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‘A voice at the table’

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This week, we have grassroots effort at its best. Annemarie Matulis, director of the Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention in Massachusetts, tells the story behind a remarkable documentary on attempt survivors that made its debut last week at the state suicide prevention conference. Plans for how to share and distribute the film are still being discussed, but early reviewers say it should be a national training tool, if not mandatory viewing.

Amazingly, the 30-minute documentary was made on zero budget, with donated time and effort. Its next showing is in mid-May, at a fundraiser for suicide prevention work and a local teen center. Here’s Annemarie:

Coming across the issue of suicide attempt survivors was like déjà vu.

I have never forgotten how it felt to sit on my front step and whisper into the night, “He beats me. Please, God, help me.” In the early 1980s, our society was crippled with ignorance and fear when anyone stepped out of the shadows to admit they were battered and brutalized. We stayed silent, terrorized by our abusers. In 1982, I broke that silence, only to find a society that did all it could to dismiss and avoid me. After all, it must have been my fault.

It took more than three years for body, mind and soul to heal. I vowed to never again allow anyone to be treated the way I was when I finally found the courage to reach out for help. Thirty years of community activism and advocacy followed.

In 2009, painfully aware of the Grand Canyon-sized hole in the local suicide education and prevention world, I launched a suicide prevention task force with some friends. Typical of most of my projects, we had no money and needed to become better educated and trained. Then we set off to change the world, or at least our small piece of it in southeastern Massachusetts.

What we found was the same fear-based prejudice toward the subject of suicide as I had experienced as a battered woman. (I mean, if you really want to clear the room, tell people what you do for a living: suicide prevention). But day by day, month by month, year by year, we’ve taken baby steps to make a difference and, hopefully, save lives.

On June 27, 2013, I sat down to witness a live webinar to spotlight the recently released surgeon general’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. I’m one of those weird people who actually reads stuff like this. I sat dumbstruck as I heard Jerry Reed of the Suicide Prevention Research Center and Richard McKeon of SAMHSA declare that the voice of the suicide attempt survivor must be brought to the table.

Just two days later, our suicide prevention task force hosted “An Evening with Craig Miller,” author of “This is How it Feels” and a suicide attempt survivor. I had met him earlier in the year through my work as an executive board member with the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention. I sat in the back of the church with Tracey Medeiros, a founding member of
our task force and a suicide attempt survivor I have mentored for years, and I knew we were witnessing something so much bigger than all of us. A movement had begun.

Later that evening, it all came together: the struggle that Tracey, Craig and countless others have had just to be heard, to be accepted as having value in the world at large, as well as within the suicide education and prevention field. My question to Craig was, “Will you do a documentary with me? We cannot remain silent, not again…” Within a couple of days, I asked Tracey to join us. We added two more attempt survivors, Cara Anna and Dese’Rae Stage. Phil Rodgers, now a vice president with LivingWorks, and John Draper, project director with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, both agreed to lend their voices. It all was part of a nine-month journey to create “A Voice at the Table.”

Last week, we stood in front of about 100 attendees at the Massachusetts State Conference for Suicide Prevention. The conference theme was “The Future of Suicide Prevention.” Coincidence? I don’t believe in them.

I introduced the film with Tracey, Craig and Zak Swain, our gifted director of photography, standing beside me. When the lights came back on, there was complete silence.

As I looked around the audience, I was startled to see so many tears, but inwardly I was relieved. “A Voice at the Table” had touched their hearts. Then, about 20 seconds later, came the applause.

And then people started standing up. One by one, moved and inspired by what they had just seen, they “came out” about their own suicidal experience. Or they said they finally understood what the experience was like. I had been braced for pushback. I was not expecting everyone to be so welcoming and supportive. People formed a line to thank us. That never happens in these conference workshops, especially when you know lunch is waiting.

One woman in the line told me she was a clinician and if she had her way, every clinician would be required to see the film. And she said it with a smile.

“A Voice at the Table” is a 30-minute call to action, to welcome the lived expertise of the suicide attempt survivor to all decision-making tables locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. They say timing is everything. Our documentary was screened a few weeks after a groundbreaking national summit was held in San Francisco to address how to tear down the barriers and bring the attempt survivor voice into the light. And just five days before the film’s screening, the American Association of Suicidology at its national conference not only hosted well-received panels of attempt survivors, it also announced the launch of a new division to address attempt survivors and anyone who’s been suicidal.

This, I believe, is the future of suicide education and prevention.

None of us expects this journey to be easy. But while the light of hope might flicker from time to time, we continue to keep it burning with the belief that lives can and will be saved. Because above all, “A Voice at the Table” is a story of resilience and hope.

