Suicide Attempt Survivors – Out of the Shadows
by David Tereshchuk
“I’m sorry. I just can’t. If I appear in public and say honestly what happened with me – who knows what the fall-out may be.” Such has been the anxious response I’ve gotten so many times when, as a journalist working largely in TV, I’ve requested an on-camera interview.
We all know the media cliché that can follow. Someone has something to tell – but it’s evidently too shameful, or could cause recriminations. So we see them speak back-to-camera, or as a carefully-lighted silhouette – with maybe their voice distorted too. These are the well-tried measures for maintaining anonymity in the media.
Although our supposedly advanced society has abandoned many outworn taboos, we still cling to this hugger-mugger practice in the mass-media style-book – which in itself can be a signal of shame. And we habitually apply it to a broad range of confessional interviewees. Understandably, perhaps, we bring it out for convicted felons, sex-offenders, torturers, and more.
But disturbingly, to my mind, candidates for this shadowy treatment have included, whether we think it’s fair or not, people who have tried to kill themselves.
Think of the last time you saw someone who survived a suicide attempt talking about it on TV. If you recall one at all, was their face visible? Their real name used? Probably not.
But some of those self-same survivors of suicide attempts are now banding together to break out of this stigmatized category. “When a story of a suicide attempt has a face and a full name, the person has had plenty of reason to fear the public disclosure,” says Dese’Rae Stage, who has emerged as something of a spokesperson for suicide-attempters. “We’re repeatedly called cowardly, selfish, weak.”
This movement’s members are people who have tried to end their own lives, and for a variety of reasons – a merciful change-of-heart at the last minute … intervention by other people or by happenstance … some ‘failure’ in the chosen means: rope, gun, pills or exhaust-pipe – they have ended up surviving. And they now most decidedly do want the rest of us to know about it.
They see their step into the public domain partly as an aid in their own recovery – countering shame or guilt – and partly as help for other people who might be contemplating suicide. Potential suicides, it’s hoped, can be deflected from their deadly course by learning that others have also been in that same dark and hopeless place … but can and do escape it — and NOT by dying.
The first step, though, is to come out of the shadows.
Stage is a professional photographer who studied psychology at college, and her most visible contribution to the attempters’ movement is an online community called “Live Through This”.
For the website she has collected individual stories in depth – so far she has amassed nearly two hundred, spread across 36 American cities. Attempt-survivors record a full audio account in their own words describing their mental progression toward suicidal thoughts, their actual attempt, how they came to avoid death, and how they have kept on surviving since.
To the transcribed stories, Stage adds compelling visual portraits of each attempt survivor, whom she photographs as part of the same lengthy recording session. Each account makes for tough reading, heartbreaking but rewarding – and all the images, faces looking directly and candidly into the lens, are powerfully engaging.
Altogether I can avow (as a reporter on social and ethical issues, but also as a media critic) that they amount to some of the deepest and most affecting depictions I’ve ever encountered of profound human despair, and of climbing out of that despair.
Here is one example: Leah Harris, a single mother who survived repeated attempts as a younger woman.
“In having my story published at LiveThroughThis”, Harris told me, “the loss of privacy is entirely worth the benefit. The connection with others who have a shared experience gets me out of isolation, helps combat the negative siren-song of suicidal thoughts.
The LiveThroughThis stories have elicited worldwide responses from suicidal people, according to its founder, Stage. She says there’s one very common reaction: “I’m not able to take part, though I’d like to – but it’s already good to know I’m not alone.”
“And it operates on several levels,” Stage adds, “I’ve also had emails from loss-survivors saying ‘I wish the person I lost had been able to see this’… or … ‘I lost somebody and I just didn’t understand what they were going through. Now I think I do’.”
In its 8 years of operation, LiveThroughThis and other like-minded self-help groups have gradually been having quite an effect in the field of suicide prevention. The American Association of Suicidology now has a division of its membership entirely made up of suicide attempt survivors – as well as its existing divisions for clinicians, researchers, suicide-prevention workers, loss-survivors, and crisis-center operatives.
Professionals dealing with suicide are on the whole positive about the development.
Dr Jon Stevens, a psychiatrist at Houston’s Menninger Clinic said: “It’s fascinating and moving – it’s the first time in my psychiatric career I’ve seen a patient self-help group arise from the ground up, though it’s clearly proven its value in movements for HIV/AIDS, autism, and heart-disease patients”.
When I asked if he had any reservations about non-professionals going public with such detailed case-histories, Stevens (like others in the field, family members as well as doctors, and some attempters themselves) counseled serious caution about one recurring element in suicide stories. “It really can do no good at all”, said Stevens, “for people already disposed toward killing themselves to be treated to a lengthy discussion dwelling on exactly how it was done, where it was done, and such like”.
All of the LiveThroughThis profiles, it should be said, do tread very carefully in this territory.
Indeed the web-cameos, while extraordinarily intimate, are careful to avoid over-dramatization – in large part, of course, by presenting their transcribed stories as reading material, and not using video, with its innate voyeuristic tendencies. And consequently they’re providing an instructive exemplar for us in the mass media – where the lurid and sensational has tended to predominate in suicide case reports.
Among old journalistic habits that need to change are an almost inevitable concentration on the drama … some simplistic digging for ‘the reason why’ … and that all-too-familiar (and possibly copycat-encouraging) fascination that so perturbs Stevens and others – the morbid fascination with precise details about the means a suicide attempter has chosen to use.
But overall, one wish and hope emerges clearly from paying attention to the participants in LiveThroughThis. We as a society could certainly change our judgmental attitudes toward those driven to try suicide.
Online Resources for the Suicidal (and/or their friends and family):
BY PHONE: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and pressing Option 1, the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.
If you don’t like talking on the phone, you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741, or check out the Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you’d like to talk to a peer, WarmLine.org contains links to “WarmLines” in every state. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
David Tereshchuk has reported on ethics and belief for PBS’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly and The PBS NewsHour Weekend. He writes the international multimedia commentary on TheMediaBeat.US which also appears on Huffington Post.