Van Hedwall, Director of Programs for San Francisco Suicide Prevention has a genial smile that he shares quite often and an earnest way of communicating his deep appreciation for the services that the staff of San Francisco Suicide Prevention provides.

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Van was born in Oakland, California, where his father was a Lutheran Seminary student and his mother supported the family working at Moore Business in San Mateo. After his father became a Navy chaplain, life changed dramatically. Van, his sister Candice, and his parents lived all over the United States, including Rhode Island, Mississippi, Hawaii and northern and southern California. Olympia, Washington was home base for many years.

“Life as a Navy preacher’s kid was tough as we moved so often, usually 18 months here and there and occasionally, longer,” Van recalls. “My father was frequently at war ( Vietnam, Gulf War), on ships, not present very often. Mother was a strong woman who kept all things in order, worked, bought every house we ever owned and kept the finances intact. I learned a lot from moving around so much; I learned to adapt quickly to new surroundings and people. I learned to survive being the new kid over and over and over and developed ways to cope and strategize in group dynamics and became extremely humble and empathetic. The ability to relate to others in very directive focused ways eventually led me on a path to become a therapist.”

But before therapy, it was Tinseltown that beckoned Van. After graduating from Tumwater High School in Tumwater, Washington and from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism with a B.A. in Telecommunications and Film, Van moved to Los Angeles to become a television and film producer. “My first job was as a production assistant on the original New Line Cinema John Waters movie “Hairspray” with Divine and Ricki Lake. I then worked on more New Line Cinema films, such winning slasher movies such as “Critters,” “Nightmare on Elm Street IV,” Van says with a twinkle in his eyes. “I then went on to work for Binder Entertainment, who produced the Jane Fonda Workout and various partnered productions​, including Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special and final season.”

After the scandal that ended Pee-wee Herman’s show, Van worked for Dick Clark Productions and was a production associate for many MTV music awards, but the allure of Hollywood was fading. Van was ready for a change.

“Eventually, I grew tired of the narcissism and decided to leave LA; I moved to San Francisco to work for Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope Studios for several years. After a few years with the Copollas, I decided to leave the field of entertainment, as it didn’t feel right for me anymore; something was missing. I needed to do something more meaningful, I didn’t know what that was, but I knew I needed to start searching for it.”

After moving to San Francisco, Van volunteered at the AIDS Foundation for a couple of years and was an LGBTQ activist, participating in protests regarding rights and medications for HIV. “As I had been working for years in an administrative capacity in the entertainment field, I translated my skills to work for UCSF, administrating an AIDS research laboratory and researching various current and new medications in the fight against AIDS. While I worked for UCSF, I made the decision to go to graduate school to become a therapist and help my community further in dealing with the trauma, loss and stress that faced a dying community with very little hope,” Van shares.

Van Hedwall, Director of Programs for San Francisco Suicide Prevention, Felton Institute

He attended New College of California, a private graduate psychology school with a social clinical focus, where he specialized in LGBTQ therapy and started his practicum at Pacific Center for Human Growth in Berkeley. After licensure and before coming to San Francisco Suicide Prevention, he had a private practice and handled case management for the Catholic Charities residential program for people with disabling HIV/AIDS. Van also worked with the homeless population in San Francisco, managed two Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs for 10 years with TNDC, served as a psychology professor at Skyline College in San Bruno, initiated and developed a new residential program for Transitional Age Youth at Fred Finch Youth Center and ran two hospital based Intensive Outpatient (IOP) treatment programs for high risk adolescents and seniors for Sutter Health at Mills Peninsula Hospital in San Mateo.

“ I like working with people in crisis. I enjoy de-escalating troubled people, I enjoy helping them to find better ways to cope and find it the most rewarding to set them on a new path towards better outcomes. The work we do at San Francisco Suicide Prevention can be daunting at times. The population we work with are sometimes at their highest state of crisis; sometimes they just need someone to listen to them; sometimes they just need a friendly voice to help them gather their thoughts options and goals for the future; sometimes we have to make the hard choices with and for them because they are not engaged in critical thinking. The most rewarding part of that is, that most of the time we know we have made a difference in someone’s life. If for just a brief moment, we have changed their way of thinking and given them other options. We’ve provided them with linkage to services where they can transition into a more stable way of life.”

Van’s parents retired and now live outside of Phoenix, Arizona. His sister Candice is a mother of three and a grandmother of six. Van enjoys being a grand uncle and he also enjoys working with regional theatre when he’s not on the job. In 2011, he was nominated for a local Tony award for costume design for the “Golden Girls Christmas Show”. When it comes to mottos for life, he has two: “this too shall pass” and “don’t sweat the small stuff”. At last year’s Laughs for Life benefitting San Francisco Suicide Prevention, Van presented the award for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and he is looking forward to this year’s celebration in April.

San Francisco Suicide Prevention, Laughs for Life 2020 Gala


About Felton Institute: Founded in 1889, Felton Institute responds to human needs by providing cutting edge, evidence-based mental health and social services that transform lives. Felton Institute is a tax-exempt organization registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit under EIN 94-1156530.

Offering more than 50 acclaimed and honored programs that address homelessness, mental health, prenatal, adolescent, adult and senior needs, Felton Institute provides services in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, and Monterey counties.

Felton is named for its social services pioneer and executive director Dr. Katharine “Kitty” Felton who was called the ”conscience of San Francisco” and was committed to ensuring that children and families in crisis have access to social services and resources in order to help them build upon their inherent strengths and develop self-sufficiency.

About San Francisco Suicide Prevention: Founded in 1962, San Francisco Suicide Prevention is the oldest community-based telephone crisis center in the United States. The agency provides emotional support and crisis intervention, answering more than 300 calls a day; has trained over 6,000 youth in the warning signs of suicide and risk-reduction tactics; and helped 200 community members process the loss of loved ones, ensuring that all members of the community are empowered with tools to help each other through moments of crisis. San Francisco Suicide Prevention has several 24-hour crisis hotlines.