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‘My heart is full’

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photo(2) Misha Kessler, Dese’Rae Stage, Samantha Nadler, Craig Miller

A lot just happened. In the last five days, the American Association of Suicidology created a division for attempt survivors and anyone who’s been suicidal; The New York Times published a story on that and the public emergence of attempt survivors; at least four “out” attempt survivors spoke at full-conference sessions; three attempt survivors were named to the new AAS speakers’ bureau; the documentary team behind the well-regarded “Of Two Minds” took footage for a new film on attempt survivors and loss survivors; three “out” professionals spoke and got a dozen people in the audience to raise their hands about their own suicidal experience … and the amazing people in the photo above brought standing ovations and sniffles as they spoke on a “New Voices of Attempt Survivors” panel and basically blew the doors off stigma.

Listen to it here. You don’t want to miss it.

“I went to my share of Grateful Dead concerts over the years,” one audience member, Ken Norton, who “came out” last year, told the crowd afterward. “It was always sort of like you went, you kept going, hoping you would get to the gem, like that really memorable show? That’s what this presentation was.”

That’s enough for this week’s post! And here are just a few samples from the busy social media chatter tagged #AAS14:

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‘The bravest people I know’

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This week’s post is by Cheryl Sharp:

I sometimes hesitate to put in my 2 cents worth because I do work for a large organization that has the voices of lived experience involved but was, admittedly, pretty late to do so in leadership positions.

While my specific work is based on the voices of trauma survivors, my experience is as a trauma and attempt survivor. I want to address the idea of “who’s ready for prime time” in speaking about their personal experience.

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‘What I might call my soul’

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This week’s essay is by Jim Probert:

Having worked for years in a professional world before I came out as a peer, I know it can feel so profoundly demeaning when even genuinely compassionate people talk about us as if we were a separate species.

At the same time, when I’m offering recovery-oriented ideas to grad students and interns in my role as a psychologist, sometimes one will be honest enough to say, “I’m afraid if I do anything unconventional, I’ll be sued or fired.” I think many professionals realize the need for change but fear they must do exactly what they were taught, or risk being held responsible for anything that goes wrong in the lives of the people they are trying to help.

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‘I survived, and he didn’t’

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Not too long ago, Harry Miree sat down in front of a camera and opened his journal. It’s best to watch his video before reading further.

Harry was pleasantly surprised to learn about this growing movement of “out” attempt survivors. “It’s like the past seven years, this entire universe has been contained in my own head,” he said in a recent phone call. “It’s such a ‘don’t talk about it’ kind of thing. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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‘We should be clear about who we are’

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Meet Rory Butler. He’s the founder of the Canada-based mental health group Your Life Counts and an outspoken attempt survivor. This post grew out of a recent conversation about his idea of founding an international organization for attempt survivors, which easily would be the first of its kind.

One of the first issues to be addressed is language. A national summit of attempt survivors this month in the U.S. seized on the term “lived expertise” as more empowering than having “lived experience” of suicidal thinking.

Rory argues that in a world where we’re trying to make the unspeakable speakable, we should be as clear as possible about defining who we are:

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National summit: Making history

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summit

Last week, a national task force of suicide attempt survivors met for a groundbreaking summit. Within weeks, we’ll release a smart report on the kinds of support, and the changes, we’d like to see. Also at the table were a handful of allies, all of them playing national roles in the suicide awareness field.

“I can’t say how glad I am to no longer be the only voice of attempt survivors,” said DeQuincy Lezine, a psychologist and author who’s been “out” for nearly two decades. Now it’s a growing movement, with murmurs of starting a national, or international, organization of our own.

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‘To make what I did wrong right’

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This week we hear from Christine O’Hagan, who writes about opening up to colleagues and others as a high-achieving Texas businesswoman. Good timing, as the director of psychology at a top-ranked U.S. psychiatric hospital wrote this weekend about this website and what his field should think about our emerging voices. It’s worth reading.

Thomas Ellis comes off as kind of nervous, but he’s trying to understand. It’s a good glimpse of why the mental health field still moves as cautiously as it does around us. “These are arguably vulnerable people putting highly sensitive information ‘out there,’ where it cannot be controlled by the AAS or anyone else,” he writes. “Or are these perhaps paternalistic sensitivities of an overprotective clinician, viewing these individuals as less resilient than they actually are?”

We tend to agree with that second part. And now, here’s Christine:

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‘There’s such a need for this’

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This week, the Canadian activist who tweets at @unsuicide takes us on a tour through the online world of crisis response, where the suicide awareness establishment acknowledges it’s still largely clueless. In the conversation ahead: social media suicide hoaxes, what Twitter does wrong, the need for transparency, why hotlines are outdated, why trained peers are crucial, and how to walk the oh-so-careful law enforcement line between tracking people down for help and scaring them away.