Larry Lewis rarely appears in the limelight. Sometimes he gets written up in a local Michigan newspaper, but he certainly doesn’t seek it out. Ask him about his work, and he’ll tell you that the truly inspiring work is being done by his wife, who has been a clinician for as long as he’s been a community organizer. Try to steer him back to his work, and he names everyone on his team and describes them all as indispensable.
“My wife has been my inspiration for 30 years,” says Lewis. “She’s a private therapist who focuses on suicide prevention.” In the late 1990s, she persuaded him to join her at a national rally in Washington about suicide prevention, and his life changed. The angst and mystery of suicide both devastated and captivated him.
Lewis, like many others around the country, was galvanized by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Suicide, released in 1999. Characterizing suicide as a public health crisis, the Surgeon General urged communities and states to get to work, make a plan.
“We got organized on the way back from that march in Washington. We didn’t have a prevention group in Michigan then,” says Lewis.
In 2003, 1,028 people committed suicide in Michigan—about three a day—leaving behind 6,108 survivors. That year, with Lewis as the driving force, the Michigan Suicide Prevention Coalition was formed.
As chairman of the coalition, Lewis has guided the state to claim suicide as a major public health problem.
“I wanted to keep people from suffering,” says Lewis. “I’ve never lost someone to suicide, but talking with survivors was such an inspiration.”
Fast forward to 2005. The coalition’s formal 10-goal state plan on suicide prevention was approved by Michigan’s Surgeon General. Much more than a symbolic proclamation, a state plan is a real accomplishment, a result of countless hours of study, consensus building, and community organizing. With a plan in place, state decision-makers are compelled to set goals, assess priorities, and make research-based decisions about how best to address suicide prevention.
The 35 members of Lewis’s coalition are true activists. They know what it takes to make things happen at the local level. They have worked long and hard in community organizations around the state. Many of them work in “community collaboratives,” pooling their scarce social services dollars and personnel to make sure that people get the services they need.
“Our state has been hit so hard economically, with the decline of the auto industry,” says Lewis. “There are so many budget issues, shrinking resources, and few resources for mental health. When you develop a state plan, you don’t just say, ‘Here it is.’ We worked with our 79 community collaboratives, and we piggybacked our program onto theirs.”
Lewis first connected with EDC in 2005, when he attended the EDC-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s (SPRC) regional conference. SPRC offers people like Lewis training, assistance, and resources to do their jobs better—understanding what works, what the research says, and how communities can be sure that their programs are effective. SPRC staff travel throughout the country, offering training to local and state practitioners, and they went to Michigan to work with Lewis and his colleagues in 2006. SPRC ultimately trained Lewis to offer workshops himself, to communities throughout Michigan.
In just a year, Lewis has trained about 150 Michiganians in the science of suicide prevention. “When you look at what we’ve accomplished in five or six years, we’ve caught up with states that have been at this for longer than we have,” says Lewis. “But no matter how successful we are, there’s more we can do, more people we can train.”
“Our training gives community practitioners the skills to identify the resources they have, figure out what they still need, and set priorities” says SPRC Director Lloyd Potter.
SPRC, with its focus on best practices, also pointed Lewis toward other specialized training, and assisted him as he wrote a grant proposal to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—which the state ultimately received—to expand Michigan’s work. SAMHSA funds SPRC to offer Michigan, as well as about 80 other grantees, ongoing assistance and support.
In doing this work, Lewis is making good on a personal promise he made when he accepted the benefits of the GI Bill after the Vietnam War: “I wanted to pay back what the community had given me.”
Lewis reflects, “At every tragedy, we recognize that we need to redouble our efforts. It humbles us and makes us well aware that we are never done with this work. I’m proud of so many people doing this work. No one does this alone.”
Originally published on May 15, 2007