed of itself as some of you are clearly fighting for yourselves to maintain control regardless of the needs of an organization that should never lose sight of it’s incredibly important purpose which is to help so many who are suffering and in unbearable pain. Regardless of the details, the Board has clearly failed in it’s leadership and needs to quickly step aside if AAS is to survive even remotely as we know it.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Paula,

      You’re welcome – I’m happy to share the letter here as a means to making it accessible to as many people as possible.

      You bring up many good points. I want to clarify one thing. To my knowledge, the listserv continues. A while back, an announcement was made that the listserv would be discontinued, but I think there was so much pushback that the decision was re-evaluated. I say this based only on my continuing to receive listserv posts in my mailbox; if somebody with AAS wants to comment here about the exact decision, that would be welcome.

  7. Erica says:

    Thank you for providing context and clarifying the current situation at AAS. It is truly disheartening that a drive/need for power seems to have overtaken the mission of the organization. I found AAS just almost 3 years ago when I lost my late husband to suicide and my world shattered leaving me gasping for air because I truly did not think I would survive. I needed connection to others who could understand and I attended my first AAS conference shortly after his death. I felt proud to join as a member and begin getting involved in the association, hoping to be able to at some point even serve in some capacity. It is very sad that an organization that can do so much good is dying from its own internal strife. I hope the board chair steps down and AAS can rebuild to continue being a source of support, connection, and meaning to those who desperately need and benefit from it.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Erica,

      I’m sorry about your husband’s death. That is so devastating, and it’s wonderful that AAS provided some solace and connections. I agree that the whole situation now is very disheartening. Amid what appears to be a massive power struggle, the people most directly affected are those who most need the community and connection that a member-driven organization is meant to provide.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It’s time for the suicide industry to transform.

    • Paula D Marchese says:

      Transform how? I’m curious what you mean. I would like to understand the kinds of changes you think are important at this critical juncture. And why anonymous? (not asking who you are, only to understand what makes it feel unsafe to speak out.)

  9. Postvention Subject Matter Expert says:

    Thanks for posting. It helps bring a little more context to the cryptic emails from AAS.

  10. Sapna Singh says:

    I have used this organization as a resource over the years and it has helped me learn about this important mental health issue. It appears that the power struggle is getting in the way of the very essence of the goals and mission of this organization. The Board and the EC must do the right thing.

  11. I am dismayed & saddened by this. When I went to my 1st AAS conference in the early 1980’s as a loss survivor, I was desperate for answers. AAS became my home & it grew & blossomed through many years of fine leadership & boards. I’m proud to have been a part of it & learned so very much along the way. I’ll stand behind the authors of this letter. I’ll help in any way I can.

  12. Grace says:

    Thank you for letting us know what is going on. I completely support the request for Tony Wood to resign.

  13. Danette says:

    So much to unpack. Thank you for providing this information and providing a venue for open exchange and dialogue. I am realizing how little I understand about how AAS operates. Can anyone direct us to where we can find the by-laws, as well as a list of who is currently on the Executive Committee? Thank you!

  14. Eileen Zeller says:

    Thank you for sharing this and providing actions to take. You’ve presented a compelling argument from folks I trust and I’m most definitely following up.

  15. Nina says:

    I’ve been forwarding the letter far and wide. Hopefully the coup will be overturned and we can have AAS back!

  16. Michael Craig says:

    I am not a member of AAS, but have followed many robust and controversial discussions on the listserv. I am truly appreciative of the vast resources and instinctive knowledge afforded to those if us who try to incorporate prevention in our lives. I survived the suicide of my 13 year old many years ago, just like it was yesterday. I am heartbroken to learn of Colleen’s dismissal. She graced us in Indian country where I taught high school and am blessed with students who are the Warrior Movement. I can only say that I have met many individuals from across the country sincerely devoted to suicide prevention, and nobody shines brighter than Colleen. Those responsible for her dismissal ought to truly reconsider their own commitment to the universal struggle to understand suicide and prevention of needless death and the trauma it leaves in its wake.

  17. Robert S Bolan says:

    AAS was helpful to our family with materials and advice as we coped with loss and then set up a survivors’ support group.

    It is common for organizations with unexpected leadership vacancies to retain an “interim executive director” on a short-term (usually turns out to be 6 to 12 months) basis, to serve three primary purposes: advise the board on strategies and governance appropriate for the upcoming 3 to 5 years, support the recruitment of a permanent ED qualified to help the board achieve these strategies and governance outcomes, and manage day to day staff actions during the transition. I served several organizations in this way before my retirement, and I assisted several other experienced non-profit association executives to support organizations during these transitions. AAS might benefit from this type of Interim Executive Director placement, based on your article.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I have a lot of questions about this. I have tried suicide several times. EVEN though I dont really want to live, I am giving life another try.

    • You are a warrior. I’m amazed at your courage and your willingness to keep fighting for your own life. No controversy should overshadow what we are here to do and that is support you, and help find solutions.

  19. Genie says:

    Dear Stacey, I appreciate your letting us know what has been happening with AAS.

  20. Dragon says:

    Stacy, we all know that the past year and a half has been a disaster, I look forward to the letter and trust that better days are forthcoming.

  21. Beatrice Shahan says:

    As I have said many times, all the money in the world will never answer the why that so many of us are left with. Until you talk to the survivors of suicide and let them talk to the people publicly you will not gain much headway, but when a person who has gone through this themselves and talk and connect with those that suicide it would make a much more meaningful impact on the young people primarily. Since this younger generation seems to have lost its empathy for other individuals in general it might just give them a reality check. I have long said you need to talk to us to also help us heal a wound that will never heal. The pain will get less but in 20 years the weeks leading up to the date of his death, my world turns upside down, and the same with his birthday. I don’t dwell on his suicide but my physique knows and never lets me forget. The organization has tried to do what it can but no one has the answers. Sorry, for my rant about the organization, but I just see money being spent for salaries and not being spent to help those that are crying for help with mental assistance or medicines to get them to a better place and keep them on track.

    [This comment was edited to abide by the Comments Policy. – SF]

  22. Janet Gerl says:

    Thank you for keeping us informed.

  23. Roadie Ric says:

    Many thanks for this heads-up. The largely unheard voices of actual attempt *survivors needs a nationwide ally in order to share the very practical real-world wisdom of their respective experiences.

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