Stephanie Coggin: Changing the Conversation About Suicide

In March 2016, The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention won a CSR Award in the Social Media Campaign category from PR News for its work on The Fight to Stop Suicide, a campaign to broaden the conversation and destigmatize mental illness. It was a coup for the nonprofit and an honor for AFSP's Vice President of Communications and Marketing, Stephanie Coggin, who noted that the effort bested some better-funded campaigns that went through an agency.

Since graduating in 2014 with her Master of Science in Strategic Communications (now known as Executive M.S. in Strategic Communication), Coggin has made a difference with her work at AFSP, where she built a communications department from scratch, both hiring a team and creating marketing and communications materials, which included a website and increasing their social media visibility. An initial project involved changing the AP Stylebook to treat cases of suicide with more sensitivity, changing reporting on suicide to use the term “died by suicide.”

For Coggin, going back to school was a chance to stay current and fresh in the field of brand communications, where she had worked for 20 years. She was inspired to apply because she wanted to make a shift in her career. Coming out of it, she created a checklist for what she wanted in her next role. “I wanted a seat at the executive table, I wanted to know that my voice mattered, and I wanted to know at the end of the day I was contributing to something important,” she says, and this position at AFSP checked all of those boxes. “I report to the COO, I am part of the executive team, I am building a program, and building a department, and I knew it was a communications challenge, changing the conversation, changing the public opinion and the stigma attached to mental health.”

For National Suicide Prevention Awareness month in September 2015, Coggin and her team kicked off The Fight to Stop Suicide campaign. The multi-pronged effort played the role of “reshaping the conversation about mental health and suicide prevention,” she says. “Where the conversation gets tricky is recognizing the risks and warning signs, and how to talk to a family member that may be struggling with a mental health condition.”

They took the campaign to social media, creating sharable graphics to improve understanding of how to talk with friends and family about mental illness and suicide prevention. There were Twitter chats and blog posts, and a partnership with eight related organizations to spread their message. Locally, their 86 chapters conducted special events including Out of the Darkness community walks, and nationally, they conducted a media call with healthcare beat reporters regarding a survey conducted by AFSP which concluded that people view mental health as equally important as physical health. The campaign concluded with a Capitol Hill briefing where volunteers from AFSP’s chapters spoke with Congressional staff and representatives about “the importance of mental health reform and applying money federally and at the state level.”

This campaign was a milestone in Coggin’s already-impressive career. PR Week profiled her and the award in March served as a celebration of her hard work. She credits it to her team: “It took a village, and that’s what I’m most proud of.” Coggin is a believer in the importance of her work, and how communications plays a vital role in changing society’s perceptions. “And at the end of the day,” she says, “I always feel like I’ve contributed something much greater than myself.”

Learn more about the Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication program at Columbia University.