Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Talking about suicide

Cara Anna shares her personal experience:

Is there a seat at Death Cafe for people who have had thoughts or actions of suicide in the past? The answer, happily, appears to be yes.

Before saying another word, it's important to point out that Death Cafes are not support groups, and people who are actively wrestling with thoughts or actions of suicide have better resources available for help. Instead, Death Cafe is appropriate only for people who have moved on enough to talk about the experience as one of the many things in life that have shaped them.
I'm one of a growing number of suicide attempt survivors who speak openly about the experience. It's a movement best illustrated by the new Live Through This project, a beautiful series of portraits of attempt survivors, with no anonymity. The photographer is an attempt survivor herself. You can also watch this unrelated project, a moving and popular TEDtalk by attempt survivor JD Schramm.

You see these and think, "Wait, this is all right? We can talk about this?" Yes, we can.

National organizations in the U.S. are taking note. In January, the American Association of Suicidology launched a website for attempt survivors, the first such project of its kind. I'm its editor, and the work builds on my online collection of dozens of conversations with "out" attempt survivors, Talking About Suicide.

Responses have been extraordinary. "Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for everything you’re doing here," one reader wrote. "I am a suicide attempt survivor. Just typing that fills me with the stigma that others so often cast upon us."

And this one points to the fear and stigma that remain in the mental health field, of all places: "I have chosen to use an anonymous name here because of my work (I’m even sweating just writing this)," another reader wrote. "I am currently a social worker that is working in suicide prevention." Her own attempt, she said, was 21 years ago.

The idea behind this trend to come out is simple: It's time to give people like us a voice, along with faces and names. We need resources, and we need to know others are out there. If no one dares to talk about this, how do we expect people wrestling with such feelings to do so and find help and support? 

Once, I was afraid that just mentioning "suicide" would mark me as depressing, morbid, crazy, some kind of loser. In the end, those beliefs were a major reason why I tried to kill myself.

We need to show that's it's possible to have the experience, talk about it and move on. 

We also need to make the conversation as comfortable as possible. And that's why I sat down at the latest Death Cafe in New York, along with a funeral director, an author of folktales about death, a hospice worker and others. I introduced myself and my work, and no one ran screaming. In fact, the person on each side of me either knew someone who had died by suicide or knew someone who might be at risk. 

I didn't sit down to Death Cafe for therapy or support. Instead, I was curious about what brought everyone to the table, and I was happy to answer any questions about my experience. I have questions, too. Having a parent with persistent cancer and a brother with a newborn baby brings up plenty of them. 

The chai latte was nice as well.

Jon, the founder of Death Cafe, has been supportive ever since I asked if it was all right to
attend, and he encouraged me to write this post. I'd like to take this chance to shake down a few myths or misconceptions:

- Just because you have suicidal thoughts or actions in your past doesn't mean you're in that headspace for the rest of your life.

- Talking about suicide in open, thoughtful ways doesn't make people want to go kill themselves. And it's certainly not an endorsement of a plan of action. But there's often no need to dwell on specific methods.

- If you're worried about someone, it is encouraged to ask them if they are thinking of hurting or killing themself. It puts the topic out there and shows your concern.

- Having thoughts or actions of suicide doesn't automatically mean you have a mental illness. It can be more helpful, and less stigmatizing, to focus on the more general factors that might be involved, such as hopelessness, injustice, abuse, helplessness, isolation and what attempt survivor and suicidologist David Webb has called a "crisis of the self."

- Suicide is not easy, it is not foolproof, and it is not the romanticized experience you see in the movies or on TV. Suicide is incredibly risky: Some people who assume something will kill them end up permanently impaired, and some people who don't mean to take their actions so far end up dead by mistake.

- Having suicidal thoughts or actions doesn't, and shouldn't, ruin your life. So far, I've spoken with people who've gone on to be psychiatrists, artists, lawyers, authors, businesspeople, crisis workers, spouses, parents and a stand-up comedian.

- And yes, it's possible to talk about the subject with a sense of humor. I imagine Death Cafe was created as a way to soften the instinctive "Oh, how depressing!" or "How morbid!" response to death. We can extend that approach to suicide.

- Finally, obviously, you are not alone.

Thank you for approaching what's often a sensitive subject with an open mind. Please explore the Resources sections of the websites mentioned above, which include hotline contacts, support groups and more. And your questions are welcome. 

Live Through This: http://livethroughthis.org/
JD Schramm on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/jd_schramm.html
What Happens Now?: http://attemptsurvivors.com/
Talking About Suicide: http://talkingaboutsuicide.com/

Cara Anna was a foreign correspondent in Beijing when she attempted suicide.

You do things that define you and your life, and this is one of them, but it’s hidden because everyone is so scared of it. What would happen if we talked about it instead of hiding it away? What would happen? I don’t know what would happen, but what would happen? Why not try it?

