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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:

I am curious as to how the term “lived expertise” brings clarity to an issue already laden with stigma and laced with more than a healthy dose of confusion.

The term “lived expertise” suggests to me that an attempt survivor has, through their experience, gained “expertise” in the act of attempting suicide. And I think that is unhelpful.

To a world that does not understand us, we need a laser-sharp focus on the issue.

My goodness. You must be wondering about this fellow. Please, bear with me.

I’ve also thought about the term “lived experience,” and it is just as problematic. Every single second of our lives is “lived experience.” I find the term doesn’t provide the moment of clarity that many of us have been seeking.

This is a time when we ought to be saying what we mean and meaning what we say, especially in a world that generally doesn’t take the time to listen to us, understand us and affirm us in the community and in life in general.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly one million people die by suicide each year worldwide. For every suicide, there are an estimated 30 attempt survivors. Do the math. It’s one hell of a statistic.

Yet a dedicated national and international resource for attempt survivors does not exist. And I ask myself, “Why?”

I believe a dedicated resource would serve as a touchstone, as a place of re-grounding, understanding, care, support, encouragement and catharsis. In some ways, the sheer existence of such an organization would send a signal to attempt survivors everywhere that they need not worry anymore about being marginalized and misunderstood.

Deep within each of us is an intrinsic need to belong, to be affirmed in our personhood. And attempt survivors are no different.

I have heard the less thoughtful among us – even at “professional” levels – argue, “But the needs of attempt survivors and survivors of suicide loss are well-served through existing suicide prevention agencies.” To advance this argument is to show how little understanding there is of the problem. Such a stance ignores the evidence and continues to tread on the sensitivities of the very people who need their situations to be recognized and understood.

My organization, Your Life Counts, has worked since 2000 in all aspects of suicide prevention, intervention and postvention with attempt survivors and survivors of suicide loss alike, together with the general population. In my own journey as an attempt survivor, it has taken me a couple of decades to survey and understand the complexities of suicide in families and communities and to see how capable we all are of re-stigmatizing the stigmas instead of replacing stigma and misunderstanding with clarity.

And speaking of clarity …

We also have to bear in mind that the term “suicide survivor,” for whatever reason, became the descriptor for survivors of suicide loss, leaving attempt survivors without a term that the world otherwise would readily understand and associate with us.

Let me be clear: I have absolutely nothing against survivors of suicide loss. I am one myself.

I know you know this, but if we go out into the world and ask the uninitiated for their understanding of the term “suicide survivor,” nine times out of 10 they will say it means someone who has attempted suicide and survived. When we try to explain that it actually refers to families and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide, they are incredulous. They can’t get from A to B.

Further, many attempt survivors have been utterly confused as to why, when they tried to describe themselves as suicide survivors, they often find themselves being dismissed because the term is already taken.

The net result is that many attempt survivors have not found support and encouragement. Instead, feeling marginalized and misunderstood, they have quietly got back into the swim of life and coped as best they can. Many of them will make it. Some of them will not. We need to be concerned about that.

As with survivors of suicide loss, attempt survivors are at an increased risk for suicide. Sweeping the needs of attempt survivors under the carpet because they are not understood is no more acceptable today than it has been for decades.

Just as survivors of loss rightly say that only survivors of loss can truly understand them, so too must we make room for the fact that attempt survivors also rightly say that only attempt survivors will truly understand them. Those of us who are both attempt survivors and survivors of suicide loss have heightened sensitivity to the voices of both groups. Yet often we are but a voice crying out in the wilderness. That needs to change.

The sooner we can understand and accept the similarities and the differences between both groups, the sooner we will change the landscape and make things easier for all – and save many more lives.

Let’s start by redressing this confusion  around “survivors” that has been allowed to find a place in the mental health system and the public at large. Looking forward, with the interests of both attempt survivors and survivors of suicide loss treated with dedicated focus and respect, fresh opportunity will open up to collaborate on common issues and concerns for the greater good.

This also will remove the unsavory aspects of attempt survivors needing to fight for a place at the table. Their place would now be reserved, and their voice no longer would be heard as a barely audible whisper.

So, let’s stop beating around the bush and embrace the term “attempt survivor.” We should be clear about who we are, what we’ve experienced and what our needs and concerns are. With that approach, we can find each other and end a silence that has gone on far too long.

