Thank you

This project is taking a break, at least for now, perhaps for good. Thank you to the dozens of people in multiple countries who spoke so openly about some of the most traumatic, transformative events in their lives. This project began in late 2011 after I found that people like myself who had survived a suicide attempt had been effectively ignored, with no national organizations, communities or resources aside from a handful of local support groups. I set out to find where we were, who we were and why. I also wanted to prove to others out there: You are not alone.

The lessons I’ve learned are obvious: Suicidal thinking can happen to the best of us, and it is not a choice. It is not bad behavior, and it is not a lack of discipline. In fact, many of us have put in enormous effort to be “fine,” to achieve and succeed despite that harsh part of ourselves that insists on seeing everything as failure.

Much has changed since this project began, as sister project has shown. But far more needs to be done. People continue to ask about suicidal thoughts and actions, “Why would you want to do that to yourself?” What a shocking and fundamental misunderstanding. I believe the question, as with any potentially fatal health issue, should be, “Why is this happening to the people we love?”

People also ask what we can do to stop suicides. I would say this: We tell the public, on a far more vast scale than this project, that suicidal thinking can happen to any of us, and that seeking help and support will not result in punishment.

Our challenge is in making sure the second part of that statement is true.

Talking with Celine Redfern

Celine Redfern is a good example of the rising generation of mental health professionals who choose to speak openly about their own experiences. As a trainee clinical psychologist, she has chosen to break away from the usual “disease model” view of suicidal thinking and explore the other, sometimes more meaningful, ways that people frame it.

“Society doesn’t know quite what to do,” she says. “Humans strive to live and function, and when faced with someone who says, ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’ people say, ‘How could you not?’ I don’t think people can manage all of that, too complex, so we reduce it to labels because it makes more sense.”

She believes that change will come through conversations like the ones that have begun with the suicide attempt survivor movement, and she’d like to see more talk about the larger, trickier, existential issues of why we’re here.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

So, Celine Redfern. I’m a trainee clinical psychologist in the UK. We have a three-year doctoral program; we have to do a thesis in research but also are doing placements at the same time. We do adults, adolescents, older adults, but we’re also being trained as researchers. Thinking critically is a real important part of my doctoral program, part of Christchurch University. It’s my last year,  and I suppose the doctorate takes up a big chunk of life. It’s also something I feel really passionate about doing. At the end of this, I will be a trained clinical psychologist working in the NHS, which I’m also quite passionate about.

How did you get to be doing the project you’re working on now?

The project is part of my thesis. The idea is that there have been quite a lot of quantitative statistics predicting suicidal behavior and minimizing risks. There’s been a little bit of talking to people who attempted suicide, but not really so much. There were the kind of supervisors who were interested in doing a project on suicide. I proposed this, and they said it would be really interesting. I’ve got two great supervisors including Ian Marsh; he did a doctoral project looking at different discourses in the world on suicide. There are a lot of stories understanding suicide as pathological, irrational, linked to the disease model of mental health, and actually, that kind of approach might not be allowing a lot of the other voices, experiences to happen, to come out. My research is talking to people about their experiences, understanding what their stories are, what narratives they use to explain what was happening to them, their recovery as well.

My kind of influence in doing this comes from my own experiences with suicidality about 15 years ago and feeling it wasn’t … my experience doesn’t fit with it being a kind of biological mental illness I had, or an irrational thing. I experienced it in a different way. I was interested in how people understand it, how to give them a voice, especially when suicide is so stigmatized. I would like to think about how that fits into wider society as well.

What are the logistics of your project? How did you find people, how many did you speak with, and so on?

I went through a rigorous process of ethics, ethics committees. It’s an interesting idea because I was aware that some ethics committees tend to be jumpy when talking to people who are suicidal. I had to think very carefully how I would be able to approach people. You are limited in some ways what is possible. I was thinking, in some ways it was kind of felt that people who were acutely suicidal at this time would be harder to get through the ethics committee; it would take longer. So that shaped who to open it up to. I really wanted to tap into a broad section of experience, even people who haven’t ever gone to their GP to talk about it or have never been to a mental health center. I wanted to hear their stories as well. After thinking through it, it came down to printing out posters and putting them in cafes all around, and also the wonderful world of the internet, really. And knowing you and a few others. Like, untold possibilities of connecting. I did a website and went out on Twitter. I connected mental health organizations and said, “Can you help me tweet a few things?” Everyone was really positive. I got a lot of positive comments, helpful responses, people sharing things. People responded very quickly. It was really inspiring to have that kind of response. At one point, I was kind of deluged with participants and I had to say “Maybe not” to some people. I’ve interviewed 12 or 13 people, so to go into the necessary depth of transcripts, to get a real feel for people’s stories … So, small scale. But interviews, that kind of research is small scale anyway.

What were some of the surprises about people and their stories?

I’ve met people face to face, or Skype interviews when people are further out. The thing I’m continually surprised about is how amazing it is to have a chance to sit there and soak up people’s stories. Things people share are really quite personal and touching. Every single time, within about two minutes I’ve forgotten about what’s going on and been really engrossed in what they’re telling me. Sometimes they’re not able to tell anyone else. More than anything, it felt like such an honor and privilege to just be there and be able to listen. So that was one of the big surprises. I wondered sometimes if I would start thinking, “OK, another story,” but every one was great, with a wide range of feelings and experiences.

And I think the other thing is, hearing stories, meeting face to face has helped me shape my own story about my experiences. And it’s been … I didn’t quite expect in that way. I’ve had to tap in every now and then to be respectful and true to their stories and not be putting mine in there. I really wanted to do these people justice in some way. I’ve been talking to friends and colleagues on the course and making sure that is done. It has had an impact on how I see my experiences.

In what ways?

I attempted suicide probably a good 15, 16 years ago, and in some way although I chose to do this project because I was interested in that, those experiences helped me shape why I wanted to do this, to talk to the people who attempted suicide themselves. I was aware that this could impact on me beforehand. You never quite know until you go through them sometimes. And, I suppose, one thing I became aware of was I never had really told my story. I’ve told my story in my head, I have had this monologue of what happened. I realized in these interviews that so many other things come up, and people would say, “I didn’t expect it to go that way, you made me think in different ways.” And I got my friends to ask about my experience, and the same thing kind of happened, some of the monologues I had shifted slightly just because of the questions I was being asked. It’s made me feel braver to tell my story. Even as a therapist, a psychologist, to say, “Yeah, I attempted suicide,” and actually I feel like that has added to my practice, and it’s probably made me a better psychologist than I would have been if I had not had those experiences. So it’s been quite powerful, actually.

Did your colleagues know?

I laugh because no, and now it’s changed so much. And even though my kind of best friends had known but had never really spoken. There kind of was something in me like, “I don’t want to go back there.” It was at some point last year, actually, I kind of thought, “I probably actually want to be telling my supervisors. It’s important to have this discussed, how it’s shaping the research.” And those first conversations are really the trickiest because you don’t know how someone will react. You have the feeling that because they are mental health professionals themselves, they wouldn’t bat an eyelid: “OK, I’ll go to bat for you.” But because there’s still that stigma, the way society sometimes does respond, and when society responded to me when I was feeling suicidal, that does influence your thinking. It feels like a huge risk, even if you know it’s probably safe.

After my supervisors, I was like, “Oh, maybe this is something I need to be talking more about.” What felt quite brave for some of these participants to be meeting essentially with a stranger, I was like, “Wow, I want to be brave in some way.” I understand some people don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to, but for me I thought, “Actually, now is the time. I want to be a part of this movement which is trying to lessen the stigma, reducing suicidality.” The pathologizing model wasn’t how I saw it, which made me feel alone.

How do you see your experience?

I suppose I kind of see it as someone who’s in an extraordinary amount of … Well, at the time, I look back and see someone dealing with a lot of emotions and no idea how to cope with them, no idea how to manage them. I didn’t feel people would listen if I did talk to someone. I didn’t feel people could have dealt with what I was doing, thinking, feeling, so I felt like I had to deal with it myself, but I couldn’t. So it came out in a lot of ways, one of them suicidality, thoughts and behaviors. And I kind of see that as anyone else in that situation probably would have kind of responded in the same way.

I see suicide as kind of quite a normal expression in some way of just not coping, and pain. And I don’t see it as something kind of mentally ill or those kind of narratives. I know they work for some people, and I do respect that, but for me personally they didn’t quite fit. And I think I felt kind of blamed for my responses, kind of, “Why on earth did you put us through that, doing that?” Or “Oh, you’re just doing it for attention.” How is that helpful in any way, shape or form? I think those responses come from people being really scared, not knowing themselves how to manage or understand on a bigger level. Society doesn’t know quite what to do. Humans strive to live and function, and when faced with someone who says, “I don’t want to live anymore,” people say, “How could you not?” I don’t think people can manage all of that, too complex, so we reduce it to labels because it makes more sense. So the narrative I would use would be, someone who is emotionally in pain and distressed and lonely and couldn’t communicate that. It didn’t help the way other people reacted. So it probably tipped me over a bit more.

Is there something that needs to change in the suicide prevention field, which seems largely led by people who didn’t prevent someone’s suicide? They likely are traumatized by that, and many of them might be alarmed at using the word “normal” around suicidal thinking.

A lot of the field is risk prevention and risk minimization. Which I suppose, I think it comes from a position of “We want to save people, and we don’t want people to die. We are a health service.” So I think that probably it does come from wanting to help people, but in some way there’s, there’s a fear of saying that suicide might be an understandable response. I think there’s a fear that “OK, in that case, we’re not going to help anyone who’s suicidal.” It’s a huge topic, a huge existential topic, life and death, why we’re here, all these big scary questions that bring up all these complex feelings, and a lot of the time people don’t necessarily want to be thinking them through. And maybe we don’t have the time to think it through as policy makers, doctors in the system, especially in the current climate of doing more with less money. You’ve got less thinking time. And within that, you get reactive, and then it gets black and white. Either you’re allowing everyone to kill themselves or you have to save everyone, and no one can try it. It seems polarized, and I don’t want to be on either end myself.

It’s not giving it enough time to have those discussions. I can really understand if you’ve lost someone by suicide, of course you’re not going to want anyone else to experience that. I also talked to attempt survivors who said they were really close and “I’m glad I didn’t die,” but after their attempt said, “Don’t be ridiculous, there’s nothing to live for.” It’s complicated, so complicated, and we need to be giving space for these really difficult issues. And not ignore people from those experiences, not to ignore people bereaved by suicide, attempt survivors, professionals, saying we come from different perspectives. We give suicide a topic, a time and voice, to allow disagreement, to get into the gray, away from quite polarized positions. Because it’s really scary stuff to talk about.

