Three Fathers on Capitol Hill: Personal Losses Drive Smart Public Policy

Three Fathers on Capitol Hill: Personal Losses Drive Smart Public Policy

Chuck Roper, AFSP Central Division Director Janice Hurtado-Aeppli, Steve Moore and Dr. Rick Kirchhoff on Capitol Hill in June.

Three fathers’ personal stories shaped a powerful and moving approach to advocacy for the Illinois chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Chuck Roper described the weeks he spent at his youngest daughter’s bedside as she lay in a coma. After years of struggling with an eating disorder, Wendi had lost the will to live.

Steve Moore shared the anguish he felt as he waited seven months before his son Paul’s body was found, confirming that the suicide note he had left was real.

And Dr. Rick Kirchhoff recalled the exact moment, standing at his dining room table, after learning his 18 year old son, Ryan, had taken his life, when he knew he had to take action or he wouldn’t survive his grief. (Earlier in his life, Rick had also lost his brother to suicide.)

“Public policy arises out of our stories—we’re taking the people we’ve loved and lost to the Hill tomorrow,” said Nancy Farrell, Chair, National Public Policy Council, as she addressed more than 200 field advocates representing 48 states at the start of AFSP’s Annual Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2013.

Teams of field advocates met with their state’s Senators, House members and staff to share their experiences and seek bi-partisan support for legislation that will help improve suicide prevention efforts across the country. Bills being advanced include full funding for the National Violent Death Reporting System, currently in use by the CDC in only 18 states, which would vastly improve data available to support suicide prevention efforts; and the Mental Health First Aid Act, a training program with proven success, which helps people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses or substance abuse.

In sharing intimate stories about the loss of a child, Chuck, Steve and Rick made a profound impact on the legislators and legislative aides they met with. All three fathers were adept at linking their personal stories to the merits of specific legislation. It was a day of intense listening, shared sympathy, engaged conversations about mental health legislation and, more than once, private conversations about how these issues have touched the legislators’ own lives.

“Our annual Advocacy Forum attracts a diverse group of volunteer field advocates and staff dedicated to raising awareness about mental health and suicide prevention, which includes the perspectives of not only those who’ve lost someone to suicide but also those who have survived their own suicide attempt. Without everyone’s involvement, we could not educate and engage our legislators on these issues at such a deep level,” said John Madigan, AFSP’s Senior Director of Public Policy.

In between the legislative meetings, we asked Chuck, Steve and Rick how they moved through their grief and pain, why they became involved with AFSP, and what advice they would give to those who are coping with suicide loss.

Chuck Roper recalls the days waiting in the intensive care unit in 2010 and thinking, “I do not want to see another parent sitting where I am.” He first heard about AFSP’s International Survivors of Suicide Day, “and I thought, this looks like it might help, I can do that.” Then he participated in two Out of the Darkness Overnight Walks before joining the Illinois Chapter’s board of directors, where he serves as co-chairperson of the College and Interactive Screening Program Outreach Committee. After his daughter’s death he and his family also became involved in eating disorder treatment issues, assisting some of his daughter’s friends in navigating treatment options when their own families could not assist them. Today, the retired state prison administrator probably knows more about the gaps in the mental health system than most professionals in the field. His advice for coping with suicide is something his physician said to him: “Don’t be afraid to cry and don’t be afraid to laugh.”

Steve Moore remembers throwing himself into learning about suicide after his son disappeared. “I was trying to think of all the places he might have gone,” and at the same time confronting the reality of his son’s suicide note. He found resources on the AFSP web site and soon participated in a fundraising walk followed by survivor outreach training. The area director of the Illinois chapter discovered Steve was an attorney, “and that was it,” he said. Steve was recruited to the board where today he is the Chapter’s secretary as well as chair of its legislative committee, its representative on the Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance and captain of the Race AFSP Team, a group that runs to raise funds. He was AFSP’s 2012 Field Advocate of the Year and serves on AFSP’s national Public Policy Council. Steve noted that with suicide loss, “Remember that everyone responds differently, including your spouse. You each need your space. And your coping mechanisms will change with time.”

Advocacy Day “is part of my recovery. I never expected to be doing this,” said Dr. Rick Kirchhoff, pediatric dentist and retired Army Aviation officer. When his son Ryan died, Rick realized he needed to, as he put it, “Go on the offense. You could set up a defense, but I saw what happened to my parents when we lost my brother to suicide.” It was partly due to his military career that he knew being proactive is “often better and it can give you certain advantages.” He began by finding resources in his local area, became involved with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s non-denominational support for families who have lost children, discovered AFSP whose “growth potential intrigued me,” and gradually moved into “the new normal.” Today, he is co-chairperson of the Illinois Chapter, serves on the national AFSP board of directors, and is the past chairperson of the Chapter Leadership Council.

“One insensitive ex-friend said to me after my son’s death, ‘it’s been a few months—I thought you’d be over it by now,’” said Steve Moore, “but you’re never over it.” Rick and Chuck agreed. All three men continue to travel with their loss beside them, driving each to advocate for support of mental health legislation, moving to build a world in which suicide can be prevented.

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During the Advocacy Forum, AFSP’s Executive Director, Bob Gebbia told the field advocates, “You are part of a million people who are working with us in some way to prevent suicide—suicide prevention is now a ‘big tent,’ a movement of diverse people who have joined our grassroots advocacy organization, an organization driven and informed by science-based knowledge.” 

After the Forum, AFSP’s advocates learned that their work led to measurable progress on three major bills: the Senate Appropriations Committee approved additional funding for the National Violent Death Reporting System; the Mental Health First Aid Act received significant bipartisan support in the House and Senate and $15 million in funding from the Senate Appropriations Committee; and the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which provides critical suicide prevention programming to Native Americans, youth and college students was introduced in the House.

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