Matt Taylor greets me with a warm genuine smile the first time we meet. His demeanor is at once unassuming and engaged. I can tell quickly that I am going to like this English-born transplant. He starts asking me questions, though he is supposedly the one being interviewed, and he seems sincerely interested in my responses. Clearly, his fascination with people runs deep.
Like many of us, Matt was exposed to mental illness and depression when he was a young man. He has experienced depression and recovery in his own life and in his immediate family. He also lost a close, music mentor to suicide when he was just 16. While that event left an indelible impression on him, Matt moved forward with his life, pursuing interests in environmental studies, business administration and conflict resolution. “I aspired to be on a path where I was engaged, and where I was helping individuals and working with good people,” he says.
It wasn’t until Matt began working on grants with schools, American Indian tribes, and in rural areas that he realized this country has a dire need to address issues around health, safety and mental illness. Through his trainings and suicide prevention work he saw how deeply suicide impacts communities and tribes. At the same time his work at the local and national level on emergency response in schools, particularly in the aftermath of mass shootings and suicide clusters, gave him a deep appreciation of the need for prevention efforts and the importance of improving coordination between organizations. All these issues had a profound impact on Matt’s thinking.
Making a difference
Recently, he helped develop programs like Psychological First Aid in Schools, and Resiliency Strategies for Educators as well as comprehensive trainings on emergency preparedness for the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management in Schools Technical Assistance Center. For the past 13 years he worked for the Institute for Educational Research and Service at the University of Montana, serving as the Institute’s associate director as well as director of the Montana Safe Schools Center. In those roles he has worked with the National Native Children’s Trauma Center, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the U.S. Department of Justice, FEMA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). He has provided school safety trainings, presentations on childhood trauma, and suicide prevention programs like safeTALK (Suicide Alertness for Everyone) and ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) across the nation. This man is devoted to making a difference.
But Matt also believes in balance. He enjoys scuba diving, mountain climbing, fly fishing, cooking, traveling and hiking. He loves his wife, Heather, who also works in the field of suicide prevention, their two dogs, Eureka and Dyson (named after vacuums), and two cats, Abby and Rocky. As a true enthusiast of the outdoors and natural beauty, Matt said, “It is a lot easier to be still with yourself and listen to your core when you’re in nature. … Probably the art of being well in this day and age is learning to find that place and being in touch with your inner core despite being surrounded by all sorts of distractions.” On these topics he’s quick to point out that he considers himself a “work in progress.” He’s looking forward to building a life here in Seattle, finding equilibrium between the work he believes in and the natural surroundings in which he feels at home.
Sharing Forefront’s vision
Looking ahead to his role with Forefront, he begins by stressing how much he, like others in the field, respects its founders, Jennifer Stuber and Sue Eastgard. He praises the talents, passions, knowledge and experience of everyone who has helped create this organization. His own vision aligns closely with what Forefront is already doing: “I believe in practical public policy, civil dialogue, research and integrity, promoting resilience. …” as well as its goals of reducing stigma, advancing ways to connect those in need to the care they need when they need it, and supporting and celebrating those on the frontlines of helping.
As a leader, Matt believes in helping people remember why they do their work when the tendency is often to get bogged down in the how of doing it. Clearly, he wants to keep the passions of the Forefront team ignited and fresh. As an experienced trainer (140 and counting), he wants to build on Sue Eastgard’s work of developing and providing high quality training to educators and care providers. He also looks forward to cultivating new opportunities for partnerships and collaborations. Despite this long agenda, Matt seems full of calm energy, willing to carefully listen, sift and sort all the best practices, write grants and fully support and enhance Forefront’s mission.
At the core of our conversation, we discussed the idea that “all of us, in some way, have been touched by suicide.” Whether it’s a family member, a close friend, someone at school or work, or ourselves, we all know someone who has had suicidal thoughts. That difficult place should not feel completely foreign to any of us; in fact, it should unify us. It’s part of the human condition. We also need to remember that we all have the capability to help people in crisis. As Matt says, “it’s a real gift to be present with someone in that situation; we can learn about ourselves and the process of being part of a humane, interconnected world.” Everyone has a role to play.
For Matt’s part, he says “I want my efforts in life to go toward creating a world that is more caring, to creating a world where we support each other in being committed to well being and social justice. And I want my efforts to contribute to a world where we are more connected in sincere and meaningful ways.” On that note, I look forward to all of Matt’s endeavors.
Matt, welcome to your new home!
By Lisa Wahbe, MFA (a member of the Forefront advisory board).