How did you get better, and do you still have suicidal thoughts?

I still wonder myself how on earth did I get through that! In some ways, I’m not sure, but time kind of helped to shift a few things. As I was getting older, I came to find other ways of managing difficult emotions. I found different friendship groups. The natural freedoms of moving away from the home I was in. Generally, life evolving in its own way kind of helped me not to act on any suicidal thoughts I was having, then suicidal thoughts were just not really present, actually. And it kind of faded away in some way. And I don’t think I’ve really had them more recently.

Of course, in these last few years I’ve been through a lot more than when I was having suicidal thoughts, but it feels like something has changed within me to be able to manage that in a very different way. Having more people around me … I really believe in the power of people being supportive. Work has had so many supportive people there, supervisors, managers, colleagues, friends, fellow trainees. On the wider scale, I have all my friends. Having those connections has helped me more for suicidal thoughts not to even enter my mind anymore. Yeah, it feels slightly mysterious as to what happened, but there’s been a shift. And I did kind of seek therapy myself, and that helped. I hadn’t had a suicidal thought for a long time, but I did go, and being a psychologist myself, that experience is, like, intense but really amazing.

Have you been able to disclose during your interviews, and would you want to in your work and in the future?

I put on my website a little about me and why I might be interested in this area: When I was younger, I had thoughts of wanting to end my life. So people will know. Largely, I suppose, I wouldn’t have had a problem if someone had asked. If people talked to me as though I were another attempt survivor, which I am, I responded in that way, but that time and research is for them to share their experiences. I really wanted to honor that and not put in my own experiences and take over. So yeah, I’ve really been trying to be led by the interviewees themselves. And occasionally, people will ask me, “What drove you to do this research?” And at that point I’ve been open about that, my attempts in the past.

I’ve kind of had to think through a bit, and it’s been great to have that space to think through with others. When it comes to qualified psychologists, there are a few who talk about having gone through their own experiences, whether psychosis, hearing voices, self-harm. There are some professionals out there who have been a part of that movement of trying to say, “Hang on, professionals have experienced these issues. It’s not this kind of ‘us and them’ position. You can be both.” And it can be really helpful. Actually, your experiences can help you to be more in tune sometimes, sometimes not. But when it comes to being a trainee, I don’t know of anyone who has talked about that. I’m sure there’s lots of reasons. I’m sure there’s a fear _ as a trainee, you have less power _ or fear of what future employers may or may not say. I’ve had to think through that as well. I kind of would hope that a conversation might be able to be had about that, why that is. I kind of had that discussion with a few people and thought that for me, I’m kind of ready to disclose in the wider sense. If it’s meaningful to stand up for something a bit different. So for example, the suicide attempt survivor movement, I think it can be useful to have someone professional or a trainee saying “I’ve had these experiences.” It gives a new perspective, shifts things slightly, to just bring different ideas maybe that might impact how to deliver services. I think I can be useful in that arena.

When it comes to doing therapy … If I had a feeling it would be useful to share any part of my experience with a client, then I’d likely take that to a supervisor and ask what is motivating me to do that. Maybe it can be offered to the client and they can make of it what they want, yeah, I would probably disclose. But if it’s not going to be helpful, if it’s not what they want as well, then I probably would hold back. Some careful thought of who’s this really for. If for me, no. But if they might be able to get some, if it helps them make sense of things, yeah, I’d think it through, talk with a supervisor about how to share them.

How difficult is it to get the help you need over there? Is therapy a luxury?

With the NHS, the idea would be it’s available to everybody, regardless of income. You wouldn’t pay for psychological services and treatment. The difficulty is, and it’s such a huge topic, it kind of ends up that it can be part of a lottery; some areas might just have more of a waiting list than others. There’s certainly going to be a waiting list just about everywhere. And inpatient units, whether there are beds or not. You can sometimes be taken off to the other side of country if there’s a bed. And with mental health funding being quite poor to start with and being stripped own even further, it ends up unfortunately sometimes that you get a strict number of sessions you have to give and you have to abide by those. Having said that, there are so many people in the profession, and they get into this to support and help others. I think psychological support in this country is generally exceptionally good. I think we’re striving to give the best quality we can.

Wasn’t there some kind of Mind manifesto to the government about mental health, making it a priority?

I may have missed that. It’s whether the government will do anything about it or how to choose to pick up on it. Again, mental health is still quite scary for the general public. A lot of people would rather not talk about it. And my cynical mind kind of goes, well, prioritizing mental health when a lot of society doesn’t want to talk about it, well, a lot of the politicians don’t necessarily want to talk about it and if they do, it’s not necessarily popular. It’s a tricky position. Money is being cut left, right and center and they’re having to choose where it goes. The manifestos from Mind, those things are really important to bring the awareness of how important it is. There’s been some real great awareness campaigns, but sometimes that’s maybe a bit more about anxiety and depression. They can be talked about.

What would be the ideal way to really address talking openly about this, and about treatment?

I think the conversations are a good starting point. I’m thinking about, for example, the Hearing Voices network. So they’ve done a lot of work showing that a lot of different people can hear voices in different ways, making it not so scary. I wonder if something around suicide and suicidality would be useful. Making it more approachable, making people more aware that suicidality isn’t something to be feared. And having kind of a few more community projects, user-led projects. I think something along those lines for suicide would be useful. Ideally, having lots of spaces where people can just retreat to if they need to get away from the world, safe and containing spaces. And a lot more research, more qualitative research, interviewing professionals about their experiences working with suicide, with attempt survivors, about whether they feel recovered or in the middle of suicidal experiences. Almost fill in the gaps of what quantitative statistics doesn’t do. I really advocate for people of lots of different perspectives being able to discuss these kind of issues and being able to say, “If you’re bereaved by suicide, I understand it will be difficult for you sometimes to talk with an attempt survivor, but can we allow those difficult situations to happen? Can we allow everyone who’s been touched by this to come together?” And just think through this. I think more thinking space is needed, and less reactivity. And then there are some people who are still quite scared of it.

Is there any approach that might be best for those people?

(Laughs) I haven’t found a way yet. I can only talk about this point in personal circles. I know some people who, every time I talk about my thesis, look as though it’s really uncomfortable talking about it. And what I try to do with them is, I haven’t let that silence me. I would still kind of talk about it. I would kind of notice that discomfort and say, “I know you don’t like it when I talk about this,” and it gives them the opportunity to say, “Yeah, I really don’t like it.” And if I’m able to go there, we have a conversation about why, and respectfully for them, understanding that for them it’s hard to even say the word “suicide” without grimacing in some way. It’s still frightening to them. But at least it’s been a bit more open than them grimacing and me thinking I can never talk about it again. And I use a bit of humor as well. So the last time, I just made a joke out of it: “I know you don’t like it, I can do the grimace, too.” I made her laugh. Helping people see humor in it, so it’s not so scary. So just starting off very small. I’m hoping that bit by bit, talking to lots of different people, I’m hoping if everyone can talk to a few people, start slowly opening up, eventually it snowballs into something where you can really change things.

How will you build on your research? What’s next?

I would love to be able to build on it. First thing, let’s get it marked first by my colleagues. Then I’m looking to publish it, do some conferences, things like that. From that, I suppose we can see where that kind of takes me. I’ve been given a lot with these people’s narratives, and I wonder if there will be lots of publications that can come from that. The stories are so rich, in my mind, I don’t now how to get it into just one paper. And what maybe are the barriers to more qualitative research? At the level of ethics committees? Can I interview people on ethics committees about their thoughts on suicide, asking people about their suicidality? So that’s one project that came up from doing this. It would be very interesting to know.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d really like to address?

I suppose there’s one thing I was thinking about: other people’s responses when you’re feeling suicidal and how damaging that can be. You know, those responses like “You’re just seeking attention,” “You really didn’t mean to,” probably come from not understanding, But how damaging they can be, how much it can make you become silent. And how a restful silence can be nice, but it can make kind of a really, almost a violent silence, where inside everything is kind of screaming and you’re having to hold it back because you can’t talk. I was talking to one of my friends about this. Some of the comments people make are quite insulting. It was kind of this idea of literally adding insult to injury. And how much more it adds to the pain.

And yeah, I don’t know if I’ve been a bit overly negative about people’s responses, but there are really great people out there who respond in personal ways. And there are some great professionals, and I know from working with them, some incredible family therapists. I quite like that approach, family therapy. It’s useful as not stigmatizing the individual.

How can we change that rudeness? You think it would be common sense, something already taught in training.

There probably are some rude people out there, but most professionals are not in a job to be rude. That rudeness might be coming from not understanding why someone would hurt themselves. In that sense, getting to talk to people about their experiences, to kind of show what it might feel like, why people might contemplate doing that. And something else, why people would be rude in my mind, the pressures of doing that job, to kind of be everywhere, saving lives, lots of different people coming in, being demanded to do so much. Maybe you’re being asked to do too much in little time and might be in a position of forgetting how to be not rude and how to be constantly empathic. We’ve all had moments in our lives when there was too much going on and it was hard to be empathic. Maybe putting across that that’s one thing needed above anything else at that point in that person’s life. So also, maybe, the structures of the places they work in, to allow professionals to have more space and time to continue with that empathy. You want someone to be able to empathize and be kind and be there for you.

What does your family think about all of this?

It’s a tricky question, because I think mostly it hasn’t been brought up with them. I haven’t really had that conversation so much with them. I’m just kind of thinking it through … I think mostly they’re a little confused about what happened. But I think they would also be proud of me, maybe, kind of feeling a bit more able to stick up for people who have been feeling suicidal, saying, “Hang on a second, attempt survivors need a voice.” So I suppose there’s a mixture of what they think about it. I have to ask them.

Who else are you?

(Laughs) Um, sometimes when you do the doctorate, it’s hard to find another part of you! Of course there is. I’m a friend, an aunt, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, a best friend. Yeah. There are so many facets of a person. And sometimes that can be, you kind of foreground parts of your identity at different points depending on the nature or context of a conversation. I’ve been foregrounding my attempts and work. But yeah, there’s a lot more. I like that question. I’m a very social, generous, friendly person. I hope my friends would agree, too.

Talking with Dior Vargas

This year, Dior Vargas created the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project. “This is NOT a white person’s disease,” she announced. “This is a reality for so many people in our community.”

Since then, she has posted people’s selfies with signs on which they’re written their names and diagnoses or backgrounds. She’d like to take the project in a few different directions, such as a published anthology of people’s stories and a hub for advocacy and targeted resources.

Here, Dior talks about how her young life of activism turned toward a very personal issue, and how she surprised herself by winning her mother’s support for it in the end.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

So, my name is Dior Vargas. I grew up in New York City, and I’m a Latina feminist mental health activist.

