What to look for in a mental health speaker

Given the sensitivity around topics such as addiction, mental illness, and suicide, meeting professionals should strive to hire mental health speakers who pay attention to safe messaging. So here are some thoughts on how meeting professionals and event planners can find the right behavioral health speaker.  

Mental health speakers should avoid graphic descriptions

While you want your speaker to deliver a thoughtful and educational presentation, avoid hiring or inviting mental health speakers who go into graphic detail about suicide methods or cleanup which could potentially be activating, especially for young students and more vulnerable populations.

In addition, speakers should not get specific about a suicide method or gory descriptions of the final scenery. Hollywood loves to paint the scene but suicide prevention experts advise against it based on what we know today. Audiences don’t need to hear a lot of details on ropes, belts, gun barrels, or blood. It’s already an uncomfortable topic. It doesn’t need it to be graphic, too.

If there is a mention of suicide method, and this is a gray area, it should be brief and non-sensationalized. This is controversial but until we know definitively that it’s not dangerous, we should be thoughtful on this topic. I will mention method briefly to clinical audiences, however, I don’t need to go into detail to tell my story. (Study about 13 Reasons Why and how the graphic scene of suicide originally included triggered vulnerable teens.)

In a speech about addiction, speakers shouldn’t use slides and videos with visuals of needles and lines of coke. Unless there is a very specific reason for using them such as drug education for first responders, these stock images are overused, stigmatizing, and triggering for those in recovery. These subjects need to be discussed, but they need to be discussed in a way that shows respect and doesn’t carry on the tradition of shame. If we showed more examples of people in recovery, we might trigger people to seek help that need it.

I’m not suggesting a completely homogenized message. However, you do want an inspiring mental health speaker and there are ways a speaker can deliver a story of pain to hope without sensationalizing or including a lot of graphic detail. This is the art of writing and delivering a good speech.

Topic titles for behavioral health should not be sensational

Topic titles can be truthful and even catchy, but they should not be sensationalized, degrading, or graphic.  

For example, Appropriate Treatments for Drug Addicts, is degrading. A better title could be something like, Appropriate Treatment for those with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or Appropriate Treatment for those living with Addiction.

While using the term addiction is fine, a speaker should not define those with SUD as “drug addicts” because it is stigmatizing. And instead of substance abuse, speakers should use the phrase substance misuse instead since that is the currently accepted phrase.

Furthermore, topic titles should not include suicide method. However, it is OK to have the word suicide in the topic title if it’s used in a non-sensationalized way. “Teen Risk Factors for Suicide,” is fine for example.

How the emcee should introduce the topic

If you have a host or emcee, sensitive topics should be introduced with a trigger warning and resources should be listed on a slide.

For example, if the topic is suicide, list both the national suicide prevention hotline and the crisis text line on a slide. If it’s a local talk, then list a local 24/7 resource first. This is also a good idea for topics like human trafficking, domestic violence, rape, and grief. That way, people in the audience who may have had such an experience, has a resource to reach out to.

Example of a topic sensitivity script for host or emcee

“Coming up next is John Doe who will be speaking on his story as a suicide loss survivor. This is an emotionally sensitive topic and we expect you to practice good self-care. We want to keep you safe. If you need to leave the room, signal to our Community Support Representative, Connie, a thumps up for ‘I am OK,’ if you have to step out to visit the rest room or take a call.” (Resources such as the suicide hotline should be visible on a slide 1-800-273-8255, crisis text line 741-741.)

Hosts can adapt this script for other topics such as addiction, human trafficking or rape.

It’s thoughtful to support your audience with a CSR

Guidelines for suicide and other emotional topics suggest that an area social worker, professional counselor, or ASIST-trained* individual be in the audience to serve as a Community Resource Representative (CSR). Audience members should be encouraged if they leave the room to indicate a thumbs up to the CSR.

Thumbs up meaning, “I’m just headed to the rest room” or “I’m headed into the hallway because I can’t be parted with my Instagram feed for a whole hour.”

And no sign at all meaning, “I am feeling stressed and might need to talk.”

Having a CSR is critical if the audience is made up of children, teens or young adults. It shows an understanding and respect for a topic that has rarely gotten it. As a youth mental health speaker who speaks in colleges and high schools, I ask the school ahead of time to make sure there is appropriate support in the class or auditorium.

This part might be obvious to you, but no speaker should ever speak of those who suffer mental illness as crazy or psycho, or refer to those who suffer substance use disorder as junkies or crack heads. You wouldn’t tolerate a speaker referring to someone with cancer as a bowling ball head or a person with diabetes as an insulin addict. Which is why it’s important to treat all diseases, whether mental health or physical health, with the same respect.

Speakers should not use the phrase, “committed suicide”

Everyone uses the “committed” phrase and it’s been in our lexicon for hundreds of years, but it’s not what you want a speaker to say on stage. Instead, mental health speakers should use phrases like “she killed herself,” “he took his life,” or “they died by suicide.”

The phrase “committed” is from the days when suicide was a crime. In the 1600s, family members who died by suicide were denied religious ceremonies and funerals. Furthermore, the family left behind was shunned and fined. Today, suicide is recognized as a public health issue and not a crime and the new language reflects that.

Speakers should not imply that there is a single cause to suicide

No topic should be, “Bullying caused me to attempt suicide.” Bullying is a contributing factor to a suicide or a suicide attempt, not a cause. Suicide is never the result of one issue but several contributing factors. “How bullying contributed to my low self-worth,” would be more appropriate.

Most bullied kids do not attempt or die by suicide and those who do have other vulnerabilities and risk factors such as health history, family history and environment.

Does your speaker have training

And finally, speakers who have training such as ASIST*, safeTALK, Mental Health First Aid or other trainings that support their topic shows a commitment. Speakers trained in these courses are up to date on the latest language and research.

In short, messages should adhere to safety recommendations and in some way promote a Positive Narrative about suicide prevention, and recovery by including actions, solutions, successes, hope and resources. There is a lot of gray area and this is open to interpretation, but what you want is a speaker who inspires your audience instead of scaring them.

*ASIST= Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Trained. This is an evidence-based

AnneMoss Rogers is a mental health and suicide education expert, professional mental health keynote speaker, suicide prevention speaker trainer, and consultant. While her stories include themes of addiction, depression, and suicide, she captures the audience’s hearts and fills them with hope. She is a digital marketing expert who sold her business to pursue suicide prevention after her son Charles died by suicide in June 2015. Her books and free eBooks are here.

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AnneMoss Rogers

AnneMoss Rogers is a mental health and suicide education expert, mental health speaker, suicide prevention trainer and consultant. She is author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW. She raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost her younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. She is a motivational speaker who empowers by educating and provides life saving strategies and emotionally healthy coping skills. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now that's the legacy she carries forward in her son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website.

2 thoughts on “What to look for in a mental health speaker”

  1. This is such a smart and well articulated article. And so important!

    The year my daughter died by suicide, I attended a rally on Suicide Prevention Day, and the speaker violated your first rule, seemingly relishing the horror story of detailing exactly how his brother planned his death, died, and was discovered. I was horrified and sickened and refused to return to this year’s event, or any other event.

    It is critical for every mental health and media organization organizing events or writing articles to know these guidelines! I’m bookmarking this entry so I can share your wise words.

    You never cease to amaze and impress me.

    1. I can’t believe that. Wow. I am sure you were terrified. I would have been a puddle on the ground after that. I hate when Hollywood shows some graphic scene. I want to throw up.

      Thank you for sharing. Much appreciated.

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