The push to give suicide attempt survivors more of a voice might actually be working.
“Two examples of efforts to provide forums for survivors of suicide attempts are Live Through This and What Happens Now?” Suicide Prevention Resource Center director Jerry Reed wrote earlier this month. “We need to expand efforts to encourage and support attempt survivors in bringing their expertise to the struggle against suicide,” including through peer support networks.
That call for more peer support _ for more people who’ve had suicidal thoughts or actions using that experience to help others _is more significant than you might think. Here’s why: The suicide prevention and mental health fields already have plenty of peers, many more than we know. Many of them just don’t feel comfortable identifying themselves.
Stigma? Among the very people who should know better? Oh, yes.
As the editor of this site, I’ve received comments from attempt survivors who work in mental health and suicide prevention but feel they can’t be open about their experience. They fear the consequences.
“I have chosen to use an anonymous name here because of my work (I’m even sweating just writing this),” one person wrote this month. “I am currently a social worker that is working in suicide prevention. You would think that of all places, this would be the job where I could express past suicidal thoughts and attempts, but it is not. I have sadly discovered that sometimes, people in the mental health profession can be the least understanding about suicide.”
This person’s suicide attempt was two decades ago.
Wouldn’t coming out, and welcoming that coming out, be a huge help in finding well-equipped people for much-needed peer work in therapy and suicide prevention?
One high-profile shift toward openness came two years ago. Marsha Linehan, who created the therapy known as DBT for suicidal people, came out in a story by The New York Times. “Are you one of us?” a patient had asked her. “Because if you were, it would give all of us so much hope.”
“That did it,” Linehan told the Times. “So many people have begged me to come forward, and I just thought _ well, I have to do this. I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward.”
Has that inspired others in the mental health world to come out, too? If so, I’d like to hear about them.
A few months after that story _ and several months after a suicide attempt of my own _ I created a blog that now features dozens of conversations with “out” attempt survivors, people from all kinds of backgrounds who speak openly about their experience. Some have moved into the mental health and suicide prevention fields, either as professionals or volunteers.
Here are a few of their voices:
“One of the things we do know, many people do go into the helping profession trying to figure out their own stuff. … it was obvious that many people in my graduate program were there because of problems they or a family member had. I was open, and that made them uncomfortable: ‘You can’t be a professional and talk about that stuff!’ Oh yes I can. There’s nothing in my code of ethics that says I can’t.” _ Cheryl Sharp, special adviser for trauma-informed services
“I feel I have a unique experience in knowing how it feels to want to die and knowing how to get through it. Often I find other professionals say some of the clichés like, ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ And yet the person in front of them is in so much pain that they want to take their life. They need to be heard, not fixed.” _ Trish Lane, clinical psychologist
“I feel it’s important that people know that you can get better from this, and if you don’t talk openly, not as much can be gained from that experience _ in a way, it means I went through that hell for nothing. This is something I can use to give to other people, that ‘Yes, I used to be as ill as you are.’ I know some people don’t talk about it, and I respect their choice. There is a stigma. People have discriminated against me in the past. But I make it a priority to be honest anyway. … I don’t think there should be prescribed rules. But there are a lot of closeted peer professionals who could add to their work by coming out.” _ Cindy Myron, mental health peer specialist
What if the mental health world launched a campaign to encourage its members to “come out”?
What if the campaign was similar to the It Gets Better project, with mental health workers sharing videos of their experiences and their decisions to be open? It Gets Better has also created BETTERLegal, a project that shares its videos with legal organizations to help with rights and advocacy work. That approach, too, could be adapted for mental health, where fears of discrimination and retaliation can keep so much silent.
Another, more immediate suggestion comes from Tom Kelly, a manager of recovery and resiliency who speaks openly about his own experience: “There should be no reason
whatsoever that a professional or presenter without that experience could not find someone to participate with them and share their personal story,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think the more that researchers, scientists and the professionals that work with people who have suicidal ideation and/or have attempted suicide invite ‘us’ to share and participate, others with our experience will see that and it may make it easier for them to ‘come out.'”