How get you get to be that?

So, I’ve been an activist for a while. I think it really started in college. I was becoming more involved in different organizations. I went to Smith College. So, I always wanted to fight for women’s rights, and that’s where I started doing activist work. I graduated from Smith and got involved in Occupy, more in the women’s caucus, so … that was interesting. We held the first feminist general assembly, talking about issues important to us. The last thing that I did as part of that group was have another one focused more on people of color. It’s funny, because back then I don’t think mental illness was part of the discussion, but now that I think about it, how could I have missed it? But it was more class rights, reproductive issues. I didn’t focus on mental illness or mental health.

From there, I was part of boards, organizations, until just recently this year. I don’t know why, and I would like to know the moment, this thing I’ve been dealing with all my life, I wanted to focus my energy on. Like, why not? I suffer from this, but I never feel completely comfortable expressing this, especially with family. The way my culture deals with it, communities of color in general. I can use my personal experience to help others. I hope to change the conversation, open up communication with families, show that mental illness does not only affect people who whine, quote-unquote, about problems to their therapist. That it’s something very serious, an issue that needs to be addressed. I think people view it as more of a weakness. And I’m trying to dispel that myth. So yeah, ever since then, I’ve been focused on talking about my experience. I don’t have an MSW, PhD, a credential like that, but coming from a place with personal experience is another way to help people. If I can say my experience, what I have, is what other people have, I can be relatable. People will feel more confiding in me with their issues. I’ve just been talking more about mental health, how it affects people of color, and how it needs to be prioritized in the community. and this project that I started.

So, I can talk more about that. I noticed that a lot of the times I spoke about mental illness, it was very whitewashed, it only showed white people. Also, when lists on HuffPost would show these celebrities who have mental illness, maybe nine out of 10 were white. It comes down to representation. If you don’t see yourself in it, you think you’re not invested in it. I had no idea there were others. If I had known that, it would have given me some type of ease, a better understanding to deal with issues. I could go to someone and understand what I was going through. Philosophy created an initiative, and any purchases from that line are for mental health, mental illness research. I thought, “Great,” but when I saw the ad, the video talking about the new line, they featured three women, again, all of them white. Another example of how we’re not represented. If we don’t see ourselves reflected in something, we’re viewed as other in society. The “othering” of mental illness means we’re not part of that as well. We can’t find a place where we can be included. “Oh, that’s a very white person thing. We’re not a weak culture because we’re always fighting to survive.” I thought if there’s some way to change that media landscape …

So I started asking people to submit. At first I was not getting very much, which was expected, because of stigma. Coming out about the experience, you’re afraid you will be judged, you’ll be found out by someone at your job, afraid of the judgement, also of the airing dirty laundry and embarrassing your family. So many implications. There could be abuse in the family, you could open up that part of your family. So I created a video of me just talking about my project, how I have depression. It’s interesting because I had never really said it out loud to a camera before. The first thing I said was, “My name is Dior Vargas, and I have depression.” It was hard when I recorded the beginning because I started to cry. It was still very, I don’t know how to explain it. I had never put my full name to the disease. Just that alone, saying that sentence, sparked the emotion.

After that, I was again asking for submissions, and eventually people started coming through. It was really wonderful, all the notes and comments. A lot of people said, “Wow, I wish I had this when I was younger, when I was alone.” “It’s great to showcase people of color.” I’ve had responses from people in other states, they suffer from mental illness, Latina or African-American, and they felt like they couldn’t come out. Seeing these diverse individuals holding signs. I make sure they have a couple of options. They can say, “I have a mental illness,” or “My name is and I have —.” Whatever they feel comfortable doing. I mean, this is supposed to be revelatory, but not where you are forced to. That’s not the point. Yeah, I’ve just been really happy. Almost every day I’ve been getting a submission. I’m hoping more people will share this with others. It will change the way people view mental illness. Mental illness is something talked about more, and I try make sure it’s talked about more in communities that never really talk about it. I’m really looking forward to what this might lead to. I hope can work on something more writing, long-form writing, to open the conversation. I’m trying to find a way to find myself in positions where I can speak to the community, not only being online but offline and having a face-to-face thing. I want to initiate conversations. Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing, sharing as many links as possible.

I’m also thinking about writing a blog on how to find a therapist, more tailored for what is good for you. Someone who is, do you want male or female, another language besides English, who knows something about diseases like anxiety, or if you want to talk about queer identity and not be judged. There’s so much people don’t think about. I just want to open the eyes of people, to feel they’re not alone.

You said you couldn’t pinpoint the moment earlier this year when you turned in this direction?

Let me think. I guess it just got to a point where it felt like there was just no conversation about it. It was a void I could fill. It’s a daily, lifelong struggle. I have to learn how to live with it. I have to make the best of it. I have to find something to make this beneficial for other people. I don’t know about this phrase, but this is my cross to bear. If I can help others find relevance in life. I eventually want to be a role model, have a positive effect. I guess I got to a point where, “There has to be something else to this. I must share my story in some fashion and allow people to share theirs, let them release whatever they’re feeling.” As well as try to change the media landscape. I wanted to humanize the disease.

For an organization, translating something doesn’t mean you understand it. So when you ask what they’re doing for communities of color, they say, “Oh, we have this in Spanish!” Again, we grew up in a different culture. Translating it is just the surface. You have to have a serious investment in the community. If we’re not mentally well, how do we contribute? We’re contributing individuals to society. Unless we’re mentally well and accomplish all we want to accomplish … If you don’t invest in us, show you care, what is society gonna lead to? The overarching thing. It’s something that affects everyone.
Again, my personal story is very political, with a lot of overarching things going on. Living with a single parent, having an abusive father, living on welfare. Those things contribute to mental illness. I didn’t feel safe in my home, no one was listening to me. That’s why I attempted suicide. That was the only way I was able to express myself. I also one day would love to see families be more open with one another. Once you talk, and are not judgmental … I would have loved to say, “Mom, I’m depressed” and have her say, “OK, what can we do?” And not say, “Stop crying, crying is a weakness.” More like, “I want you to be well.” If I can do that for other Latinos, give them strength to go on, not that the only solution is death, that’s the best thing ever to come out of this.

What does your family think about all of this?

You know, I think as I’ve been getting older, I’ve been a lot more vocal. It’s funny, now my mom is more open to it, more understanding. When I was doing Live Through This, I didn’t want to tell her what it was about. Then at one point I was like, “Mom, it’s about me coming out about my prior suicide attempt.” I was afraid she’d say, “Why are you telling everybody?” I think when she knew I wanted to better the lives of other people, I think she saw it in a broader perspective. I’m still in shock. She was very judgmental when I was a child. She always said, “Stop being weak,” the quintessential thing people who don’t understand mental illness would say. Just because she was a single parent, trying to make ends meet. I can understand. That was her in frustration, very young. I feel the earlier we discuss self-esteem and mental health in our communities, the less of a burden, I think people think of it as. Just check in with our children and how they feel. Like brushing our teeth. “Am I OK? Do I feel isolated or judged?” That’s something extremely important. For years, I’ve been in therapy because I’d rather focus on what I needed to fix about myself or feel better about myself. If you don’t deal with it, it will kick you in the ass. Yes, you’re working out every day, but are you promoting self-care? I think people don’t value self-care as much as they should.

Have there been any stories that surprised you? The unexpected?

The only thing I can think of wasn’t startling, it was a negative response. I received an email from a Caucasian man, it was very short email. The subject line was “My mental illness, your mental illness.” The body of the email was, “Oh never mind, I’m Caucasian.” Like, “You’re excluding people. So my mental illness is not as important as yours.” And you know, in some form, I’m not saying his isn’t as important as mine, but there’s no such thing as white studies. We’ve always been an “other” that’s been added, so I’m trying to tell stories of people who feel they can’t come out. If we really want to change the way mental illness is being dealt with, we have to include everyone. You have to work around the margins. You have to make sure everyone has been included. I’m just making sure people know they aren’t a statistic. This is something I never say, but I’m proud of myself for the work I’m doing. I know others are doing it too, and I’m part of trying to change things. Years ago, I never would have come out. It’s not like I don’t have a daily struggle, because I do. It’s not like, “It’s gonna be OK.” It’s not. It’s constant work. People who have mental illness, it’s just a constant battle, but we can get through it. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing ever is. I want to normalize the conversation in some form.

You mentioned Live Through This?

So, I must have found it online somewhere. I was like, “Wow.” It had never occured to me to deal with survivors of attempted suicide. That people woke up and nothing had happened. They wanted to end their lives, and what do you do if you wake up the next day? What kind of life do people lead? I thought it was really powerful. It’s really important the work Dese’Rae is doing. She’s such an amazing person. She’s humanizing suicide, telling people that “Yes, this is who I am. I tried it. I’m still going, even though it might be a struggle every day. See what I’m trying to do with that I’ve been given.” Whenever my story comes out, I hope that will again give another perspective of the Latinos who deal with it.

How can organizations change?

I think they need to think, maybe go a step further. To get to the root of what’s going on, you have to understand these communities more. You need to know how the family dynamics are. And so I think if they were to use people of color in their discussions and not as an afterthought, if they went into communities and said, “I want to prioritize your struggle because you’re important,” if they have sincere interest enough, it would lead to more discussion. We have different life experience. You’re saying you want to be inclusive, but you’re making other stories disappear and not as important as others. You have to want it more. Or maybe you need more staff of color. I don’t want to be judgmental of these organizations. There’s just not enough people doing it.

How to change the conversation with these cultural factors involved?

I guess if I were in a family that was not as accepting, I would say, “I understand these values you hold. I’m not being disrespectful, but I want you to know that what I’m feeling is legitmate, should not be minimized, should be addressed.” We really need to dig into the issues we have. It’s very hard, I mean, having to change decades, centuries of culture and ideals, it’s very hard, so that’s a part of my work that is daunting and scary. And at times I ask, “Can I accomplish this?” There just needs to be more people of color coming out. There needs to be more communication.

Some people say we need Hollywood, celebrities to take this on. What do you think?

Not necessarily. I think people would say, “Of course they’re coming out because they have money, they have careers, they’re not losing anything.” But if you’re a single mother on welfare, you never know if you’re going to be terminated. And what next? Celebrities have resources we don’t. To some extent we can relate, but others we can’t. And so I think that more people, and I know this is a lot to ask, but people who may not be famous but just like you and me, who work for a paycheck, or paycheck to paycheck, living a life that’s relatable to us. If normal people, regular people, are coming out about that … “If she’s just like me and can share…” There’s this weight that comes off your shoulders when you come out. It’s very therapeutc and very uplifting.

What do to remove the fear of repercussions?

