Well, this past week, I got to test out “Trying to Matter.” I recently became a field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and got to attend their Advocacy Forum in Washington, DC. I was part of 250 field advocates from all 50 states. We attended an all day conference on topics such as Mental Health Parity & the Affordable Health Care Act, Military and Veteran Suicide Prevention, Suicide Prevention Research, Statewide Suicide Prevention Initiatives, Bullying and Suicide and Donation of brain tissue for medical research. Our first day was kicked off by former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a champion for and consumer of mental health care. Between two days on conferences, we all trekked up to Capitol Hill to advocate on behalf of AFSP to our own state’s congressional delegation. For Virginia, that meant meetings with 14 state representatives and senators. We split these meetings up between our VA, Northern VA and DC friends and felt like champions when we finished at 5 pm. I can honestly say, I was nervous as could be about attending this conference, but at its conclusion I felt so empowered and that I had really made a difference by taking this message of hope to Washington. I encourage anyone who has a cause to “Try to Matter’ – experience a day of advocacy at your local, state or national level. This is how policy is shaped and changed in America.
On a personal note, one of the really touching things about this conference were the stories each of these 250 advocates shared with each other. Everyone got up, along with the staff and board members present from AFSP, and told who they had lost and why they advocate. It was powerful. There were people who had lost their only child or in a couple of cases, both of their children. People had lost siblings…I even met another Shannon who had lost a brother Matt…she took the time to come find me and introduced herself. We were both astonished. There were folks who had lost a parent or both, a best friend, a spouse, grandparent, uncle, co-worker and the list goes on. The one thing that I noticed…we were all colors, all faiths, all genders, all soci-economic backgrounds. But we were all people who had the unexplainable happen. We were members of a club that no one wanted to join. But together, with our big buttons saying, “Ask me the three ways to prevent suicide,” we were a force to be reckoned with. We were a powerhouse for change and the start of a conversation on mental health that is finally happening in this country. We will not let stigma keep anyone else from seeking the care that they are entitled to in this country. Silence and stigma were stomped on last week and I was really grateful to be a small part of it.