Zero Suicide: A Personal Story

Wykisha McKinney lost her brother Johnny to suicide in 2004 and subsequently struggled with suicidal thoughts herself as she coped with a beloved sibling’s death.

In “A Zero Suicide Story,” a presentation at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York’s “AIM for Zero: Suicide Care is Healthcare” symposium September 28-30, she shared her personal story to illustrate the importance of the Zero Suicide Model’s commitment to patient care and a “just culture” for care providers, and the key role that loss survivors like herself play in implementing safer suicide care.

McKinney, Zero Suicide Program Manager at The Harris Center for Mental Health & IDD (Intellectual or Developmental Disability), said that Johnny was a Texas A&M University grad, an advocate for Black LGBTQ people, and a case manager at a Houston-area clinic for men who were HIV positive.

He was diagnosed with AIDS in 2000 and the illness took a heavy toll on him physically and emotionally, she said. He took his own life shortly after his doctor advised him to be admitted to the hospital to treat his worsening infection.

Last in a Series about the Zero Suicide Model for Healthcare

McKinney said that her brother’s death led her to become a suicide prevention advocate who asks many questions:

“What if my brother would have been screened for suicide risk on his routine visit to his doctor who was aware that he was HIV positive, who was aware that he had had an escalation in his health problems, and who was aware that his health issues were getting to the point where he was thinking about and discussing end of life decisions? What if the hospital system and the clinics prepared their doctors who all worked with HIV positive folks diagnosed with AIDS were all trained in how to screen and assess for suicide, and collaboratively create a safety plan? What if they were able to connect Johnny to a mental health professional? So those [steps] would help to close those gaps.”

The Zero Suicide Model, McKinney said, “answers the ‘what if.’ It tells us what could happen if these things take place. It tells us what could happen if we add or tweak our policies and procedures in a way that could promote life-saving practices.”

McKinney said that the Zero Suicide framework is defined by a system-wide organizational commitment to safer suicide care and behavioral health care. “It represents a culture shift away from fragmented suicide care toward a holistic and comprehensive commitment to patient safety as the most fundamental responsibility of healthcare,” she said.

“For me as a survivor of suicide loss, someone whose brother was actively involved in the health system and visited a health care practitioner the day before he died, I see the value of Zero Suicide. My personal story speaks to the importance of Zero Suicide.”

She explained how Zero Suicide promotes a just culture of practice for healthcare practitioners. “The Zero Suicide framework is not designed to point fingers at people, which is what’s wonderful about it,” she said. “Oftentimes when you implement new new procedures or new practices or when you tell your organization we’re going to evaluate how we do things, people may think that you mean you want to evaluate what I did or what I’m doing wrong. But the Zero Suicide framework is designed to look at the system as a whole. So it looks at that system and it identifies where those gaps are.”

Survivors of suicide loss regularly ask themselves about the “what-ifs,” McKinney said. “I’m not in any way saying that my brother’s medical professionals were responsible for his death, woulda, coulda, shoulda or he would be here today. What I’m saying is that the Zero Suicide framework provides an opportunity where the Johnnys of the future or the Johnnys of today have more opportunity to receive help and care throughout their time with their doctors.”

McKinney said that her position at Texas’s Harris Center reflects how engaging suicide attempt survivors and loss survivors is a key component of the Zero Suicide framework.

“My perspective of the healthcare system and the mental health care system is a little bit different,” she said. “I can see both perspectives, the perspective of the organization and the perspectives of a survivor of suicide loss. It creates an equitable workplace. It helps with quality improvement as it inspires innovation to improve the services. Sometimes our executives have a perspective of what of what may be happening and it may be a little bit different from what actually is happening.

“And so engaging those with lived experience. especially those who’ve had experience with working through your health system, can help to open your eyes and enlighten you on how these systems that are embedded in our policies and procedures work. It helps to develop employee and volunteer skills and their knowledge of suicide prevention beyond the theoretical and textbook learning. For the organization, it builds community involvement, it helps us to build relationships of trust with the communities and individuals.”

Adoption of the Zero Suicide framework also provides valuable opportunities to people with lived experience, McKinney said. “It transforms our painful experience into creating positive solutions,” she explained. “For me, as a survivor of suicide loss, helping is healing. Helping was my therapy.”

READ MORE: The Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.