I think if maybe we say, “This is a safe space.” Even in that, there’s an isolation of the stories, you know? So that’s difficult. That’s a hard one. The more something is talked about, the less odd it is. I think there needs to be some sort of change in the way that workplaces deal with mental illness. I recently was laid off from a job and am applying for other ones. I noticed they ask about disabilities. On the application they ask, “Do you have a disability?” They list examples. Two are bipolar disorder and major depression. I never knew that was considered a disability. Again, you could say yes or no and they would not know what you’re talking about. It might be a step in right direction. Yeah, I just think if we make it so people feel safe, you know, “This is OK, you’re not going to lose your job for this.” I think we need to be more understanding, like, “So what? You’re still an asset to this organization.” I think that businesses need to stop being so number-crunching. I know it’s important, but if you have an investment in your employees, they likely will work harder. It will show in their work. You have to be more compassionate with these people. And so like when I had a job, on Friday night people would say, “Oh, what are you doing tonight?” I’d say, “Therapy.” There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just being more open.

These questions are hard! (Laughs.)

How old are you?


Do you think being younger plays a part in being open?

I don’t believe I’d use the term “millennials,” but I think younger people are more passionate about doing something in the world. The older individuals are very about saving face, not airing one’s dirty laundry. Now we’re becoming a culture where we’re trying to fight against things detrimental to our society. I think we’re a lot more confrontational about issues important to us, more vocal, which I think is great. That’s the way things are going, and I hope it continues. Maybe I think we’re a lot more progressive, but it always changes with who you talk to. Yeah, I think it’s an age thing. But nothing against that. If it’s what you know. I think we need to get out of the comfort zone and be uncomfortable. If you’re comfortable, you’re not challenging yourself, not risking anything.

I’ve had these feelings of depression for years. I was 8 when I felt I had given up on life. It’s funny that I’m here to talk about this. I remember being in the psych ward and I was the youngest person there. I think I was 17 or 18. Again, I was being like from a different area in life.

Was there anyone who really helped you understand what was going on?

Not necessarily in mental illness or mental health, but I remember my grandmother raising me, helping, telling me that crying was not a sign of weakness. It helped me. She was like an ally. She’s a sensitive person, too. She told me it’s OK, even though my mom told me otherwise. Having that safe place was really helpful. Also having a Latino therapist is really helpful. We have a lot in common. We’re both Ecuadorian. She says, “I’m a therapist to a lot of young Latinos like yourself.” Being given that information, that there are a lot of Latinos who are going to therapy, dealing with these issues, I felt like there’s a group of people who are dealing with this. Having that information helped me and propelled me into the work I’m doing. And again, just talking about this with other Latino friends. When I would say I didn’t want to live any more, they would say, “Oh my god, me too.” That really gave me a sense of strength, a catalyst to deal with these issues. You know, I think that’s what did it for me. These Latino feminists. I don’t know how I felt this connection. I felt it was OK to explain to them what I was going through. With them, you know, telling me they felt the exact same way, it gave me a purpose: “OK, something I need to work on.” I think that was what really did it.

What’s your next big project?

I’m thinking of maybe asking people, an anthology, asking for written submissions from people or women of color, what they’re dealing with. I think there’s not enough literature on that, even though this is very powerful. This is just the beginning of the work I want to do. Again, becoming more of a person people can go to, like an advocate, where people can see me as a resource. just strengthening my work. Trying to see how I can get more involved in the community, grassroots type of work, face-to-face and personal. I don’t want to exclude anyone from this. Not everyone has internet access. Go to the place where they’re comfortable. This is my community, I walk down this block every day, and I don’t want them in any position where they don’t feel comfortable. This is just the beginning of the work I’m going to try to do. I just want to be a hub of information. I don’t want to be just telling my story, I want to tell others’ stories. Yeah. It’s a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it.

Who else are you?

Sorry, I’m self-deprecating. The first thing I thought was “unemployed.” But that’s just my sense of humor. But honestly, even though I’m outspoken, I think I’m a person who’s very hard on myself. I don’t give myself any type of leeway. There’s lot of things I need to be to be a better advocate for others. I need to practice self-care. I’m a woman who’s trying to make my family proud, trying to make a career for myself. I’m trying to do more than just one single person. I’m trying to better others’ lives. I don’t think there’s any better way to live life than to focus on others.

Any hobbies?

I like to write. I’ve been doing digital media the last couple years. I like to write poetry, I’ve been doing readings lately. I use that to discuss my work, to explain, to put it in a different medium. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Talking with Josh Walfish

A year ago, Josh Walfish sat down and wrote a column for his student newspaper at Northwestern University about recent suicides on campus and his own experience with suicide attempts. We can have all the resources in the world, but we have to look out for each other and make sure the people around us will use them, he said.

Josh is passionate about making this a more open subject, but he drew a spirited line at the media’s interest in the details of suicide attempts. “Nobody is going to sit there and criticize a rape victim for not giving every single detail of the night they were raped,” he says. “So why do we criticize attempt survivors for not going into the most painful place of their lives? The fact is, there has to be some other reason you’re writing the story, and that should take precedence.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

So, I’m Josh Walfish, a recent college graduate of Northwestern University. I am a sports journalist in North Carolina, living my dream, one word at a time. And I am … It’s funny, because having graduated college and trying to present yourself, it’s always been difficult for me: Do I bring up issues from my past? Do I not? Obviously for this it’s important, but it’s one of those things, I think, that over time I haven’t allowed my mental health issues to define me as much. So I’ll introduce myself: a Northwestern grad, a sports journalist living my dream, and I’m ready for what life brings me next.

A year and a half ago, I probably would have thrown in the fact that I’m someone who suffers from mental illness, but it’s not something that defines me in the present moment.

What changed? What inspired that?

It was a long process for me of just different therapies, talking with friends. What really changed was, I was accepted into the group therapy program at Northwestern, and that community really just changed my perspective. This blog does a great job highlighting that these mental health issues can happen to anybody, and that’s exactly what I saw in this group. A lot of very nice people from all sorts of backgrounds, and we all shared this same sort of bond, some sort of mental illness, bipolar, depression, whatever it may be. And you listen to these stories, “Ooh, I can connect to that,” whereas that person and I maybe have nothing else in common other than this battle. When I saw these people not let it define them in the public sphere, I made that my mission. Through a lot of help from friends and family, I progressed to where it’s not … It is a part of me, no doubt, but it’s no longer defining me.

A year ago, when you wrote your column, where were you in this transformation?

That was very early on in my transformation. The column I wrote last November for Northwestern’s newspaper, that came out of pure frustration. Unfortunately, Northwestern had gone through a period of great loss. In the previous 13 months, we had six students die – five of whom committed suicide, the sixth just disappeared and unfortunately was found in Lake Michigan a couple of weeks later. All I kept hearing on campus was “The administration’s not doing enough.” I’d go to these vigils on campus and hear “The administration needs to put more resources.” But at the same time, you hear friends saying, “I wish I could have done more, I wish I could have seen this person’s pain.” And in my mind I’m like, “But you did. Or you weren’t as good a friend with him/her as you thought.” That was the difficult thing. I wrote that it’s very simple. We can ask for all these resources, but if you can’t get that person who is struggling to use those resources, you can have all the resources and it’s not going to matter. It’s up to you as a friend to say, “Hey, I’m sensing you’re a little bit depressed, things aren’t OK, how are you feeling, what’s happening?”

And the response I got from that was remarkable. I was getting emails, people coming up saying, “It’s remarkable how much more I’m learning just by asking someone how they’re doing.” Mental health issues are very important, we need to put more resources, but by the same token, it comes down to the human element as well. The column was when I started bringing friends into the process. I got all the help I needed, now it was down to the personal side of things. I’d ask my friends, “How would you define me?” A lot brought up mental health issues, but it became clear to me that I’m more than the person who has attempted suicide twice. Is that me? Yes, but I’m more than that person. I’m the loyal friend. If you need $10 for cab fare, if I have it, I’ll give it to you. That’s the person I am. I’m a successful journalist. A college graduate. All those things are more important in terms of how I define myself; they’re just as much a part of me.

Was your change more external or internal?

Mostly my change was internal. I think most people didn’t automatically associate it with me: “Josh, whoa, this kind of came out of left field for me. I’ve known you for four years, and magically these issues appear.” And so, it was a lot more internal, a lot more me not defining myself by it, using it as a crutch. I don’t need to lean on the fact that I’m depressed to dictate what I do and don’t do. I started becoming a lot more social, saying, “You know what? Instead of going to bed at 11, I’ll act like a college student and if someone says come out, I’ll go.” I became much more active, and it did wonders for me. And it made me realize I am more than just my illness.

What were the other responses to your column?

I think the ones that really surprised me were casual acquaintances. I had people who would email me with their stories and ask for advice. I wrote in my column that if you feel you don’t have anyone close enough to you to share your pain, I’ll be that person. Did I expect people to take it up? Not in the slightest. But people did. I remember one kid from high school who emailed me saying he disagreed with me, he said, “Oh, I do such a great job of hiding my suffering that no one knows I’m in pain.” I said, “Go ask the three people closest to you and ask, ‘This is what I was feeling, did you see any signs?’ I guarantee at least two will say something.” He said he asked five and all five were not surprised by what he was telling them. That’s the beauty. At the end of the day, we recognize that our friends are not thriving and it’s up to us to intervene: “You haven’t been acting yourself lately, what’s going on?” When you do, it’s remarkable the reaction. When you show you’re interested in somebody, it makes a world of difference. It makes them feel heard, important. It lifts their self-confidence and, more important, it allows them to be more honest with themselves and seek treatment and the help they need.

Are you still in touch with those who reached out?

If Facebook counts as staying in touch, then yes. I’ll always have that bit of me making sure they’re OK. I try not to be overly involved in their life because at the end of the day I’m still working on myself, too. I’m still trying to check in with many friends in high school and college I now know on a deeper basis, to be there for them in ups and downs. I know that I can only help so much and they need someone who really knows them.

How old are you?

22. I’ll be 23 in two months.

What concerns did you consider about your future when your column came out?

Someone asked me the day after, “Were you concerned?” I said no. I emailed the editor in chief, “Listen, I want to write this.” It was right after we lost another student to suicide. She’s like, “Absolutely, we’d be honored.” I sat down and, like, 30 minutes later had, like, 1,300 words. I spent the next 15 minutes paring it down to about 1,000 and sent it in. Not once did I think about implications. And then afterward people asked, “Were you concerned?” I would be very disappointed if someone came up to me and said, “Listen, you’re extremely qualified and we’d love to hire you, but we think you need to be in a mental institution and not in the workplace.” That doesn’t define who I am. Am I still in therapy? Yes. It’s important for me. But to say I’m not fit to work because I deal with mental health issues and am public about my fight with mental illness doesn’t mean that I’m unfit to work. I wouldn’t want to work in an environment that would feel that way. Where I am, in North Carolina, you know, they’re very supportive of it. When I got my orientation, they had a whole pamphlet of services for grief and personal troubles, and that made me feel good. I can be open and honest if that time ever came. I don’t bring it up because it’s not relevant to my job. But if it’s relevant, I’d be happy to be honest about that, and I assume there would be no repercussions.

