Today I talked by phone with Terry Wise, who was one of the first attempt survivors to speak publicly and often about her experience. She’s a former trial attorney who now writes and speaks full time and has served on the boards of a number of national organizations on this issue. She’s at terrywise.com.
Here’s quite an interesting development as more people choose to talk openly about their experience: The major national suicide prevention groups and others are putting together guidelines to help people decide whether they’re ready to tell their stories publicly. There are concerns about people speaking too soon. The details are near the end of this post.
We started off chatting, then I started taking notes. Questions are in bold.
Terry: I was extremely, extremely fortunate. After my talks, I meet people who walk with a cane or such who took far less than I did.
Did you know the risks you were taking?
I’m an overpreparer. I had researched it. Sadly, there is a lot of information out there. It’s relatively easy to find what is a lethal dose. I had an arsenal of narcotics from my husband. I calculated it out, counted it out. I put it all together so it would be enough to end my life. I was convinced it would be a fatal dose. Many people don’t take enough, or change their minds and call the hospital, or wake up in a puddle of vomit after throwing up the fatal dose, or someone finds them in time.
How could you trust the information you found online?
To be able to trust a recipe to end your life, that’s sort of a misuse of the word “trust.” You never know what’s reliable information and that isn’t. You take your best guess. When you’re depressed, your judgment is skewed anyway. But it would be great if none of that information was out there. A lot of people would hang on and get help. Suicide prevention organizations I work with do work with social media sites if there’s something life-threatening out there.
What do you think of the way suicide issues are portrayed in films, TV, the media at large?
I’m very disappointed in the lack of awareness. As an example, I was invited to a very well-known talk show. I asked who else was on, and when I found out, I didn’t want to do it. They were trying to get ratings for shock value. They had someone missing half a face from a gunshot, someone missing their legs. Media and TV, they reveal too much detail, which is also shown to increase suicide contagion. It’s better to avoid those highly detailed descriptions. Or it’s especially true when a celebrity dies by suicide. People start to glamorize them. The bottom line is, I wish more people who portray attempts would read the suicide reporting guidelines and understand the safe messaging.
(The guidelines are posted here: reportingonsuicide.org)
I think that some, not all, personal stories are crucial to hear. For example, for that talk show, they could have a mix, not just those who were physically maimed. No experts in suicide prevention were asked to appear. It was imbalanced. It should be accompanied by some professional input as well. What have you learned? What would have prevented you from doing what you did? I use myself as an example. I started to give away personal belongings, I started to drink more, I made new estate plans, I started to lose a lot of weight. Educating people. There has to be some incorporation of a positive image.
Would the images of shock value have stopped your attempt?
It certainly is a deterrent, but I didn’t see any before my attempt. I probably would have avoided looking at those because I wanted to avoid anything that would interfere. I would’ve thought none would apply to me.
How you we ease the tension when talking about the topic of suicide?
I think there will always be some sort of stigma to silence people, some myths, unfortunately. They’re not eradicated. Unfortunately, we’re always going to be battling stigma and myths. But absolutely there’s a way to keep a balance between not talking and talking about it to save people’s lives. Back when I started in 2004, I was pretty much the only person who had attempted who was giving speeches. Over time, I’ve seen the growth of public speakers out there. It’s actually evolved significantly. I can only imagine 10 years from now.
What is the worst stigma?
One leading component is the belief that depression is a sign of weakness, a character flaw. In fact, recognizing depression and reaching out for help is a sign of personal strength. A lot of people are silenced by the belief that by talking out, people think they have a character flaw.
How do you think this will change in the future?
Every time someone comes out when talking openly about depression and recovery, it reduces the silencing power of stigma. That’s why it’s important when celebrities do it. When you come forward and say, “I suffered, I got help, I’m better now,” I think that drastically reduces the power of stigma.
The stories I see about people who have survived suicide attempts usually end with the people saying they got help and feel better. What about the people who haven’t reached that point and are still struggling? Should we be hearing their stories as well?
I hope they’re hearing from me. Everybody, everybody has the possibility of recovery. I can’t imagine a situation where I’d say to myself, “This person doesn’t have, shouldn’t have any hope.” Recovery, it doesn’t happen overnight, and not on the first try. Don’t give up. There’s hope for everyone. I hear from a lot of those people. Hundreds, maybe thousands. Think of it, they are in the middle of the night online, researching, and they find my site and write to me. They think they just can’t go on another day. It’s the perfect example of people who think they’ve tried it all. But if they’re writing to me, it means they haven’t lost hope. And I point that out. There’s a small piece of you who hasn’t lost hope. The one thing I get the most thanks for is, thank you for making me feel less alone. Being alone and suicidal is a lethal combination. It’s something very liberating to find someone else. That can be a lifesaver.
Is there any value in people hearing their stories?
There is value in certain settings, like support groups, where they’re trying to overcome some challenges. Would I recommend that someone go up and give a keynote speech if they were depressed? No. It’s not healthy for them or their audience.
I’m on a committee to draft regulations for people who want to tell their stories. There’s nothing out there like a formalized document to help people decide whether or not they’re ready to tell their story, to deliver a safe message to their audience. There are a lot of people out there who are not ready. The guidelines can be very helpful for speakers and audiences. Hopefully, they’ll be done within a couple of months.
A lot of people who have lost children to suicide, they want immediately to go to the high school and talk about their child’s death. They’re still grieving. You should ask: How will their family be affected? Does that matter to you? Did you talk to them?
Can people find the guidelines online?
No. The group is me, a couple of psychologists, suicidologists, etc. Probably a dozen of us. All the national organizations for suicide prevention have a representative involved. (UPDATE: The guidelines are now available here.)