University of Calgary

University start-up celebrates 30 years of suicide prevention

UToday HomeJuly 4, 2013

By Owen Stockden

From left: LivingWorks founders William Lang and Richard Ramsay celebrate with New Zealand’s Bruce Turley at the company’s 30-year anniversary gala.From left: LivingWorks founders William Lang and Richard Ramsay celebrate with New Zealand’s Bruce Turley at the company’s 30-year anniversary gala.LivingWorks Education, the world’s leading suicide prevention training company, recently marked its 30-year anniversary with a celebration at Hotel Alma. Headquartered in Calgary since its foundation, LivingWorks develops intervention training materials in the belief that suicide can be understood, anticipated, and prevented.

LivingWorks has benefitted from a long association with the University of Calgary. Two of its founders, Richard Ramsay and Bryan Tanney, were professors in social work and medicine respectively. The others, counsellors Roger Tierney and William Lang, completed their doctoral work in educational psychology here. In 1983, when suicide was claiming more than 3,500 Canadian lives annually, these four educators and researchers came forward with a new approach: What if the best way to prevent suicide was to get the community involved?

Studies showed that friends, family, and co-workers had powerful roles to play in suicide prevention alongside professionals such as counsellors and clinicians. To advocate for broader community involvement in suicide prevention, they developed a standardized suicide first aid intervention skills workshop that could be learned by virtually anyone.

Disseminated through a large network of community trainers, the highly accessible workshop saw increasing international adoption throughout the 1980s. Recognizing their success, University Technologies International (now Innovate Calgary) offered the founders a technology transfer opportunity to form a university start-up company. It was the first such offer extended to a “soft-product” initiative such as skills training, and they accepted it, restructuring under the name LivingWorks Education. Their award-winning workshop came to be known as ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) and saw continuous updates to reflect the latest developments in research and practice.

LivingWorks gained worldwide recognition in 1993 when founders Ramsay and Tanney, at the invitation of the United Nations, convened a group of interregional experts to create guidelines for national suicide prevention strategies. Published in 1996, these recommendations went on to inspire nationwide prevention initiatives in the United States, Scotland, and beyond. With the recent passage of parliamentary Bill C-300, which calls for a federal suicide prevention framework, Canada appears poised to follow suit.

Three decades after the original partnership was formed, LivingWorks is a testament to the power of research commercialization. The company’s trainer network has grown to more than 6,000 people worldwide, and its programs have won awards for excellence from Canada, Scotland, and the United Nations. Over a million people have taken ASIST training, and LivingWorks continues to develop and update programs that empower communities with life-saving intervention skills.


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