Do you see any differences on this issue between older and younger generations?

I don’t know if younger people are being more fearless or the older generation is being used to work and personal life being very separate, and a lot of inner demons, you didn’t want them to show because that’s weakness, and if you’re weak you’re not fit to work. It’s like people who struggled because of being LGBT. But you see people, my generation, being more open about sexuality, mental health, and we’ve lived in a more welcoming society than older generations. Us being bolder? I don’t know. It’s being in a society where being open and honest is OK, and if we find that a company is not willing to be as accepting, there will be 10 companies that will be accepting. We’re not as worried about those ramifications.

Quite frankly, it’s shown that it doesn’t matter whether you suffer from mental illness or LGBT, or woman or black, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if you can perform the tasks and can do it in an acceptable manner, what happens outside the workplace shouldn’t matter. I’m not breaking any laws by suffering from depression, so it doesn’t matter what’s going in my personal life.

How can we open up the topic more overall?

That’s an extremely, extremely tough question. I will say I think it will take a lot of people like me and you and these subjects who have talked to you being open, honest and putting stories out there and spreading the word and getting awareness out there. But it’s a topic in society where it’s still taboo. And LBGT issues are slowly becoming less taboo, but they’re still pretty taboo for most of society. So it’s just, it’s having blogs like this, having people like me being open and honest and hoping that the more people that are open and honest, the more people are going to realize how much their lives are affected by people who deal with mental illness. It’s the same thing we’re seeing where most of society is realizing they have friends who are LGBT or, you know, someone who died in combat or whatever it may be. When it becomes that common, “You know what, it’s this important to me because my best friend suffers from depression, or my best friend’s sister died by suicide …”

Mental health and suicide prevention groups, how can they step up?

They play a very important role. The services, resources they provide are invaluable to the community, to people like me. That being said, could they be doing more? No, because I think within the budget they have, the messages they provide, they’re doing an excellent job at doing what they can. Of course, I would love nothing more than to see mental health ads be as prevalent on TV as political ads. Living in North Carolina, I saw a U.S. Senate ad probably every other commercial. As much as those political ads annoyed me, I would love nothing more, and probably would watch TV more, if every other ad would be about mental health awareness. That said, these organizations don’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars to do that year-round. They’re doing great things with the limited resources they have. To ask them to do more is irresponsible if we as a society are not going to give them the capital to do more. That’s why I wrote that column. We can talk about adding resources, but unless we fit patients to the resources, unless we can get people to use them, it doesn’t matter.

Will this ever become as un-taboo as cancer is now?

I certainly hope so. I certainly hope in my lifetime it will become as taboo as cancer, which is to say, not at all. It goes back to the ALS ice bucket challenge. We had people who said, “We want to make a difference treating ALS and do this thing” and boom, funding goes up. We could find the next ice bucket challenge and make a difference. It’s just going to take time. Who am I to say that suicide prevention is more important than putting money to cure cancer or cure ALS or any of these diseases? That’s where it becomes tricky. How do we find subjects to boost the awareness and get suicide prevention on the level of cancer and AIDS and all these other horrific diseases? I think the government is very important, but at the end of the day, the government is a mess right now. So we can’t rely on the government. We have to rely on ourselves and what we can do. It’s difficult. If this can’t get into mainstream media, it will sit on the periphery. I don’t know any other way than to keep talking about it and hope it sticks eventually. It would be great if Hollywood comes out with a series of movies about people battling depression, suicidal thoughts and overcoming them and creating those feel-good stories.

How can we change the misguided perception that suicidal thinking is something we choose?

As you bring it up, I’m clapping with excitment. This is the most frustrating thing for me. Of course, I got plenty of emails: “Just perk up! Think happy thoughts!” You know what? I would love nothing more. If that was the solution, I would be one of the happiest people on the planet. But obviously, it’s not. How do we fix that misconception? A) education. And B) more important, letting the majority of people who are educated about the issue become spokespeople. We see this all the time. The people who are loudest are the people who are uninformed. You get these myths and everybody assumes they’re true. People who are uninformed have the megaphone. We can sit and try to counteract, but once they believe it, they’re not going to change their thinking. We have to get to my generation, the one after mine that’s slowly starting to enter, and say, “Listen, this isn’t a choice.” For the most part, these are biological issues brought on by certain situations. And educating them about what really goes into mental health issues. Even if depression or bipolar doesn’t lead to suicidal thoughts, it doesn’t change the fact that depression is a major disease inflicting us as a nation. We do need to be educated the same way we are about cancer, AIDS and now Ebola. I would love nothing more than have the CDC come out with a depression pamphlet.

What does your family think about all of this?

I don’t think it shocks either of my parents, that I’m being open and honest and tell people what I think, because that’s what I do. When I wrote the column, I gave them a bit of a heads-up. My mother read the column and, wonderful Jewish mother she is, she’s very supportive of me, asks me all the time how I’m doing. Any time I’m not doing great, she says, “Well you have your therapist’s number if you’re thinking of doing anything drastic.” I say, “Mom, we’re not anywhere close to that.” My father is silently supportive, I guess. He’s just a very odd fellow when it comes to his emotions. It’s something we don’t really talk about because I’m a bit nervous as to what he would say. I have two siblings, both of them know, but it’s one of those unspoken things like, “Yeah, we know it but it doesn’t affect us right now, so we’re not going to talk about it.”

What more would you like to do on this issue?

That’s tricky. I’m super willing to do more. I’m super willing to share my story, whether speaking or writing. So I was so excited to talk to you. I can be honest, spread awareness in more ways. But it comes down to, for me, not only finding avenues but finding people willing to listen. It’s about me finding them, connecting with them, finding ways to continue to share. I talk with friends a lot. It’s one of those things that’s just kind of become a cause I’m very passionate about, something I want to try to eradicate in our society. We talked about stigma before. Eradicate that, make sure people are educated, make sure they understand this is not a choice, that it has biological undertones. Anything I can do to help make society, one more person, educated, I’m totally on board. If anyone reads this and wants to talk to me, contact Cara.

How does the media do on this issue, portraying us?

It’s a mixed bag. I became very aware of this when I was at the student newspaper. It’s very important for me to realize how are we covering this, what’s the language we’re using. It’s like any obituary, we have to respect the person who’s deceased. More importantly, where I think the media gets a bit too carried away is, and we see this with Robin Williams, we get news reports about the method, how they did it. That has no place. Nobody’s sitting there writing a story about, you know, the fact that the heart slowly gave out as the blood was rushing out of his left leg … Nobody describes other deaths in that detail, so why is the manner of suicide so much more important than the way anyone else dies? You can say they committed suicide and that’s the end of it. The manner is not relevant. I was not appreciative at all of the way the media portrayed his death. They were so hell-bent on portraying how he did it. Anyone who says it does matter is, you’re invading that person’s privacy. That’s the last thing we as a society need to do. There are some things that need to be private, and this is one of them.

What about having it as a dramatic anecdote to start a story? I know of one case where the reporter told a central person in the story that maybe their part should be taken out if they didn’t talk about the details of their attempt.

That’s ridiculous. To think reporters are out there who think to threaten a source? You should be thankful they’re willing to speak with you! I think when we look at suicide attempts, you know, the survivors should be given the same respect as rape victims. People whose homes were burglarized, or people who were taken as hostages. For some people, there can be a whole mess of PTSD-related pain you could be inflicting by making them relive it. The fact that media members are going to say, “We’re not going to tell your story because you’re not willing to get into those deeply painful places with someone you met maybe 20 minutes ago,” it’s lunacy. That’s the only word I can think about. And now I’m getting very aggravated. If anyone came up to me and said, “We need to know exact details of what happened, I would say, “Here’s the door, you can leave.” There are certain things I can describe, whether in my writing, or in talks with people, and that’s fine, but there are things I keep to myself for a reason. I don’t want to go back to that sort of place.

So we’re against the all-or nothing approach.

Nobody is going to sit there and criticize a rape victim for not giving every single detail of the night they were raped. So why do we criticize attempt survivors for not going into the most painful place of their lives? The fact is, there has to be some other reason you’re writing the story, and that should take precedence. There are plenty of ways to get narrative into a story without saying, “He took the knife in his hand …” There are better ways to approach that story and, quite honestly, it’s lazy journalism. Now, yes, there are times you say, “That’s going to be my lede.” That’s fine. but to tell me you’re going into a story having pre-written it and hoping the source backs up what you wrote, that’s lazy journalism. I know plenty of people who force-feed anecdotes, make a cookie-cutter story. A good journalist takes evidence, crafts it into a story they want to tell while respecting their sources. If any journalist out there threatens to not include a source because they’re not willing to go into a painful experience, I question how much you really want to tell this story.

I came across an unusual question recently. A reporter asked an attempt survivor to show their medical records as proof of their attempt. How do you think that should be handled?

What happens if I don’t have the medical record to prove it? Right? I don’t have records to prove it. But guess what? I can refer you to other people who were there and witnessed it. … There are a lot of things in medical records you might forget and don’t want to make public. That’s a problem. And quite frankly, I applaud the fact these journalists want to make sure they’re reporting the facts, but there are other ways to do it than to request medical records. And honestly, you as a journalist should be able to trust your sources. For something like this, who out there would be so willing to get into a news story that they would fake attempting suicide? That goes far beyond anything I could ever comprehend. If you want to be sure, ask, “Is there anyone else I can talk to to confirm the facts?” That’s the way I would approach it.

There was big news recently with the young woman who moved to Oregon to take advantage of its assisted suicide law. Some people have strong opinions on this subject, and others see it as a different world altogether. What do you think?

I do think it is a completely different world. Assisted suicide/death with dignity is a decision made based on physical ailments, not psychological ones. That’s the biggest difference for me. I could not imagine having to watch your body deteriorate physically and realizing you can’t do anything about it. There are some physical conditions that are terminal, and if you don’t want to subject yourself to the pain and suffering of a long, gruesome death, I understand. That’s different from mental illness where the issues may never fully go away, but they are treatable and don’t need to be terminal.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The one thing I want to add is that yes, a suicide attempt is an important part of someone’s life, a turning point in someone’s life, but it never should define them. There’s a lot more to people like me than the fact that I attempted suicide. I take great pride in the work I do, in being an excellent friend. And those are things I choose to define myself as. And I hope people define me that way as well. People are courageous enough to go public about their attempts; that shouldn’t cloud your judgment about who they are. They’re still that same person. You’re just getting a new wrinkle in their life. Don’t treat every new wrinkle as the most important thing that defines them. You’ll often find the most important things within the first 20 minutes of meeting them. If you don’t find that out in the first 20 minutes, obviously it’s not important enough to be an identifying factor.

