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Tony Smith: Running for life


Oct 17, 2016

Tony Smith is a man on a mission: he wants to save lives from suicide, and he wants to do it on the run. Through his Run Hope Live initiative, Tony honors the names and memories of those lost to suicide by dedicating long-distance runs to them. The result? A powerful way of breaking down stigma, getting people talking, and encouraging them to ask life-saving questions.

Tony, who became an ASIST trainer in 2015, first discovered his passion for running when he was a teenager. “As a teenager, I contemplated suicide,” he said. “I didn’t have enough emotional experience to know that life had peaks and valleys, and I was in a valley.” Running became his therapy: “It channeled my stress and negative energy into something that felt good.”

Tony continued running as a young adult, even as he worked for the United States Postal Service and joined the Army National Guard. “I worked for 12 years for the Postal Service, and I enjoyed my job there, but I began to think maybe I was called to do something different. I went back to school and got my degree in psychology,” he said. As Tony turned his attention to helping others through difficult situations as a mental health specialist, Run Hope Live was born.

Here’s how it works: “Families request a run for me to honor a loved one who died by suicide, along with information about their life, and I work that into the run dedication,” said Tony. “The family can then take the run dedication and share that on social media, and many other family members will join in with stories of remembrance.”

As LivingWorks trainers and workshop participants know, this kind of dialogue has the power to break down stigma. That’s part of what makes it so effective, Tony says. “Often what happens with suicide is that people kind of sweep it under the rug because it’s a very difficult topic and they aren’t sure how to talk about it. Often people are grateful for having that dialogue opened by a run dedication. One person shared with me that around Christmas time, nobody wanted to talk about their uncle, who had died by suicide, because they didn’t want to upset their mom and ruin the whole season. But after a run dedication, they’ve shared it, they’ve already been talking to their family about it, they’re talking on social media, they’re telling stories, and it breaks down the stigma.”

That same commitment to openness is part of what Tony values about ASIST. “ASIST is by far my favorite suicide intervention curriculum,” he said. “It’s a powerful and dynamic type of workshop because when you come into it, especially if you don’t know what to expect, you end up giving more of yourself than you realize, but they balance it in such a way that even if you’re vulnerable you’re still supported, and that’s what the trainers are there for.”

Since becoming a trainer, Tony has provided ASIST to National Guard members, police officers, crisis line workers, practicum students, and community volunteers. “Training people in ASIST and then training them to answer crisis calls—it’s great to see them using their ASIST skills on the line,” he said.

Social media plays a key role in Tony’s work to open dialogue and break down stigma, and he encourages other trainers to use it to its maximum potential. One example is #askingsaves, a hashtag campaign that encourages people to ask openly and directly about the possibility of suicide. Launched by Tony’s agency, New River Valley Community Services, the hashtag has been picked up by prevention advocates across the United States and beyond.

Tony’s next plan for Run Hope Live is his most ambitious yet. Following a nine-state run for suicide awareness in 2014, he wants to run across the United States—and train along the way. “I would like to do a cross-country run, stopping in towns and cities, and do safeTALK trainings as I go. It would bring awareness and provide a great way to engage with those communities.”

We thank Tony for all of his hard work training, breaking down stigma, and advocating for suicide prevention. To learn more about Run Hope Live, you can visit the website or Facebook page. Run dedications can also be requested via the Facebook page.