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13 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Rory, thank you for this post. I agree that language can get in the way of understanding, and we need to be very clear about what we mean to say. I have never put much stock in labels, but realize that others take them very seriously. You have been very clear about you are trying to accomplish and I wish you all the best

    Reply

    • Five years ago, upon my release from the hospital, I was told by the discharge nurse to look up “suicide survivors” for support groups. I vacilated between shock, horror and frustration. All there was were grief groups. At that time there were only suicide survivors without recognition for true survivors. But I digress. Your ideas regarding language are my main point of interest. What if we really did change the language used regarding death from a self-inflicted injury. What if we removed all the words that imply “choice” or “intent” and replace them with references to the reality that this event is not an act but an event. It’s not something you do, it happens to you. Even the appearence of this decision can only be made under the cloak of an oppressive depression. When it is looked at as a decision it is said to be committed. It is asked, “what did you think it would solve? “, “how could you do this to me? “, etc. But when you recognize the event for what it is, a “fatal” or “near -fatal depressive episode”, all the room for blame is gone. No blame, no guilt. No guilt, no shame. No shame, no stigma. No stigma, no fear. Now there is compassion, hope and help. Maybe I’m not exactly right but we do need to take a stand. It’s not enough just to say we need to change. It’s time we define the change we need to be seen as relevant.

      Reply

      • There is definitely a need for change, Joel, and I agree that we are the ones who need to define the change. I kept silent for many years because I could not find the words to make myself understood; then when I tried to define what I was going through, a psychiatrist said, “People who talk about it (suicide) don’t do it.”

      • Thank you D. Cross,
        As we now know, even those who talk about suicide have a suicide. It is the only illness that by it’s nature prevents it’s own treatment. That’s insidious. We must do something. If not us, then who?

  2. Five years ago, upon my release from the hospital, I was told by the discharge nurse to look up “suicide survivors” for support groups. I vacilated between shock, horror and frustration. All there was were grief groups. At that time there were only suicide survivors without recognition for true survivors. But I digress. Your ideas regarding language are my main point of interest. What if we really did change the language used regarding death from a self-inflicted injury. What if we removed all the words that imply “choice” or “intent” and replace them with references to the reality that this event is

    Reply

  3. I attempted October of last year (2013), its something that will change my life. I never knew how many people actually cared about me, and am surprised by the people who didn’t. Its hard to tell what to tell people and what not to tell people.

    Reply

    • For some reason, while recovering from the gunshot, it occurred to me that the people I should be able to count on the most may very well not be there, and those who will be by my side will be most unexpected or not even met yet. And that’s exactly what happened. It hurt but it also showed me who to trust and who doesn’t matter. And it’ll come to you too. Bet on it

      Reply

      • Still waiting for people who care. No, I retract that, don’t believe there are, or will ever be, more than 2 or 3.

  4. Actually, 2 or 3 is all it takes. If that’s what you have, you’re in excellent shape. It also takes time. Sometimes the people who will care about us the most need time to come into our lives. Trust the process. It really does get better. Maybe not right away but it does. You don’t even have to believe it. It will get better anyway.

    Reply

  5. I see serious problems with the “attempt survivor” terminology. First, it excludes those who are intimately familiar with suicide feelings but who have not yet made an attempt. It creates a hierarchy or pecking order where people like me are considered more experienced or more qualified than those have been or currently are as suicidal as I ever was. This is wrong. These people really should be included, not excluded, in any name we give ourselves. And second, even worse, there is a danger that some suicidal people who are looking for a survivor community will feel they need to make an attempt in order to be accepted into our community. Which is totally the wrong message IMO – I cannot endorse a name that might nudge people closer to making an attempt. Another variant of this is that it obliges people to disclose their attempt history even though they may not want to for very good reasons – or perhaps lie and make up a phoney attempt in order to be accepted.

    For years now I’ve called myself a suicide survivor and, as has been noted, almost everyone understands this to mean I’ve survived my own experiences of suicidal feelings. The few times when there has been confusion (mainly at suicide conferences) I have sometimes had to clarify that I’m not a griever, which has not been a problem.

    PS I also prefer “experience” to “expertise” because it emphasises our knowledge/expertise as experiential rather than the book or lab knowledge of other experts.

    Reply

  6. David, I have to admit that I have never really considered the suicidal as part of our community. Not out of marginalizing them, but from feeling that the experience of having a suicide and surviving is a unique experience and the fewer who know what that feels like, the better. From a peer support perspective I have never limited people with suicidal thoughts participation in the conversation and have always taken their risk seriously in an effort to keep them from experiencing that devastating event. It also seems prudent to exclude them from one of the most stigmatized groups in the mental health community.

    Reply

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