That’s a good lead-in to the final question: Who else are you?

I’m a journalist that is very passionate about his work, about his family and about his friends. And I will do anything to ensure that none of my family or friends has to go through what I went through. And at the end of the day, I’m a journalist who is committed to his work, his family, his friends and is going to be loyal to the end. I’m somebody who takes great pride in who I am personally, and how I appear to other people. I work very hard at making sure at the end of the day you understand I would never hurt someone intentionally, I would never go out of my way to cause harm to somebody. And I’m as good of a friend as anybody could ever wish for. I’m as good of a son as anybody could ever wish for. As good of a brother as anybody could ever wish for. And hopefully in the next 10 years, I’ll be as good of a father as anyone could ever wish for. And those things are important to me.

Talking with Stacy Tirella

Stacy Tirella has one of those stories that staggers the mind. She was accidentally overdosed with lithium and sent to a psychiatric hospital because people thought the overdose was a suicide attempt. (She says she later successfully took legal action.) While in the hospital, she was told she would never do many essential things again, like work, travel and drive.

They were wrong. Now she runs her own business and is looking forward to the day when she _ and her family, and the local newspaper _ go visit that hospital again to say hello.

Who are you?

I’m Mary Stephanie Tirella, and I’m called Stacy. That’s who I am. How’s that for short? I was a tour director in Alaska when I graduated from college with a criminal justice degree, and I met somebody there who said that when I come back I should own my own business. I ran a cleaning business for about 16 to 18 years, and it was very successful, with over 50 employees. It was doing really well. At the end, I didn’t want to be at Servicemaster anymore. I ended up with a cease-and-desist order. It threw me for a loop. Then I had a downward spiral for a year, then I was in the state hospital for three months. I was told everything that I wouldn’t do again. And I’m absolutely doing everything. I have my own consulting business. I’m helping nonprofits type business plans, things of that nature.

When was the downward spiral?

It started in the beginning of 2010. And I actually ended up in a residential home. I checked in at 1 o’clock on, like, June 1, 2011, and the next morning they found me unconscious on the floor. I was on life support for five days because they had given me a bunch of lithium without orders. That’s why I got into the state hospital, because they thought I had a suicide attempt. It ended up that the state fined them, and I settled a lawsuit with them this year. The person had no orders to give me that and gave it to me all at once. The doctor never signed off.

And how about your return from that? How did it happen?

It would have been when I got out of the hospital, at the end of August. I checked out of the hospital, and they said I had to live in assisted living with my sister. As soon as I got home, I walked about a mile and got a job, and I started on that Friday. I worked there two years. So it started as soon as I got out.

What kind of job?

Basically, I would do, like, numbers, make sure we were in ratio, like the fill-in person for admin stuff. I could only work so many hours because I was on disability. And I did some volunteering at St. Anthony’s Hospital. And Special Olympics, I did some of that once I got out, to get out of my own sorrow.

Why did the people at the hospital tell you what you wouldn’t be able to do?

I guess when you’re in the hospital, they make judgements. They wondered what effect the lithium would have had on me. They gave me professional neurological testing for hours. They just said my memory was horrible. They said I’d never travel again. I travel internationally all over by myself or escorting my parents. They told me I wouldn’t be able to drive.

How much did you believe them?

I didn’t. My family did. It was frustrating for me. They had more meetings with my family than with me. I come from an Italian female-dominated family, and they had just seen my downward spiral, and they were judging me from when I was psychotic and everyone was scared for me. As soon as I got in, I knew I was not in the right place, but they had already certified me. Then I got out. The center that gave me my overdose, I asked them to cover my medical bills. They didn’t. So I rented a car, went downtown and learned how to sue them.

Have you challenged yourself in new ways since then?

I think one thing, it definitely got me interested in the challenges people have and trying to understand the lingo and understanding that they don’t listen. They make all these judgements. That’s what important to me now. My talk in Oregon (at a recent peer conference) was “Let it go.” I had to let go all the things they said I couldn’t do. If anything, it’s been to prove them wrong. I want to go back and say not only do I drive, I drove people to the conference. It seems basic to you, but when you’re told you can’t do anything …

Do you think you’ll ever see those people again?

Oh, I’m definitely going back. I think timing is everything. My family wants to go back with me, actually. And the Denver paper wants to, they contacted NAMI, and they want to do a hope and recovery story with pictures and stuff, and NAMI wants me to do that. That would be pretty impressive. Whatever a mentally challenged person looks like, I guess I don’t fit that mold.

How did you win over your family?

I think the fact that I went out and got a job, that I was able to figure out how to rent a car … I actually got a speeding ticket, so they knew I’d rented it. It’s quite ironic. They even called the place and said, “Oh my god, she got a job. She got out Wednesday and started work on Friday.” Now I’m doing my consulting stuff.

How did you learn about peer conferences like Alternatives?

I think just networking, knowing people, just being interested from the get-go, trying to understand what happened to me, that I had no voice in the hospital and the whole time thinking, “This isn’t right,” you know what I’m saying? If I can help someone in the hospital get a voice, to me that defines success. Because they didn’t listen to me.

How will you give people a voice?

I think there are a lot of things I can do. Number one, getting involved. When I was in the hospital, I talked to the advocate for us. I was talking to her every day and would tell her. The patient advocate. And peer support is how I made it, classes I took at the mental health agency, it was through peers listening and not judging and not jumping to conclusions. I got involved with classes with NAMI and the mental health center.

Was the patient advocate able to get anything done?

No. And I think that’s probably why I ended up in the hospital for as long as I did. I did speak up, and they probably thought I was aggressive because I don’t always have the sweetest tone, and when I see injustice, I make it known. It was a state hospital, and the employees had been there 20 to 30 years. They had issues. They were like, “Oh, she can’t have Diet Pepsi, can’t have M&Ms.” Very controlling.

I think Colorado is the 47th state in funding for mental challenges. They work there for years and years and get away with this. We used to be woken up by a guy kicking our beds. And I just couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. I told the advocate, so he didn’t kick my bed but kicked the other three. They just watch you there, you know what I’m saying?

What is your advice to others who want to speak up in the most effective way possible while they’re hospitalized?

Advocate. It is important for peers to go back and educate peers. There is so much that the hospital staff does not tell you. Educate anyone who has the interest and time to get involved.

How was the Peerpocalypse conference?

Freeing. Very freeing. It gave me a lot of confidence. People understood where I was coming from. Yeah, it was pretty phenomenal. I was able to fund-raise for them, $6,000, so people were able to go on scholarship. Peers could benefit as well as I could.

How did you decide to tell your story openly?

I think because I’ve accomplished everything the hospital said I’d never do. It’s a good opportunity for me. It’s about letting it go. I’ve done more than they could ever imagine.

How have responses been?

Very supportive. My family’s dying to go to the hospital. And the timing is key.

Do the suicidal thoughts ever come back, and if so, how do you deal with them?

I have thought a lot about suicide the past three years. However, it is really different thinking now. I try and enjoy every moment.

You mentioned reading the Way Forward report. Was there anything that stood out?

I really agree with the hope and recovery method. It’s more of a positive thing. I found it pretty fascinating, the stats on suicide. I never knew how many people thought about it, acted upon it.

Who else are you?

I’m a sister, I’m a daughter, I’m a cool aunt. I care. I’m resilient. I’m trying to get my knowledge and trying to get a voice for other peers, to help them do that.

Talking with Amelia Lehto

It’s always valuable to hear from someone who can see the suicide prevention world from both inside and out. Amelia Lehto is a crisis counselor who knows what suicidal thinking feels like.

Here, she explains why crisis counselors might be better trained to work with suicidal people than therapists, but she pushes back against the idea that clinicians don’t need those tools.

“It shouldn’t be absolute: ‘We don’t deal with that, send them to a crisis center,'” she says. “That’s not convenient or safe for anyone. People don’t want to be pushed off to the next guy.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Amelia Lehto. I am a crisis line coordinator and specialist in suicide prevention at a crisis center in metro Detroit.

For how long?

This will be my fifth year as coordinator, but I’ve been with the agency for seven years. I started as a volunteer and worked my way into my current position.

When you joined, was your personal experience addressed?

Yes, in the screening process. For volunteers, they ask us our past history. Mine was brought up. I lost my best friend when I was 13 years old to suicide, something I’m always very open about. In that process of losing her, I had sought treatment because I was having suicidal thoughts myself dealing with the trauma of her loss, in addition to childhood sexual abuse that came up in that process of treatment and getting help and coming out with all the trauma I experienced at that young age.

How were the reactions to that?

I felt very safe in the process. I was very comfortable. I had a volunteer facilitator along with, I think, a staff member and then it was just a couple of people and myself. It came out conversationally. We were interviewing each other. It flowed very naturally out, and it didn’t seem to be a concern. I wasn’t questioned about my history because I already had been honest on my application. It’s always just been a part of who I am.

What were you doing before then?

I went to broadcasting school.

Did you pursue that?

I interned for a while locally but was a single mom at the time, and it was not financially feasible to continue. I went on to supervise at Starbucks full time, started volunteering and picked up a second job at the time.

What led you to volunteer in this area?

Six months before I started, I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer, and I was very deep in grief. I wasn’t leaving the house very often. I was not an attentive mother. My cousin who was working at a crisis center saw me over Easter holiday and told me more about her job and how it might interest me, so I pursued that into the screening process. I discovered a lot about myself in training because they asked a lot of personal history to practice, so it feels genuine when role-playing with another person. It’s a safe environment. It was really good and cathartic to put all my stuff out there to practice, with the loss of my mom, the abuse scenario. Really cathartic and healing, what I needed at the time. My mother had already encouraged me to pursue my passions, and it took her passing to find it.

What are some of the striking things you’ve learned on the job?

I was surprised. I picked a Friday night shift, and I had imagined that Friday night would be the night of crises. People were going to be overwhelmed, they were going to need help. It was the slowest shift. So my first couple of months there, I felt I had all this preparation and I was ready to take on this role. I had an amazing trainer, a former Marine, who drilled the empathy model into volunteers, really encouraged us to explore the situation and find the elephant in the room. I didn’t take on a full-on suicidal crisis call until five or six months in. A lot of calls were people who were in need of support but not in crisis, emotional support. It was incredibly valuable. I heard stories of people you don’t generally hear. It’s an honor to do that kind of work and give support. It really is incredible to have a genuine connection to another human being.

