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Doing Community-Driven Suicide Prevention Research

Written By Amanda Demmer, Program Coordinator, Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council

I went about writing this article the same way I go about research – by leaning on my community for direction. In this case, that meant asking my steering committee for input as I began forming my ideas for this article. I am excited to share with you some insights my steering committee had, but first let me start by introducing us and the project we are working on.

The Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council (WRSPC) is a local, grass-roots, community organization with a mission of reducing the impact of suicide in our community. We are a collective of individuals passionate about suicide prevention coming from various stakeholder groups in our community, including lived experience perspectives. In 2016 the Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services (ROWPHE) published a health status report on suicide in Waterloo Region and presented the findings to the WRSPC. The Council, as a collective of local community stakeholders in suicide prevention, realized that these statistics only show one small piece of the story in our community and decided they would embark upon a priority project to further understand our local community context. Thus, our Research Priority Steering Committee was formed as a partnership between WRSPC and ROWPHE, adding later as a valuable partner the Centre for Community Based Research here in Waterloo, ON.

As one of our steering committee members (who has been involved since that first discussion of the ROWPHE report) shared when asked for feedback, “our project is a really clear example of research that’s community-driven right from the start, because it was quite literally prioritized and initiated by a community organization (WRSPC) who said, ‘we need research to answer our questions so we can do better work’”. In the initiation of this research project we listened to our community: we listened to service providers who support those struggling with suicide, to those who have lost loved ones to suicide, to epidemiologists and public health professionals who shared a picture of our community with us, and to those who have been within the depths of suicidal thoughts and behaviours and who are still with us today.

We listened when these voices told us they want a better picture of our community, and we responded by embarking upon a community-based research (CBR) project to explore local suicide prevention services and supports while also looking to better understand who is dying and who is attempting suicide in our community.

Another highly astute steering committee member commented “It starts to become a question of ‘we’ and not ‘us and them’” when speaking about what CBR means to her. I thought this statement beautifully describes what it truly means for research to be community-driven – it is no longer ‘us’ the researchers and ‘them’ the people/community to be researched, but instead there is a collective sense of ‘we’. This means that all perspectives, all voices, all stakeholders are valid. It looks not only at the academic knowledge, but also at the less utilized but highly valuable lived-experience perspective, as well as the perspectives of community stakeholders with local knowledge of context. It allows for the weaving of these pieces together into a fabric more valuable than each of these parts.

We often say “suicide prevention is everyone’s business” – suicide prevention requires this ‘we’ approach where we all have a role to play and we must utilize the knowledge from every stakeholder perspective. The WRSPC has always functioned with this ‘we’ mentality, which is why a community-driven project and a CBR approach was a natural fit for our local research project in suicide prevention.

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