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‘A voice at the table’

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This week, we have grassroots effort at its best. Annemarie Matulis, director of the Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention in Massachusetts, tells the story behind a remarkable documentary on attempt survivors that made its debut last week at the state suicide prevention conference. Plans for how to share and distribute the film are still being discussed, but early reviewers say it should be a national training tool, if not mandatory viewing.

Amazingly, the 30-minute documentary was made on zero budget, with donated time and effort. Its next showing is in mid-May, at a fundraiser for suicide prevention work and a local teen center. Here’s Annemarie:

Coming across the issue of suicide attempt survivors was like déjà vu.

I have never forgotten how it felt to sit on my front step and whisper into the night, “He beats me. Please, God, help me.” In the early 1980s, our society was crippled with ignorance and fear when anyone stepped out of the shadows to admit they were battered and brutalized. We stayed silent, terrorized by our abusers. In 1982, I broke that silence, only to find a society that did all it could to dismiss and avoid me. After all, it must have been my fault.

It took more than three years for body, mind and soul to heal. I vowed to never again allow anyone to be treated the way I was when I finally found the courage to reach out for help. Thirty years of community activism and advocacy followed.

In 2009, painfully aware of the Grand Canyon-sized hole in the local suicide education and prevention world, I launched a suicide prevention task force with some friends. Typical of most of my projects, we had no money and needed to become better educated and trained. Then we set off to change the world, or at least our small piece of it in southeastern Massachusetts.

What we found was the same fear-based prejudice toward the subject of suicide as I had experienced as a battered woman. (I mean, if you really want to clear the room, tell people what you do for a living: suicide prevention). But day by day, month by month, year by year, we’ve taken baby steps to make a difference and, hopefully, save lives.

On June 27, 2013, I sat down to witness a live webinar to spotlight the recently released surgeon general’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. I’m one of those weird people who actually reads stuff like this. I sat dumbstruck as I heard Jerry Reed of the Suicide Prevention Research Center and Richard McKeon of SAMHSA declare that the voice of the suicide attempt survivor must be brought to the table.

Just two days later, our suicide prevention task force hosted “An Evening with Craig Miller,” author of “This is How it Feels” and a suicide attempt survivor. I had met him earlier in the year through my work as an executive board member with the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention. I sat in the back of the church with Tracey Medeiros, a founding member of
our task force and a suicide attempt survivor I have mentored for years, and I knew we were witnessing something so much bigger than all of us. A movement had begun.

Later that evening, it all came together: the struggle that Tracey, Craig and countless others have had just to be heard, to be accepted as having value in the world at large, as well as within the suicide education and prevention field. My question to Craig was, “Will you do a documentary with me? We cannot remain silent, not again…” Within a couple of days, I asked Tracey to join us. We added two more attempt survivors, Cara Anna and Dese’Rae Stage. Phil Rodgers, now a vice president with LivingWorks, and John Draper, project director with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, both agreed to lend their voices. It all was part of a nine-month journey to create “A Voice at the Table.”

Last week, we stood in front of about 100 attendees at the Massachusetts State Conference for Suicide Prevention. The conference theme was “The Future of Suicide Prevention.” Coincidence? I don’t believe in them.

I introduced the film with Tracey, Craig and Zak Swain, our gifted director of photography, standing beside me. When the lights came back on, there was complete silence.

As I looked around the audience, I was startled to see so many tears, but inwardly I was relieved. “A Voice at the Table” had touched their hearts. Then, about 20 seconds later, came the applause.

And then people started standing up. One by one, moved and inspired by what they had just seen, they “came out” about their own suicidal experience. Or they said they finally understood what the experience was like. I had been braced for pushback. I was not expecting everyone to be so welcoming and supportive. People formed a line to thank us. That never happens in these conference workshops, especially when you know lunch is waiting.

One woman in the line told me she was a clinician and if she had her way, every clinician would be required to see the film. And she said it with a smile.

“A Voice at the Table” is a 30-minute call to action, to welcome the lived expertise of the suicide attempt survivor to all decision-making tables locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. They say timing is everything. Our documentary was screened a few weeks after a groundbreaking national summit was held in San Francisco to address how to tear down the barriers and bring the attempt survivor voice into the light. And just five days before the film’s screening, the American Association of Suicidology at its national conference not only hosted well-received panels of attempt survivors, it also announced the launch of a new division to address attempt survivors and anyone who’s been suicidal.

This, I believe, is the future of suicide education and prevention.

None of us expects this journey to be easy. But while the light of hope might flicker from time to time, we continue to keep it burning with the belief that lives can and will be saved. Because above all, “A Voice at the Table” is a story of resilience and hope.

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6 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Since December of 2008, when I had my suicide, I have been on what some have called a crusade (and perhaps rightly so) to eliminate the stigma, prejudice and misconceptions regarding suicide by changing the language we use to discuss it. Although efforts were made to bring these ideas to the attention of the suicide prevention community, they were to no avail. Phrases like “fatal or near-fatal depressive episode” , or “had” a suicide instead of “attempted” were met with promising acknowledgements but gained little traction against the inertia of change. As I followed the events you mentioned I regained hope in the possibility of helping people understand the event of suicide. That said, let me say Thank You for all of your work on our behalf. It truly has the potential of changing not only our lives, but the lives of the families and friends of suicides, and those on the fringe of suicide.

    Reply

    • Sandra, we have not decided how the film will be distributed after May 18th. One of the leading national experts who did see it commented on how powerful the emotional response was in the live audience. His guidance was that perhaps this film might best be shown as an educational/training tool accompanied by a trainer and counselors to assist those who may be deeply impacted by the sharing of our four attempt survivors. I will keep everyone posted on the progress and ultimate format in which we can safely share the film.

      Reply

  2. I wish I could be a part of this somehow. I am trained as a psychiatrist. Last August I attempted suicide. When the board in my state learned of my illness, they stripped me of my license. Not one doctor in my city came to my aid, not even the doctor I worked alongside. Instead he fired me. I lost everything. Thankfully with my husband at my side and a supportive extended family, we moved to another state where I have found the best doctor I have ever had, and I am rebuilding my life. I would love to tell my story.

    Reply

    • Don’t give up! But do find people to talk with who have positive lived experience. You are already a “part of this” by stepping up into the light. Take your time healing, please.

      Reply

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