When I received that first true suicidal crisis, it was terrifying. You know, you have this sense of responsibility, and it’s ultimately not your responsibility, all you’re doing is being there for another human being. I was being a support to another person. It was a really challenging experience, and I had really great support from my supervisor. It was like a two-hour long call. They felt hopeless and helpless, but we were able to talk about what kind of plan was coming next. They ultimately decided to reach out to one of their family members. We role-played that situation and what they would say to ask for help. At the end of the two hours, they felt more comforted, and the crisis had passed. They felt more comfortable talking with their family, who was coming home shortly. You don’t usually see that 360, from crisis to resolution: “Oh, I can get through this.” They had reached out for mental health support in the past, and it had failed, but they were willing to try again. I can see myself sitting in that cubicle in that building that’s no longer there. It was a really good call.

Has it in certain ways gotten easier?

I have had the opportunity to go though multiple trainings, to connect with people like yourself, all these thought leaders in the field, taking their skills and experience and applying it to my work. My confidence has grown, but each call is its own. It’s not black and white, it’s one person in that moment, and it’s what’s gonna work for them. It’s always different, but I’m much more confident in my skills.

Are you allowed to bring up your own experience, or do you want to?

It’s not something we encourage on the job. We want to keep that kind of professional boundary, so we don’t put ourselves at risk in that moment. I think that’s something the warm line does because they have that ability, and I really appreciate that perspective, and it’s something to talk about in the future. But I think it would be uncomfortable initially. But I do have that ability in my personal life, and I do have people who have reached out to me, and I can really connect to them. So it’s different when on the job. I can see the value in both approaches. With warm lines, there is a more personal conversation. The peer on the other end may share their own experience and what their experience has been. While on the crisis lines the focus is on the caller and their experience, with the crisis worker reflecting the caller’s experience.

How do you take care of yourself in what can be quite stressful work, and what do you do if your suicidal thoughts come back?

I debrief, debrief and debrief on shifts and off of them if I had a really difficult call or experience in the community. The work by nature is stressful, demanding and so necessary that I really feel humbled doing it and honored by it. I am with people in what may be the worst moments of their lives, and I never take that for granted. It can certainly add up, though, over time. If I take on too many projects or had an especially stressful day, I can be hyper-vigilant when I leave the office. My husband can probably speak more to this than I can. My family is naturally affected by the stress that may build up, but they are also patient with me. Though they may not fully understand what my day was like, they know to love on me, and we do our best to leave it all at the door. For self-care I laugh, I love and I enjoy all the small things. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel, which I thoroughly enjoy. This past weekend I was at an event at a local metropark that is just beautiful, so I took the time afterwards to visit the hiking trails, enjoying my time alone.

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of peer support. How would you use that in your work, ideally?

At my center, we do have peer support on site. We’re a 24-hour crisis center. The peers are there with the person beginning to end to share their own experience. We definitely see the benefit on site. It’s something of interest for the phone side. We are interested in the warm line idea, and that’s something on the to-do list, the wish list of what we’d like to offer the community. There’s definitely a benefit there. I know many of our volunteers and staff have their own experience of one kind or another. The lived experience and attempt survivor movement led me to share more about it on a regular basis. It draws empathetic people. If not personal experience for themselves, then somebody in their lives. I would really like to see that happen for my crisis line, bringing peers to really connect with people on a personal level.

You must hear a range of voices. Do you think the lived experience movement is doing a good job of reflecting diversity, and what other problems need to be pointed out?

I think diversity is important, in general. Everybody, no matter their race, religious affiliation, their age, financial status, is immune to suicide, suicidal thoughts, critical situations, one way or another. It affects everyone. I hear from those that are well-to-do suburban white-collar settings, but I also hear from people who are from under-served areas. I don’t always know those specifics, but I have talked with a number of people who, the running theme is loss of one kind or another, whether it be financial, a relationship, their freedom, the loss or the threat of a loss. But we certainly are not an island unto ourselves, we have these shared losses, and I don’t think everyone fits in one category or another. Cultural diversity affects us all, and it is something that should be respected in regards to suicidality. We’re all in this together, we’re all human. The LGBT community, the black community, the Asian community, or elderly, you know, middle-aged men, across the board. It’s easier to break people down into groups, and that’s more easily digestible than to say everyone’s at risk, which puts fear into people.

With concerns out there about crisis lines calling the police or other emergency responders, what do you think is the best practice for keeping callers informed and putting them at ease?

Reaching out for help, no matter where to, takes an enormous amount of trust and an incredible amount of bravery. Often times, people are calling for the first time because they were recommended to call or had heard about it through the grapevine. This work isn’t black and white, there are shades of gray, and this interaction that a caller and a crisis worker enter into is intimate, but it is malleable by the caller. They are the driver in these interactions, while the crisis worker is the navigator. The caller has control and always should be treated as such. The difficulty lies with the negative interactions, those calls where the caller and the crisis worker weren’t on the same page, and the sometimes devastating effects that can have. The benefit of the crisis line is vast and diverse for each caller that reaches out. There are some great studies that have been conducted, namely by Madelyn Gould.

Too many times, we hear of the negative rather than the positive outcomes that happen. There is good work being done on crisis lines. There are staff and volunteers who are truly invested in the best outcome for the callers. For me, the most collaborative and least invasive responses work best for both parties, reducing the trauma and stress an active intervention _ police or other emergency responders called in _ can have. It takes three positive interactions for every one negative, but the failure here on the crisis line part is for that one negative; it’s unlikely a caller will reach back out for help or give feedback. It’s not one size fits all. If someone calls in and doesn’t connect with the crisis worker, I’d encourage the person to call back and speak with someone else. For those positive interactions, word of mouth is best practice. Share your experiences and encourage others to utilize crisis lines if necessary. They are safe, confidential and anonymous, and now there is crisis chat online. And for the negative interactions; please call back, give feedback. If we know better, we can do better.

Sometimes it seems people at crisis centers are better equipped to deal with suicidal people than clinicians are. Why is there still distrust around suicidal people, and how to break that down?

I’ve heard talk among clinicians who have fragilized people with suicidal thinking or people who have disclosed. And I think that those, in especially clinical roles, I don’t think they are as exposed to suicide in general on a one-to-one basis. They may have read about it, they may know how to treat some related symptoms, but suicide is not as comfortable a topic with them as with those at a crisis center because we’re trained to talk about suicide. In the heat of the moment, if you will. It’s a different skill set, a different training theory and background, and I think you hit it on the nose. The crisis centers, we talk to people in all sorts of states, and that’s to be expected. In a clinical setting, you’re treating long-term, ongoing mental health concerns or challenges in that person’s life. And people know if they call a crisis line, they can talk about suicide.

Do you think clinicians would benefit from the training you get?

We’ve had interns, volunteers, coming from varied educational backgrounds: psychology, psychiatry, you know, we had aspiring doctors volunteering with us this summer. We’ve had some GPs come and observe say, “I think we’d really benefit from this!” I don’t think that’s generally taught in the classrooms. I think all can benefit from the empathy model. We can all learn from each other, kumbaya.

Crisis centers appear to be taking on more and more of the work with suicidal clients from clinicians. Do you think that’s the right way to go?

I don’t. The training model I’m aware of in regards to suicide, the Air Force does a really great intervention and prevention program, and Henry Ford has a really cohesive and collaborative approach to suicide, and those networks always include the whole scope around the person, and everyone is included in the plan, and everyone is aware of what’s happening. We don’t know when we’re going to have a crisis. It can come on for whatever reason. Skills would be beneficial to all the people. They should have empathy model training and know how to truly listen to somebody instead of considering what they’re going to say next. Listening to others is really important. If they’re not comfortable with it, they can refer, but it shouldn’t be absolute: “We don’t deal with that, send them to a crisis center.” That’s not convenient or safe for anyone. People don’t want to be pushed off to the next guy. The basic skills can be had in the moment when the person needs it the most. It’s beneficial. And it’s much easier to build into the educational training that clinicians go through, to have on hand when needed. I think it would help them feel more confident in their skills.

How to address the liability question by clinicians?

I am an American Red Cross CPR trainer, and one of those first bits of information we share with people is the Good Samaritan law. If you’re intervening with someone having a heart attack, as long as you’re doing what you’re trained to do, what your skill set is at, you’re covered by the Good Samaritan law. I think that should be applied to somebody in a suicidal crisis. And you know, it is life and death in both cases. Again, the medical vs. the mental health model, the disparities between the two as if they’re different. The mind and body are the same. We have an organ in our head, and it runs down throughout our body. I think Good Samaritan law goes for bodies, and it should go for our brains.

How did you decide to be open about your personal experience?

Dese’Rae Stage and Leah Harris have been very vocal about their experiences. Along with my belief that human connection is really important, and sharing stories can be really valuable to others. I’m also an ASIST trainer. I learned the ASIST model, I went through the training for trainers a couple of years ago, and it reminded me how important our stories are and how important it is to be heard and have a genuine connection. It can be very helpful to share. So I’ve had the benefit of talking with different people over the years, to know how sharing my story has helped them. And hearing other people who’ve been through certain experiences has helped me. #SPSM chatting, seeing people connect on just a basic level. We all have skill sets, training, professional roles, but when you break it down, we’re all trying to live life the best we can. The best way is to be honest with each other.

I’ve definitely been apprehensive over the years. I’ve started blogs, deleted blogs for privacy reasons: “Who would want to read that?” But this past year, I’ve been much more involved. I auditioned for a show called “Listen To Your Mother,” and I shared a story about being a young mom, losing my mom, coming into that role now, and it was really incredible to come on stage and share my story with 400 to 500 people in that room, and it’s out there on YouTube. At least one of my stories is. And I have had encouraging feedback from it. And I’ve had a couple of blogs posted on I think storytelling is really beautiful and honest.

The big question: What can we really do to change the system?

I think getting the influential people, you know, those who have organizations, starting the conversation there is really important. The information trickles down, the conversation can start in those circles. The heads of organizations, the communications departments, those involved in social media, because social media is a powerful way to connect with people, and a personal way. Smartphones today, everyone has them in their face and accessible. I think starting those genuine conversations, sharing with networks. Sharing resources are so important. People are not always going to pick it up once it’s presented to them, but continue to reach out: “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you!” and explain why this is happening and what has happened so far.

