by Corbin J. Standley and reprinted from The Community Psychologist
Community Psychology aims to use research and action to promote positive change at the individual and systemic levels (SCRA, n.d.). This vision guides our research, activism, and community engagement efforts. As graduate students in the field, we learn that this vision is guided by values such as participation, collaboration, and diversity (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010; Rappaport, 1977). Recently, I have had the opportunity to engage in state-level change efforts and have been reflecting on how these values have influenced this work. Two major state-level initiatives—the passage of the Save Our Students Act and the ongoing work of the State Suicide Prevention Commission—provide powerful examples of these values in action.
Youth Advocacy for Policy Change
In addition to my role as a student and researcher, I also serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Michigan Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). In this role, I help to oversee AFSP’s research, education, advocacy, and support efforts to prevent suicide across Michigan. I also bring my expertise as a suicide researcher and community psychologist to advocacy and have been engaged in policy work at both the state and federal levels. Earlier this year, we organized a State Capitol Day advocacy event in Lansing, Michigan bringing volunteers across the state together to advocate for mental health and suicide prevention legislation.
As a part of this event, we partnered with students from the Student Mental Health Committee at a local high school in mid-Michigan. This gave the students the opportunity to learn about the legislative process, talk to their state legislators face-to-face, share their stories of suicide loss and survival, and use their voices to advocate for change. As community psychology values teach us, “participation entails individuals playing an active role in decisions that affect their lives and meaningfully contributing to their communities” (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010, p. 35).
Joined by three faculty advisors, the high school students came to the State Capitol on a Spring morning in early March. Together with over sixty other volunteers from across the state, the students participated in an hour-long advocate orientation to learn about the legislative process, discuss the bills for which we would be advocating, and role play a legislative meeting to practice sharing their stories and key talking points. After an informal open house lunch with legislative staffers, the students joined their chaperones and other volunteers for meetings on the hill with state senators and representatives.
Along with the other attendees that day, the students met with over 50 legislators and their staff and helped to drop off briefing material to the other 100 or so offices around the Capitol Complex. In one meeting I had the pleasure of attending with the students, we met with State Senator Curtis Vanderwall, who Chairs the Senate Health Policy and Human Services Committee. Senator Vanderwall is known for asking tough questions in committee hearings and brought a similar, though toned-down energy to this meeting.
Among other things, the students talked with Senator Vanderwall about House Bill 5482. Colloquially known as the “Save Our Students Act,” House Bill 5482 mandates middle and high schools in Michigan to print a suicide prevention hotline phone number on all student ID cards and display Michigan Department of Health and Human Services-provided suicide prevention materials and resources in school buildings and on their websites. They talked about their own struggles with anxiety and depression; about friends they had lost to suicide and the grief, guilt, and hopelessness that can follow; and about wanting—more than anything—to turn their experiences into action to create change. They also talked about the practical implications of the legislation—that students carry their ID cards with them everywhere; that the legislation does not require school districts to incur any additional costs; and that something as simple as a suicide hotline number lets students know that they are not alone, that others care about them, and that help is available.
House Bill 5482 passed through the House of Representatives in June, through the Senate in September, and was signed into law by Governor Whitmer on October 15, 2020. For these students, learning about the legislative process and being able to influence it by sharing their stories and talking directly to their legislators gave them a sense of purpose, a renewed sense of activism, and a rekindled passion to create change. As one student put it in that meeting, “I’m here to help prevent suicide, and so that no one has to feel alone again.”
Community Engagement to Fight Suicide
In another policy win, Senate Bill 228 was signed into law in December of 2019 establishing the first State Suicide Prevention Commission in Michigan. After helping to draft this legislation and providing testimony in various House and Senate Committee hearings to support it, I was appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on the Commission in March of this year. As a Commissioner, I also serve on the Data and Policy Subcommittees helping to inform the recommendations made to the state legislature—recommendations made in an annual report developed by the Commission.
The Commission represents a broad range of stakeholders from various backgrounds, geographies, and professions across the state. This was an intentional aim of the legislation in order to meaningfully and authentically represent the diversity of the state of Michigan and the diversity of those impacted by suicide. As Kelly (1971) states, “Being able to see the variety in the way persons cope with tragedy, how they confront social inequities, initiate legal action, and celebrate good times is the measure of the community psychologist” (p. 900).
In an effort to broaden this diversity, more holistically understand how people experience the issue of suicide and ascertain how local communities across the state are tackling it, the Commission is hosting four public town hall meetings later this year. These town halls will provide Commissioners with an opportunity to hear from people across the state. From a community psychology perspective, these town halls “represent our laboratory and require that we be in attendance to observe and participate and earn a right to contribute” (Kelly, 1970, p. 528) while also ensuring the Commission remains accountable to communities across Michigan.
In addition to the values of diversity and participation, the Commission is committed to providing evidence-based recommendations in its report to the state legislature. This includes a thorough understanding of successful programs and initiatives in other states, a commitment to strengthen data infrastructure and funding in the state, and an understanding of how research can meaningfully be used to inform the policy change (e.g., Standley, 2020; Tseng, 2012).
The successes described above were possible because the work was rooted in key Community Psychology values of participation, collaboration, and diversity. Multiple organizations, legislators, and volunteers across the state have made these successes possible. Progress is slow and iterative, and there is much more work to do, but the passage of the Save Our Students Act and the ongoing work of the State Suicide Prevention Commission exemplify community psychology values in action. By extending beyond the walls of academia, engaging youth and community members, and centering the stories of lived experience, we have been able to create state-level change in Michigan.
Corbin J. Standley is a Ph.D. student and University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University. To contact Corbin or learn more about his work, visit www.CorbinJStandley.com
Kelly, J. G. (1970). Antidotes for arrogance: Training for community psychology. American Psychologist, 25, 524-531.
Kelly, J. G. (1971). Qualities for the community psychologist. American Psychologist, 26, 897-903.
Nelson, G. & Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan
Rappaport, J. (1977). Community psychology: Values, research, and action. New York, NY: Harcourt School.
Society for Community Research and Action (n.d.). What is community psychology? [Website]. Retrieved from https://www.communitypsychology.com/what-is-community-psychology/
Standley, C. J. (2020). Policy change to prevent suicide. Turning research into action. [Web blog post]. International Network of Early Career Researchers in Suicide and Self-Harm (netECR). Retrieved from https://netecr.org/2020/09/10/policy-change-to-prevent-suicide-turning-research-into-action/
Tseng, V. (2012). The uses of research in policy and practice. Social Policy Report, 26(2), 1-24. Retrieved from: https://wtgrantfoundation.org/library/uploads/2015/10/The-Uses-of-Research-in-Policy-and-Practice.pdf