With thanks to Dese'Rae L. Stage of Live Through This


  1. Thank you, Jon, for directing me to this article, and thank you, Cara, for writing it!

    You're right, this is soooooo important. So, so, soooo important.

    I learned this the hard way. I have always believed in talking openly about death and everything else important in life; but, unfortunately, I didn't realize just how much my family's struggle with mental illness affected my judgment.

    April 12 will mark three years since my brother Greg took his own life, and he had TOLD me he wanted to do it. At that time I didn't understand what was going on with him; I only knew I was afraid of him, and I let my fear prevent me from helping him.

    Everyone was afraid of Greg: our other brother, his son, my mom... Now I know, three years too late, that Greg was afraid of himself, too.

    He was bi-polar; that much I knew, but it took his death for me to open my eyes to what that really meant. He was sick! And everyone in his life looked at him with fear in their eyes--or worse, walked away and made him suffer alone.

    My mom suffers from the same illness; now I can see that it was because she was struggling, too, that she was unable to get Greg help when he was younger. I used to blame her for being so hard to live with; now I feel horrible for making her suffer even more.

    However, something good always springs from something bad if you stick around long enough to learn the lesson.

    Jon, founder of Death Cafe, has graciously agreed to assist me in my quest to change the way we think about and deal with mental illness. It, too, is something we need to talk openly about if we are to deal with it in any meaningful way.

    Thank you, Jon!

    I hope you will all join me on April 12 (the day I'm launching my site, in Greg's honor) at CrazyPeopleRock.net. The site name holds many meanings: "Crazy" because we need to examine the labels we use to define behaviors we don't understand. Some mentally ill people "rock" as a way of keeping an abrasive world at bay. Dancers (artists tend to struggle with a lot of mental health issues) "rock" to the crazy rhythms of life, and musicians "rock the house." Finally, "Crazy People Rock" because we're fun!

    I intend for this to be a network, to get people around the world talking honestly about mental illness, the same way all of you are talking openly about death; and to do it, as you said, Cara, with a sense of humor. I think that is the key to getting people to examine issues they would really rather avoid.

    Thank you again and again, Jon. Once I have this beast of a project up and running I intend to host a Death Cafe of my own. And thank you, Cara, for being so brave to share your experience. Staring fear in the face is what it's all about!

    Ellen Haskell (find me on Facebook; I'm in Tampa, Florida)
    CrazyPeopleRock.net (April 12)

    PS--I heard recently on NPR that an important question to ask, if someone mentions suicide or even just being depressed, is whether he or she has access to a gun. More than 90% of suicide attempts made with a gun are successful, as opposed to only 10% of attempts made with something other than a gun. I'm a little bit skeptical of that 10% figure, but still an important thing to consider.

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for posting this, Jon. I learned a lot from reading Cara's post. As a Death Cafe facilitator, it's really helpful to have this input and to know these "myths/misconceptions" about suicide. I think you are doing a great job making the Death Cafe blog a place where we can read provocative things and be really open. Thanks for sharing lots of viewpoints. I recommend the blog often.
    Merilynne Rush, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

  3. It hadn't occurred to me that anyone should feel embarrassed about being a survivor of a suicide attempt. Hearing about people who have survived makes me want to celebrate with them that they're still here. However shitty life is, its still the only certainty we have. I feel very sad for anyone who feels bad enough to want to end their life. When I hear of anyone who succeeds I always think, 'If only they'd hung around a bit longer, they might have reached a happier place'. The thing is that human existence is, and always has been, very precarious and very challenging. If we're not running from mammoths, war, famine or pestilence, we're grappling with some other more complex inner turmoil. I've thought about suicide often. I am so pleased I haven't done it. My favourite quote currently is what Voltaire apparently said, 'Life is a shipwreck but don't forget to sing in the lifeboats'. I look forward to CrazyPeopleRock

  4. "Everyone was afraid of Greg: our other brother, his son, my mom... Now I know, three years too late, that Greg was afraid of himself, too."

    Ellen, you put this very well, and I'm sorry about your brother.

    Cara Anna

  5. Thank you, really and truly. I wrote a more thoughtful response but my technolgy threw it away, LOL. Anyone who wants to contribute can have their own page on my website, though, advertising services! My SEO class instructor told me to dot com instead of dot net, so... CrazyPeopleRock.com comin atcha April 12!

  6. Glad you are "normalizing" this - being able to talk about things and knowing there are others out there struggling must be a real help.

  7. I am a survivor of two attempts. No one wants to be "judged" for doing this. I was told with the second attempt not to do it again and that the matter was dropped. If I was successful that not only am I going to hell, but that I was crazy. What I got from that as that anymore attempts that whatever love they have for me will no longer exist. I would like to find a Death Cafe in Georgia.


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