It’s been really great, the network sharing and resource sharing, the movement, broadening the scope to all the people to so they know these things are accessible and OK to talk about. Because we’re social creatures, and we connect to others. And suicidal thinking, we self-isolate. Whether we’re in a room of people or not, we feel completely alone. And often, people don’t realize others have been through this and that it’s OK to talk about. It’s scary to talk about, but others have been through it. If you can’t talk to family or friends because of shame or embarrassment, you can talk to someone who’s been through it. The influential people, the ones with an ear, is a good place to start. Break it down into why this benefits them.

Is there another level we need to move to, to make our case?

I know people love their data and analytics. Unfortunately in the mental health and suicidology field, the funding and researchers are not able to keep current up-to-date stats. Our latest stats, because of the nature of our work, the most recent is 2011. We’re three years behind.

Do you mean nationally or at your center?

Nationally. The stats released this year through AAS were for 2011, and they’re usually two or three years behind. The researcher doing it is incredible, incredibly passionate and thoughtful, but you know, three years behind. We need more funding, we need more buy-in from our government and to have those funds allocated to the proper researching departments. Funding is so critical in this work, yet we are severely lacking.

Is there anything else you’re really passionate about that you want to see changed?

You talked about the difference between crisis centers and clinicians. Last week at #SPSM there was a roundtable, and JD Schramm, who did that awesome TED Talk, when he was asked about suicidal ideation and thoughts, he was like, “I’ve never really heard that terminology.” That really speaks to the general public, breaking down language barriers we might have in talking with people not familiar with mental health and really engaging those outside this community. So I think it’s breaking down barriers of language we use and making it understandable to those who aren’t clinicians and are not working directly with other peers and who maybe never sought mental health treatment before. The language we use is really important. One of my biggest soapboxes is how we say what we say matters. Those who are not as familiar with mental health or suicide are important, and it’s important to value what people are bringing to the table.

Who else are you?

I am nicknamed “the mother” on many of my crisis line shifts. I’m an eternal optimist, a mother, a wife, a lover, a friend. I love baby goats and sunshine and traveling and all sorts of things. I am more than one definition. I am 32 flavors and then some.

You cut it out! (To her 4-year-old)

Talking with Sarah Gordon

As a teenager, Sarah Gordon was told not to return to her studies and that she would never be able to live on her own. Now she has a PhD, a husband and two children.

The New Zealander is currently helping the police shift their thinking around people in crisis, and she dreams of a day when her university will have a school dedicated to lived experience-based research. But bringing other professionals “out,” researchers or otherwise, remains a challenge. “I think the fact that it is most difficult for mental health professionals to disclose is incredibly sad, because it reflects the stigma and discrimination that exists within the system,” Sarah says.

You can also read her guest post this week at sister site

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Sarah Gordon. I have personal experience of mental distress. I was first
diagnosed when I was 17, and I was put in a mental health hospital at the time. I was there six months before I was discharged back into the care of my family, with the advice that a return to university would not be wise and that independent living would not be an option for me.

As it turned out, my parents were not compliant with that advice, and they facilitated and
paid for mental health support to enable me to go back to university. At the beginning, it was on a very part-time basis, so I did one paper per semester, and I required about 15 hours of mental health support per week to enable me to do it. As you can appreciate at that time, it was not the best cost-benefit investment.

But as it turned out, over a number of years I managed to complete a bachelor of science, which I majored in psychology, a law degree, which I majored in health law, a masters of bioethics and health law and a PhD in psychological medicine. But more important than any of that, I don’t live independently, I live with my husband and two children. And now I work for the department of psychological medicine, University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand. My job is what I describe as a “service academic.” I use my personal experience of mental illness to inform all the research and teaching undertaken by our department.

How did you come to be talking with me?

For a number of years after I was diagnosed, I was very secretive about my experience and didn’t disclose very much at all. In 1998, I happened to get a job as a consumer adviser to a mental health service. It was very clear when I went for that job that my personal experience with mental illness was a qualification to do the job. And yet, I didn’t fully appreciate what that meant. Essentially, everyone I came in contact with knew that I had personal experience, purely as a result of my position title. At the beginning, I found that very difficult, because I felt that people responded to me in a way that was quite different to those situations where people didn’t know. But I came to see overcoming that stigma and discrimination as a real challenge and one that I actually ended up enjoying. And my work since then has always involved me using my experience in my work. And so that’s maybe how you became aware of me.

I heard of you during my interview with Louise Byrne.


What is the lived experience community like there? Is there an attempt survivor community at all?

Since I’ve been involved, I’ve felt that New Zealand has always has quite a strong lived experience community. However, the extent of our influence and the opportunities for influence have varied since I’ve been involved. And I would say that in the last few years
there have been a number of changes in mental health policy at the national level that have
meant that we have less influence than we may have had some years ago.

How did that happen?

I think there were a couple of things. One is that the government dropped mental health as a health priority. And the second was that our mental health commission was dis-established.

That seems unusual. Was it a budget problem?

Well, that’s happened since the economic crisis, and it also coincided with a change of
government here in New Zealand. But it’s certainly unusual compared with a number of
countries in other parts of the world where mental health has become a priority and mental
health commissions have been established. I think New Zealand was seen as leading the way in many respects prior to this, and now I certainly wouldn’t consider us to be in that same position.

How have reactions to your experiences changed over the years?

Well, I find it quite interesting now that I don’t feel like I experience stigma and discrimination as a result of my experience. That might be partly due to the fact that even if I did, I wouldn’t take any notice of it. But what I find more is that people tend to respond to my experience by somehow feeling like they’re able to share with me on a different level. So a lot of people will speak to me, even if we don’t know each other that well, about their own difficulties and struggles in life. And I think somehow with me being so open about my
experience, people then feel safe to expose and share their difficulties and struggles, often, I believe, with a great sense of relief.

Do you like that? Or do you get too much of it?

No, I find it all right. I mean, in some situations it’s quite funny. The last one I had was just last week. I went to an appointment and he ended up telling me about lots of his family
history and how he had had a major operation last year and the struggles he’s dealing with as a result of that. After about half an hour, he sat back with a bemused look on his face and said, “I don’t know why I just shared all this information with you! Normally when patients come to see me, I don’t talk about myself the whole time!” You could see him trying to figure out what it was, my face, my qualifications, and I said, “No, it’s mental illness.”

Did he know what you were talking about?

No, he looked even more bemused.

Being so open and public, do you ever feel like you have to hide a bad day?

No. I never do.

What would you like to change about the mental health care system?

I think we focus too much on trying to using medications to cure people. And I think, you
know, we don’t necessarily have or take the time to support people as they need to be
supported. I think, if someone’s attempted suicide, then there’s an amount of emotional
distress there, and it takes support that involves a lot of time and effort for the person to get through that. And I think ultimately it needs to be focused on social roles and relationships. And we just don’t do that.

How are people treated now?

If a person is at risk to themselves, they will be physically protected until that’s no longer felt to be required. And I use “protected” very loosely because often that protection involves
compulsory treatment, seclusion, those sorts of things. And in most cases, medication will be the first and often the focus of the treatment.

What would the ideal treatment look like?

As I say, I think a person who’s suicidal or has attempted is suffering, to my mind, extreme
emotional distress and very often is very disconnected from most things in their life that are very important. And so our supports need to be focused around supporting the person until whatever is distressing them can be resolved. Support to reconnect is imperative, particularly in terms of those relationships that are important to the person.

What arguments have you had to make in your career to prove that you could do what you were pursuing?

I think relationships are an incredibly powerful thing. And I have found that generally in my
work, if people are opposed or hesitant about working with me for whatever reason, that if I
persevere and develop a relationship with the person, generally we get to a situation where
that person comes to appreciate and recognize the value lived experience can bring. And as a result, some people have been really quite staunch supporters of both my involvement and the involvement of others who come from a personal experience perspective.

How to make suicidal thinking a less scary topic overall?

I think it’s important that we talk about it more, particularly as we wish to support others in
distress. I think one of the reasons that talking about it is not common is because of the
perception that by doing so, it could lead to more tragedy. However, I think that if we’re
aware of how to do it in a way that does not increase risk, that ultimately is going to benefit

Is this something the media should take on?

I think absolutely the media needs to be involved. Tell the stories that people can get through it and people can recover. Those are the most important stories that we need to get out there.

What are you working on now, and what would you most like to accomplish?

For the moment, the main thing I’m working on is the development of a training package for the police, specifically around how they respond to people who are experiencing mental
distress, and obviously that includes people who are suicidal. And the particular approach
we’re taking is that we’re moving away from their education being presented in a way that
pathologizes the distress and more toward supporting the police to learn about what might be going on for people when they’re experiencing this type of distress, and the approaches that can be most supportive in those situations. That’s exciting.

Going forward, my dream is for our university to have a school dedicated to lived experience-based research, where we can start building a really significant and substantial amount of knowledge that is informed by people’s own experiences of both distress and recovery.

In the police project, what have been some of the more striking questions or observations?

We’re very much at the beginning of this work. The police of New Zealand have set up and
invested in a major project to improve how they respond to people who experience mental
distress. I have to say that the people leading that project from the police have been incredibly receptive to what we are proposing from a service user perspective.

Can you tell me about the International Association of Service User Academia, and how and why it came about?

Very often, people who work from a personal experience base in academia are sole voices
within departments, schools, institutions, and it is vitally important that we have both
a professional and a personal support network. Hence, I established the International
Association, a Mendeley-based e-network, in 2012 to enable service user academics and their supporters to engage in topical discussion, share experiences, enhance collaboration, keep abreast of advancements and exchange information.

In general, how do we get others to disclose their experiences, since they’re all around us but silent?

I think the fact that it is most difficult for mental health professionals to disclose is incredibly sad, because it reflects the stigma and discrimination that exists within the system. I suppose the only thing that’s going to change that is more people disclosing, and actually requiring the system and attitudes and beliefs to change as a result of that.

Are you happy with where you’ve come to in life?

Yes, like anyone, I experience up and downs, but I’m quite comfortable with what I do and
how I do it and where I’m at.

What made your parents so stubborn and “not compliant” after hearing that you would have no more education or independence?

I’m not sure. Their belief in what I was, and capable of, never wavered. Even in my work
now, I spend a lot of time talking and writing about the concept of recovery, and when I look
at it now, the way my parents supported me was fully consistent with what a recovery
approach to mental illness is, without them even knowing it.

What does your family think about all of this?

I think they’re very proud of where I’ve got to. Obviously, they’re intimately aware of what I
needed to overcome to get to this place.

Finally, who else are you?

Well, a big part of my identity is as a mother of two boys. I have a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old son. And so a significant part of my life involves being a mother to them. And
another significant part of my life is as a wife. I’m also heavily involved in our community in
a variety of different organizations and associations. So life is pretty full. And that’s good.