Reaction to the President of the American Association of Suicidology’s Letter of Resignation

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On August 30, 2021, Jonathan Singer, PhD, LCSW, announced his resignation from the presidency of the American Association of Suicidology. At his request, I posted his resignation letter here in order to make the letter accessible to as many people as possible.

On Sept. 14, he asked me to remove the letter, and I did. During the time the letter was posted, people contributed meaningful comments. I don’t want them to be erased, so I’m leaving this brief explanation up as a placeholder.

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  1. Paul says:

    Diversity and Equity? George Floyd?

    70% of suicides in America are WHITE MEN. Even when you go per capita we kill ourselves at nearly 3 times the rate of Black people. We kill ourselves more than any other minority besides Native Americans (our female suicide rates are still higher than even theirs) and the letter didn’t mention Native Americans in any event.

    Wouldn’t a reasonable conclusion be to look at those numbers and say, “Wow.. we really need to reach more White people, men in particular? How does a diversity fetish help accomplish that mission? Nothing says ‘you don’t matter’ more than the head of a suicide organization essentially saying, “We need to stop focusing on White dudes so much” when we all know damn well what the statistics are.

    There’s already a gigantic problem with empathy within your profession – many of you can’t even relate to us as depressives, with nothing else inhibiting communication and understanding. Then the majority of you are women and the majority of suicides are men, so there’s a gender gap added to that. Now we’re going to add willful racial misunderstanding to that mix as well?

    I’ve gotten this feeling before – it’s like you all want to posture and LOOK like you’re preventing suicide and doing the right thing, rather than actually preventing suicide. I’ve got a low bar when it comes to Psychiatry and therapy but nonetheless I am still disappointed. You guys gatekeep some pretty useful meds, but on a mental level you don’t get it at all. You just don’t get it. And it’s the mental level that counts.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Paul,

      I appreciate your giving your view here, but I have to say I don’t understand your logic. Yes, in the U.S. the majority of people who die by suicide are white men. Does that mean the others don’t count?

      In 2019, 47,511 people in the U.S. died by suicide, of whom 32,964 were white and male. (I’m using figures from the CDC’s WISQARS site.) However, the CDC classifies Hispanic people as white. If we separate them out from the group, non-Hispanic white men make up 62.2% (29,566) of suicides in the U.S. As you note, we definitely need to reach more non-Hispanic white men.

      But here’s the catch: the 17,945 people who died by suicide in 2019 who were Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, and/or female were valuable, too. We also need to do more to prevent suicides in those groups, even if they don’t make up the majority of deaths.

      I’d also argue that because some groups have much lower suicide rates than others, we need to learn more about what protects them. Take Black women, for example. Their suicide rate is 2.9 per 100,000. This is just 10% the rate for white men (29.8 per 100,000). What can we learn from those who are far less likely to die by suicide that might help those at far more risk?

      To address racism, diversity, equity and inclusion is hardly a “diversity fetish.” And Jonathan Singer didn’t say anywhere in his letter, as you assert, anything remotely like, “We need to stop focusing on White dudes so much.” Rather, we need to do more to prevent suicide in women and people of other races, too. If we study only white men – or even if we just study people who die by suicide without homing in on specific subgroups – then the exceptions get lost amid the majority.

      Also, a small quibble about your assertion that the majority of people in my profession are female. Among therapists, yes, the majority are female. However, I know of no evidence that the majority of people who conduct research on suicide (aka “suicidologists”) are female.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have been a member of AAS since 2008. I have worked to increase representation of the BIPOC community and focus more on clinical versus research. It is with a heavy heart that I resigned from AAS. I love AAS. In AAS I found others who knew the pain losing friends to suicide and the anguish of losing family. I cannot and will not support AAS in its current form. I object, ardently, at the number of Department of Veterans Affairs employees who are now on the board. I’m saddened to see Dr. Singer resign. I will not be attending the AAS conference and will ask my friends who are also AAS to stop supporting. I am disgusted by what has happened. I am sad that the AAS I knew is no longer. I refuse to be a part of a quasi governmental non-profit.

