2013 was a groundbreaking year for suicide attempt survivors. For the first time, we were not a tiny scattering of isolated people daring to tell our stories, but a quickly growing group of people who found each other through new national projects and agreed that more must be done.
Here are a few achievements, and then we look to the year ahead:
- This site, the first of its kind by a mental health organization, was launched last January for the American Association of Suicidology. In almost a year of weekly posts, it shared the personal stories of more than 35 attempt survivors, with all but a handful agreeing to use their names.
- The Live Through This project grew to more than 60 portraits and stories of attempt survivors around the U.S.and was featured by The Huffington Post, the BBC, The Associated Press, Upworthy, Salon, Brain Pickings and other national media outlets.
- The Center for Dignity, Recovery and Empowerment launched under the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, with projects including an attempt survivor speakers’ bureau _ the first one we’ve come across _ and an attempt survivor support group. The center is well-placed to become a national model.
- The attempt survivor task force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention completed a sweeping report on the kinds of practices and policies we’d like to see. It’s expected to be unveiled this year.
- Dozens of people came out, or spoke out publicly. They include comedian Kevin Breel, former policeman and pastor Eric Weaver, transgender activist and author Nate Cannon, epidemiologist Jenn Garing, suicide awareness and anti-stigma worker Melodee Jarvis, executive Christine O’Hagan, Christian literary agent Karen Neumair, crisis program director Samantha Nadler, recent law school graduate Jay Johnston, veteran and public speaker Andrew O’Brien, psychiatrist Jack Gorman, crisis respite program worker Linda Fuglestad, former international executive Noch Noch Li, social media expert and activist Sandra Kiume, author and blind rehabilitation professional Sue Martin, artist Mic Eales, new graduate student Ebonie Freeman and many others. Many of their stories are on this site or at Talkingaboutsuicide.com.
- The American Association of Suicidology moved toward establishing a “lived experience” division, which would include putting someone who openly acknowledges having been suicidal on the executive board.
- The national Alternatives conference on peers and mental health declared an attempt survivor “movement,” with a caucus and an in-depth introduction to Alternatives to Suicide peer support groups. “This caucus was the first time that I felt completely safe to openly talk about my attempts at suicide,” said conference attendee Latosha Taylor, according to an organizer, Leah Harris. “I was freed of the burden of shame and guilt that I had carried around all those years, and my soul was filled with a renewal of hope.”
- The national Lived Experience Research Network launched to advocate for graduate students and post-grad professionals with mental health issues and to drive research by and for people with lived experience. The group’s young communications director, Misha Kessler, was featured in the first video that this site posted by an attempt survivor.
- National and state mental health organizations, or their officials, publicly embraced the issue of attempt survivors. The director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center encouraged more resources. The executive director of NAMI New Hampshire came out about his own experience with suicidal thinking in a speech to hundreds of people. The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention elected author and attempt survivor Craig A. Miller to its executive board.
- The groups Active Minds and To Write Love on Her Arms, which are aimed largely at students, featured the stories of several attempt survivors for National Suicide Prevention Month.
- Nationally recognized mental health lawyer Susan Stefan turned her attention to laws and policies around suicide and began interviewing dozens of people who’ve been suicidal for an upcoming book on the subject.
- The American Association of Suicidology and other groups announced the launch of a HelpPRO.com therapist finder project that helps people search for therapists who specialize in “suicidal thoughts.” It’s a step toward erasing the nervous guesswork in finding someone who can listen and help without freaking out.
- This site told the difficult stories of Jonathan Martis, who is now in prison for a suicide attempt that caused physical harm to no one but himself, and Manny Bermudez, a young confessed killer who speaks openly about the nationally recognized dangerous effects of solitary confinement on mental health.
- And this list doesn’t even get into the book of attempt survivor interviews and at least two documentaries on attempt survivors that are under way.
And now, for 2014, here are some resolutions:
A national messaging campaign. These days, you can leaf through a magazine and see spirited ads on surviving cancer, with real people we can identify with and root for. And cancer was once a hushed topic itself. Until we find definitive treatments or cures for suicidal thinking, we can remove the crushing, unnecessary stress and shame people feel in having those thoughts. We can talk about fighting stigma forever, but until we see people who’ve “been there” and yet can talk openly and confidently about how they’ve come to manage a major, sometimes fatal, health problem, we’re driving in circles.
More national media attention. See above. When told about the Live Through This project and the issue of attempt survivors almost a year ago, the response of a reporter for a leading newspaper was, “Too small. Too early. Not enough to show for it yet.” That, we are confident, has changed.
A nationally recognized, approved model for attempt survivor support groups. This may be under way already.
A national organization or convention for attempt survivors or those who’ve had suicidal thinking. Again, this may be under way already.
A national invitation to experts in “innovation” fields for new approaches to suicidal thinking. Reaching out to people who perhaps have never considered the issue would not only bring new and creative ideas, it would widen awareness and inspire a national conversation _ especially if people are encouraged to “come out” about their own experiences.
A myth-busting campaign. When a member of a suicide prevention board dismisses the idea of attempt survivor support groups because “research says” it’s dangerous to have such people talking to each other, there’s a problem. Create and circulate a national myth-busting document that people can find on a moment’s notice that bats down the outdated ideas with better research.
Targeted resources by major national mental health organizations. This remains a painfully obvious need. Because suicidal thinking cuts across several mental health issues and at times has no link to mental illness, the websites for these groups should have a one-click gateway from the home page to resources under a phrase like “I’ve been suicidal.” Everyone agrees suicide is an important and universal issue. There’s no need to make us hunt around. And if groups have no targeted resources, start by asking us _ in the popup format often used to solicit donations _ what we’d like to see. A few ideas:
- Attempt survivors in non-token positions on executive boards and in other decision-making roles.
- Far richer social media outreach, especially by peers.
- Outreach to members or volunteers who’ve been suicidal.
- Outreach, encouragement and respect to professionals inside the field who’ve been suicidal.
- Moderated online discussion or support groups.
More downstream thinking. People who’ve been suicidal aren’t constantly in crisis, but the resources out there might make you think otherwise. Simply including a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline doesn’t mean the job is done. Going “upstream” to address people before they’re caught in the tractor beam of suicidal thinking is a popular subject these days. Go “downstream” as well, to life after the crisis call, after the emergency room, after the 72-hour hold and months or years into the future. What if people feel fine but worry the suicidal thinking will come back? What if they want to help others as a peer but don’t know where to report for duty?
A greater focus on rights. Speaking of downstream, there’s a gaping lack of focus on how a suicidal experience can follow someone through life, on paper and otherwise. The stress over whether future employers, universities, licensing boards, partners and even border officials will discover the experience and act poorly on it simply isn’t needed as we go on about our lives. More rights protection and awareness goes hand in hand with encouraging more people to “come out” and eliminate discrimination.