Last year, I established Cisco’s Data Science and AI for Good initiative as a channel for Cisconians to give back pro bono, using their professional expertise to help nonprofits make the world a better place through data and analytics. Almost a year later, in collaboration with Save.org and Reportingonsuicide.org, we’re excited to release https://reportingonsuicide.cisco.com/.
Why did we choose cause over all others? On the surface, reporting, blogging, posting on social media, or talking about suicide may not seem like a life-saving or life-endangering task. Yet HOW an individual’s death by suicide is discussed and reported (both by traditional and social media) is a contributing factor to whether the victim’s death will likely be followed by further tragedy. So much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) established media adoption of Reporting on Suicide Guidelines as one of 7 priority areas for suicide prevention. The WHO pamphlet for media reporting on suicide is publicly available here.
These life-saving guidelines, available on reportingonsuicide.org outline how each of us can take a proactive role in suicide prevention by changing the way we speak and discuss on social and traditional media about the subject. When we began this effort, we realized that we could benefit all other suicide prevention efforts by helping to de-stigmatize mental illness through language.
While none of the brilliant minds behind this effort did so for the recognition (it was a labor of love which took over many of our nights and weekends), they exemplify how each of us can make a difference- and on that note, it’s my honor to interview a key team member in this effort, Dennis Chesky.
J: Of all the causes you could volunteer your time towards, you’ve chosen suicide prevention. What led you to choose this cause?
D: I would have to say there are a few reasons for this. My first experience dealing with this goes back to Junior High when I was involved in a group led by the Assistant principal and it was all around sharing how you are feeling, what you are struggling with, and just being open and honest. There was a lot that I saw in that group, that I wouldn’t have seen by just watching the person in the hallway or in a class. People tend to be really good at hiding pain, especially when there is a stigma associated with it. I also have some family members that have suffered and continue to suffer with their mental health, I know how hard it is for them to ask for help or share their experiences. Also having a son who majored in journalism, I know that they don’t necessarily understand the power behind what they are writing, especially for those that are already struggling. Lastly, as we probably all have had, I had some friends growing up that struggled and in some cases, the struggle beat them, and I want to do what I can to help those needing help, get it before it is too late!
J: Suicide prevention can be incredibly taxing emotionally. How do you take care of your own mental health?
D: This is a great question and there are a few things that I do. One is I do a lot of work with my hands, as my wife and I own a repurposing business. I find that working on projects and seeing the outcome provides an outlet for me that helps me refocus. I also don’t go it alone, we have a team of people that are doing this, and just reaching out and talking is sometimes all that is needed. Finally, I look for the good in everything I do. A positive attitude is key even when dealing with some pretty horrific topics.
J: What have been some of the most memorable moments or experiences you’ve had since you began working on suicide prevention?
D: Overall, I would say it is the fact we are starting to see things change, albeit slowly, and that is going to help a lot of people! The fact that there is going to be a 3-digit helpline is a huge step forward. Also, hearing and seeing some of the news reports, online articles, and people, in general, changing their nomenclature around suicide. Another is just getting to talk to some people who have benefitted from the work that is being done, while it might not be directly linked to what I am working on, it is still making a difference in someone’s life!
J: It wasn’t too long after we began working on reportingonsuicide.cisco.com that we realized you were volunteering with save.org both through this effort and directly. How does your volunteer-ship differ between the two?
D: My work with reportingonsuicice.cisco.com has been more hands-on work than I was previously doing with SAVE, but that being said, I am starting to take a more active role with the SAVE team and trying to have a larger impact.
J: If you could convince every person in the world to do one thing that would help reduce the number of deaths by suicide, what would that one thing be?
D: I am going to cheat and give two. First, ask people how they are, this is the first step in helping someone. Second is really listen to them, not just what they are saying, but how they are saying it. Don’t just ask and they move on to something else. People who are struggling won’t ask for help all the time, but if you ask them the questions and then really listen, that might just be what they need.
J: What advice do you give to other people in tech who also want to make a difference?
D: To steal a quote from Nike, “Just Do It!” There is nothing better than the feeling you get of knowing you are making a difference in the world.
Editor’s note: Jennifer is a speaker for ODSC Europe 2020 this September. Check out her talk, “Data Science for Suicide Prevention,” then!