  3. Jay Callahan, PhD says:

    I will be resigning my membership today. I’ve been a member since 1983, past treasurer, past Board member, past conference presenter, etc. Lanny’s letter and now Jonathan’s letter are compelling.

  4. Janet Gerl says:

    I disagree with the emphasis on the George Floyd situation and racism and bringing that focus into of the organization. Yes it is important but Goodness knows suicide is an all compassing focus and there is no need to dilute the efforts of the organization on a particular aspect. Suicide affects everyone, everyone.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Janet,

      You are correct that suicide absolutely effects everyone. Even so, the suicide prevention field has, at various times, focused on specific populations (including adolescents, veterans, men, etc.) and on specific social problems that contribute to suicide risk, such as mental illness, trauma, bullying, and more. I don’t think emphasizing one problem, such as racism, dilutes the field’s efforts but, rather, strengthens them. At no time does a focus on one area diminish the importance of other areas, too. Especially with racism, the pernicious effects of which have been neglected or even denied for so long in so many circles, the emphasis helps to fill a gap that has long needed attention.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective here. Even though I respectfully disagree with you, I think it’s important for people to be aware of all viewpoints.

  5. Kira says:

    I respect his decision.I really believe that suicide is something that doesn’t need to include politics, race, etc. I received my B.A. from University of Miami in Psychology. The day after Father’s Day and my 40th Birthday, 06/21/2021, my Uncle committed suicide. Suicide has nothing to do with race, nothing to do with poverty, etc. my uncle was 66, Caucasian (White), and had just sold his house for $1 Million. My hope is to help people realize that SUICIDE DOES NOT DISCRIMINATE. SUICIDE DOES NOT SEE COLOR. Why would we ever need to speak to anybody about race? T series creating the environment that we are seeing right now and making people feel less than an bullied. Ask one of our poor war veteran’s if they saw color when they were fighting in World War I, World War II or Vietnam We are seeing such division amongst us in the United States of America. let’s not forget we did not have a problem before and we still don’t need to have one. Ways to never be brought up when discussing suicide prevention nor should anything other than the person you are dealing with directly. The only reason to bring it up would be if the person who is suicidal brought it up to you and you need to address some thing with them personally. Thank you Jonathan for your love and help of people. God Bless You!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Kira,

      You make a good point that people of all races and income levels die by suicide. Suicide affects everybody. And, at the same time, it definitely affects some groups more than others. American Indian youth, for example, have far higher suicide rates than youth of other races. Recent studies have found increases in suicide rates for Black people, especially children, but not for white people. Even though wealthy people can and do die by suicide, people who experience poverty, homelessness, or unemployment are at higher risk.

      Suicide is not only a mental health issue. It is also a societal issue and, more specifically, a social justice issue. It’s safe to say that if the world had less poverty, less oppression, less violence – and yes, less racism — then fewer people would want to die. There would still be people with material wealth and other advantages who became suicidal, most likely due to the forces of depression, addiction, and other problems, but I believe there would be fewer deaths due to despair of daily living. For a good examination of these issues, I recommend the book Suicide and Social Justice: New Perspectives on the Politics of Suicide and Suicide Prevention, by Mark Button and Ian Marsh.

      Thanks for sharing your views! I hope you are open to what I’ve said here.

    • Sue says:

      One dies by suicide. Suicide is not an offence so you cannot “commit” suicide.

      • R.McKenzie says:

        You’d think a qualified professional would know this; furthermore making a comment like “why would we ever need to speak to anybody about race”? shows that there is little to no understanding of issues affecting people of color. Your privilege is showing.

  6. Eduardo Vega says:

    The departure of Dr. Singer confirms that 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 broached not only its internal guidelines, but also many standards of practice for good nonprofit governance, are also squarely to blame.

    Jonathan’s emergency rescue plan was and is the only reasonable course of action.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.

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