When he speaks openly, it’s not doom and gloom stories, Kelly said. It’s a matter-of-fact explanation for people who don’t understand. If doctors can talk about their experience with physical illness to better connect with a patient, why should it be any different in behavioral health?
Talking with colleagues is another issue.
“It is awkward to talk about it,” Linda Eakes, a certified peer specialist who is open about her own attempts, said in an e-mail. “The attitude is that it is OK if we are talking about our clients, but it is not OK if it is one of your fellow clinicians. There is a mental health feeling that peers are going to go off, get crazy, and then we’ll have to deal with that.”
It makes no sense that the mental health world encourages the public to speak up and reduce stigma but has a culture that can keep its own community quiet, whether it means to or not.
“When I was applying for graduate school in psychology I had quite a few awkward moments with my interviewers because I was a disclosed attempt survivor,” suicidologist DeQuincy Lezine wrote in one response to the SPRC director’s column mentioned above. Lezine also pointed out the story of Kay Redfield Jamison, psychologist and author of “An Unquiet Mind,” who spoke openly about her bipolar disorder and had some of her worst reactions from colleagues.
“If the people within our field can’t bear to stand up and say that they are attempt survivors, just imagine the stigma faced by people in other fields/areas,” Lezine said.
If the people who are supposed to help us can’t set an example of openness and acceptance, how does that inspire the rest of us to say anything?
“I underestimated the animosity in the community towards suicidal people,” David Webb, a suicidologist and attempt survivor in Australia, told me in an e-mail. “I felt pretty safe about going public, feeling quite clear and strong about what I wanted to say, plus I knew I had the support of my family and closest friends. But at the suicide conferences and forums I attended, I encountered people who could barely hide their ill-feeling towards people like me. … So if you want to go public, which I totally support, then just be prepared for those jerks who will look down on you, often with barely concealed anger, as some sort of traitor to the human race. … It would be great if we had safe spaces, as a stepping stone to coming out, where we could meet fellow survivors to hear of their experience of coming out and get their support while we decide whether to or not.”
Webb, Lezine and Marsha Linehan, by the way, are the only “out” attempt survivors I’ve heard of among suicide researchers.
Some people are pushing forward with openness anyway, sometimes with little planning. “Before I talked about my attempt, I was nervous that people would hold some weird grudge against me, like I was a bad person for surviving when their loved ones had passed away or that I was somehow a bad role model and unfit to be helping people affected by suicide,” Justin Dunkle wrote to me in an e-mail. He came out while volunteering with an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention awareness walk in Chicago, where he was the event’s co-chair for publicity. As he walked, a rare attempt survivor in a crowd largely of the bereaved, he shared his story with others around him and was surprised by the welcoming response.
He has continued to volunteer. “I realize now that attempt survivors are uniquely equipped and educated in a way that could be monumentally beneficial to this field of work,” Dunkle wrote. “Coming out about my experiences was one of the most therapeutic things I’ve done to recover. Doing so while volunteering for a mental health organization was both safe and encouraging.”
Finally, here’s a passage from social worker and attempt survivor Kathleen Stewart, who wrote a blog post last year titled “Why we must talk about suicide.” She described a presentation on suicide that she and colleagues gave at a local college and the surprise on people’s faces at her introduction: “My name is Katy, I’m a bachelor’s level Social Worker and part of the reason I’m working in this field is because I’m a suicide attempt survivor of 10 years.”
Afterward, a woman approached her and her colleagues and said her teenage sister had tried to kill herself. “Then she turned to me and told me that my survival gave her hope that her sister would make it too,” Stewart wrote.
In that moment, she understood why openness in her profession can be crucial:
“I don’t know if I’ve ever so clearly realized that my vulnerability in simply saying that sentence enables other people to be vulnerable as well.”
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