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.