For a person who’s tried to kill himself and is trying to understand what happened, there’s no awkwardness like Googling “suicide survivor support group” and walking into a room full of the bereaved.
The grieving took the term years ago because they were first to come out of the closet, and even they didn’t have an easy time. As incredible as it sounds, the word “suicide” has such power to make people recoil that even the families who have lost a loved one face stigma and misunderstanding.
Now the people who’ve survived suicide attempts are the next to emerge. Our journey bumps along a little more sharply because we have hardly any support groups at all.
(But we can change that. I’ve spoken with several groups from the U.S. and Canada and put together some guidelines on how to create them. They’re posted here. A list of all known existing groups is included.)
I’m one of those people who mistook the meaning of “suicide survivor support group.” I leaned in, read carefully, Googled again and finally stumbled across the winning term, “suicide attempt survivor.”
But the search brought up very little. I live in New York City, by the way, home of the greatest concentration of therapists in the country, home of the Columbia University-affiliated New York Psychiatric Institute and home of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
It turns out that my city, population 8 million and counting, has support groups for everything from Clutterers Anonymous to pet loss, but it has no support group for attempt survivors or people with suicidal thinking.
I was stumped. By chance, after researcher Marsha Linehan mentioned that an AAS conference would include a focus on attempt survivors, I flew across the country to Portland, Ore., for my first glimpse of a support group for people like me.
The AAS has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until then, two years ago, that it dedicated a plenary, or full conference, session to people who’ve tried to kill themselves and survived.
Hundreds of people were in the room. People seemed surprisingly expectant. I wondered why experts who’ve dedicated their lives to researching suicide or treating suicidal people would have taken so long to have an event like this. Attempt survivors, after all, are at the highest risk for suicide.
Seated behind a table on the stage was a single attempt survivor. He calmly told his story. The few other people up there worked with attempt survivors, and one woman, Stephanie Weber, showed a video of the support group she’d founded in the Chicago region.
“You are the guys with the answers,” she told group members. The thinking was, their experience as attempt survivors could help reveal some of the mysteries of suicide.
I recently talked with the person who had the idea for the group, Lisa Liedberg, and she told me how it came about.
“I was in the Survivors of Suicide group because that’s all there was,” she said. “My basic function was to to describe to people how their family member was feeling, what was going on in their heads when they attempted and, in their case, completed suicide. And a lot of people, it was like a surprise to them that they would be feeling that way because they didn’t act that way in front of them, of course. They didn’t show any signs.
“I kept going and must have gone for four or five years, and then all of a sudden I got this bug that, ‘Stephanie, why don’t we have this group for people who’ve attempted suicide?’ She said, ‘You know, that’s an excellent idea, and I was hoping someone would bring it up!’ Lisa’s now the group’s peer facilitator.
One concern that keeps more of these groups from forming is the fear that a group member will die. That’s understandable, but the fear of death hasn’t stopped support groups for all kinds of difficult and sometimes fatal health issues.
Lisa’s group, in fact, has lost a member to suicide. He was one of the people featured in the video at the AAS conference, a drawn, inward-looking man who confessed to the group, “The truth is, I’m still in a bad place. I still don’t want to be here.”
Last year, he killed himself. He hadn’t shown up for some time, and word was that he’d found a new job and was doing well.
When Lisa heard the news about a man who had killed himself in a certain town, she checked the group’s contact list and confirmed who it was. With Weber’s approval, she told the group at the next meeting, and they dedicated that night to discussing him.
Then they had an unexpected visit. “A couple meetings later, his sister came in, and we got more information about what happened,” Lisa said. “You know, we had all gotten attached and wanted to know what triggered this to happen. … And she brought the things they gave out at the wake, the little card with his picture and his name and a prayer on the back, enough for all of us to have one.”
“She couldn’t believe how much concern there was from all of us,” Lisa said. “It made her feel good to know he was in a group like that and we had helped him for a while.”
She added, “My opinion is, every psychologist and psychiatrist and clinician and therapist, and now us, all have that fear in mind, that they’re going to lose a patient. I think it happens to everybody. I talked to my doctor, a wonderful psychiatrist, and he just said, ‘You’ve gotta have it in the back of your head: As hard as you try, they may still do it on you and compete the task. You just have to explain to the family what happened and what he was going through.'”
The other top concern about groups is the possibility of a lawsuit if someone dies, an idea that attempt survivors quickly dispute.
“People say, ‘Oh, I wanted to hold a survivor support group but couldn’t because of liability issues.’ What, do they think we sit around and pass around razor blades?” Heidi Bryan, founder of the Feeling Blue Suicide Prevention Council and a national voice on attempt survivors, told me in an interview last year. “What are they thinking?”
The idea that support groups can work is slowly growing, and San Francisco just created one this year. Several major cities still don’t have one, including Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Diego and Seattle. I’d be happy to be corrected. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asked by attempt survivors whether groups existed in Miami and Indiana. The answer was no.
For a good look at how this kind of support group can work, watch the Canadian documentary “Drawing From Life.” It explores a group founded more than a dozen years ago by Yvonne Bergmans, a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
Bergmans included medical students and nurses in the program, and attempt survivors taught them about the experience. Members also learned about human rights, about how to have conversations with health professionals, about how to say “no.”
Judy James, who posted here a few weeks ago, was one of the group’s first members. Laughing about it now, she recalled a bouncy Bergmans greeting her in her hospital room shortly after her attempt.
“How are you today?” Bergmans asked.
“Fuck off,” James said.
“Anger,” Bergmans replied. “I could work with that.”
And so she did.