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Support groups: Where are they?

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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.

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10 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Well said and so desperately needed. In the last couple months this issue has come up more than any other with the groups I’ve spoken with. I am an attempt survivor and can fully relate to the lack of structured support. I too had a brief moment of shock when learning this. The good news is there are people working on getting something together in my area. It’s my hope to contribute as much as possible.

    Reply

  2. This is a wonderful resource providing really great links for further support for Attempt Survivors. I watched the “Drawing from Life” video, done by a local to me hospital, shared it with my Facebook page “Suicide Shatters” members (www.facebook.com/SuicideShatters) and it was well received, highly educational and informative.

    I’m a huge supporter of this blog done by AAS, I have many Attempt Survivor FB members and know there are very few good resources available for them. Kudos to AAS, Cara and everyone else who got this blog started. I will continue to share each and every Monday post and hope others will as well.

    Keep up the much needed and wonderful work!

    Barb Hildebrand
    Suicide Shatters
    Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®

    Reply

  3. This blog sends a fast ball right through the strike zone of suicide and the stigma that is so closely associated the mere word. In August of last year I launched an initiative in San Diego, CA that has crossed state lines as well international borders and the oceans that divided them. All of this because I had realized that there were not any support organizations for those who have either attempted suicide or those who were contemplating the all to often unforgiving act. I am blessed and extremely fortunate to be able to say that “my greatest failure in life has become my greatest success.” In August of 2012 I launched the life changing and life saving initiative, UMTR2ME-You Matter To Me, to share with others “how I found a successful life, through and unsuccessful suicide.”

    Jimm Greer
    UMTR2ME-You Matter To Me

    Reply

  4. I’ve only read the first few paragraphs of your story today, but I burst out laughing when I read about your first attempt to find support. Of course I was laughing with you, not at you. I’ve had the same frustrations since my suicide attempt almost a year ago. As of last week, we finally have started a local support group for depression (which might as well be considered a support group for attempted suicide survivors, since the other person that showed up was also a survivor….).
    I’ll read the rest later, and check out your links — they look great.
    Thanks for making me laugh–I needed it (I know how macabre that would sound to the general public, but we’re all friends here, right ;-)
    Debi

    Reply

  5. I think there is a desperate need for suicide attempt survivors groups. I was also shocked to find how little is out there for us. Groups help you to realize that you’re not alone, that your thinking is common, and that others have gotten past this. I just don’t know how to start a group, since everyone – including myself – is mostly anonymous!

    Cindy

    Reply

    • Hi Cindy,

      I totally agree with you on a need for support. As far as I know, our last attempt at this, on this site was not successful. I do know that after the first of the year I am going to be working with one of the researchers from the AAS, who wrote, “At first I was skeptical…,” to try to create both support for us and research data on suicide attempters for him.

      Reply

  6. This does NOT help me at ALL. I do NOT see any link to a attempters group. Why is this such a big deal? I have looked everywhere for people with whom I can connect.

    Reply

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