Background & History

Members of TSPN present a signed banner following the first Suicide Prevention Awareness Day event in 2003.

Each year suicide claims more lives of Tennesseans than homicide. Yet most suicides are preventable. With public discourse, education, and awareness, each of us can help reduce the frequency of suicide in our communities.

The most important step in prevention is the recognition of the many signs of suicide. With compassion and courage, we can give a loved one hope in time of despair.

A Brief History of TSPN

1996: The contemporary national suicide prevention movement dates to 1996, when Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch founded the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network/United States of America-SPAN/USA in response to their daughter’s suicide.

1998: Dr. Ken Tullis, a Memphis psychiatrist and his wife, Madge, attended the National Suicide Prevention Conference in Reno, Nevada, and established a campaign to “SPAN the State of Tennessee in 1998.”

1999: Dr. David Satcher, the Surgeon General of the United States, encouraged the development of a national suicide prevention strategy for the entire United States as one of his major campaigns. In 1999 Tennessee accepted the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Suicide and adopted the Tennessee Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

A panel of mental health experts convened by Dr. Tullis developed the Tennessee Strategy for Suicide Prevention by responding to each of the fifteen points in The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Suicide published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service. These strategies were submitted for consideration at the statewide Tennessee Suicide Prevention Conference held October 7-8, 1999 in Nashville. The conference, co-chaired by the Tullises, provided a forum to increase awareness of the risk of suicide, ways to recognize warning signs and symptoms, how to establish and maintain prevention programs and ways to assist Tennesseans in obtaining proper medical treatment when suicidal thoughts are present.

2001: The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention was released. The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Strategy was presented to D. Fredia Wadley, then Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health; Elizabeth Rukeyser, then the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities; George Hailey, Chair of the Mental Health Planning Council, and other state public sector leaders. Both the public and private sector symbolically accepted responsibility for the Tennessee Strategy. Conference participants were challenged to further develop and begin implementation of the strategies.

The foundation of TSPN was an outgrowth of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Conference, and eight regional networks were established for locall action on the Tennessee Strategy for Suicide Prevention under the operational coordination of an Executive Director and a gubernatorially appointed Advisory Council. Later an Intra-State Departmental Group consisting of delegates from state departments and agencies was established to advise the Network on public policy and implement Network objectives at the state department level.

2002: TSPN helped organize the Suicide and the Black Church Conference held in Memphis in 2002, the first nationwide event dedicated to the subject of African-American suicide within the faith community context. The Network has been a part of every follow-up event since.

2005: The agency was acquired by the Mental Health Association of Middle Tennessee, a merger which opened TSPN to additional resources and contacts under the National Mental Health Association (now Mental Health America) umbrella. Also during this year, TSPN submitted an application to SAMHSA’s State-Sponsored Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Program on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities and was accepted into the first group of grantees selected. Acceptance into the program allowed for the establishment of the Tennessee Lives Count (TLC) Project, a statewide early intervention/prevention project intended to reduce suicides and suicide attempts for youth aged 10-24 within an emphasis on gatekeeper training. The program is currently in its second grant cycle, oriented towards gatekeepers within the juvenile justice system.

2006: TSPN, along with the state of Tennessee itself, received the SPAN-USA Allies for Action Award in recognition of its suicide prevention efforts, the first time the award was ever given to a collective body rather than an individual.

2007: The Network was influential in the passage of the Jason Flatt Act of 2007, which mandates the inclusion of two hours of youth suicide prevention training for all public school staff in Tennessee. At the time it was the most intensive youth suicide prevention education law in the nation.

2008: The Network observed the ten-year anniversary of the national suicide prevention movement with a symposium held September 18-19, 2008, and followed this up with the Suicide Prevention Awareness and Educational Event series during September of 2009.

Current Projects

Members of the Network’s eight regions meet monthly or bimonthly to develop and report back on regional TSPN projects, review local suicide incidents, and discuss future opportunities for outreach and awareness. The meetings are open to the general public. Additionally, the Advisory Council meets three times each year and the Intra-State Departmental Group meets on a quarterly basis.

The Network maintains and supports several support groups for suicide grief and survivors of suicide attempts and continues to search out opportunities for linking survivors together to aid in the healing process.

In any given year, TSPN and its regional members reach hundreds of people across the state through training sessions and presentations for schools, mental health agencies, businesses, and civic groups across Tennessee. Members also set up booths and displays at local conferences and fairs. Most of these events include the distribution of TSPN publications, including several brochures tailored to specific high-risk populations, a church bulletin insert, and a bookmark developed by TSPN’s Mid-Cumberland region. Materials from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and local mental health centers are usually available as well.

Each September, TSPN observes Suicide Prevention Awareness Month with a series of awareness and memorial events across the state. The Governor of Tennessee has signed off on official proclamations declarations recognizing Suicide Prevention Awareness Month for the last several years. An increasing number of regional legislators, such as mayors and county executives, have also released proclamations of their own at the request of constituents with ties to our agency.

In the event of a local suicide which is either high-profile in nature (i.e., the incident occurred in public) or carries a high potential for contagion (i.e., the death of a student or a well-known individual), Network members may alert regional mental health providers about the need for suicide postvention services and render assistance to these efforts as necessary.

Members of the Network frequently appear on local radio and television programs promoting TSPN and the cause of suicide prevention, and often submit articles on the subject to local newspapers. TSPN also monitors local and national media outlets for their portrayals of suicide in news coverage and entertainment programs, providing commendations or suggestions for improvement as necessary.

One of the Network’s most visible projects involve the Emergency Department Resource Toolkits, a set of brochures on suicide attempt aftercare which are provided alongside other publications in preassembled brochure holders provided to emergency rooms across the state. The brochures are to be provided to emergency room staff as well as persons treated at the facility for suicide attempt injuries and families of the patients. Additionally, the Network’s “Love Never Dies” Memorial Quilts are frequently exhibited at TSPN events and are available for reservation by other groups upon request.

TSPN’s monthly newsletter, the TSPN Call to Action, reaches approximately 6,000 readers across the state with the latest developments pertaining to TSPN projects, national awareness campaigns, relevant legislation and conferences on the state and national levels, and the latest research in the field of suicide prevention.