Talking with Cory Cobern

Cory Cobern is in the middle of making himself over. The father of two is soon to become a social worker and runs one of the very few support groups for suicide attempt survivors in the U.S. It’s encouraging to hear that his openness about his own experience didn’t keep him from working for a crisis hotline. The director welcomed him and got him to create and lead the support group.

There seems to be a common fear that people in such groups will compare methods and then employ them. Cory isn’t seeing that. In fact, he says, they turn each other off the idea with the fear of failing and being worse off than they were before. One person has liver problems. One has a reconstructed face. “Everyone pretty much says, ‘Why would I want to attempt again when everyone here has failed?'” he says. “It’s kind of a twisted way of thinking, but wow, here’s eight people who tried an average of four times, and none succeeded. They laugh about it now: ‘We tried so many times and still couldn’t end it? There must be a reason.'”

Now he’s wondering how to further crack the public silence around suicide. He recently fought for and got a front-page story about his group in a local newspaper, but he says he hasn’t heard one response.

“Everyone needs someone to talk to and not be judged like, ‘Wow, you’re weird,'” Cory says. “Because if you ask me, there are a lot of things out there that are a lot weirder.”

Who are you?

I’m going to be 43. I’ve been married for about 18 years, with two children. I worked in the computer industry for about 15 years, decided that was enough, and now I’m a senior at George Mason, majoring in social work. I have two brothers. I don’t know what else.

What’s your background in this area?

I have schizoaffective disorder. I was diagnosed with that when I was 30, when my mother died. I had some issues, major depression issues, and I went to a counselor. They diagnosed me, and my wife and I denied it and recently accepted it. The next year, my father died, and things continued to go downhill. We moved from California to northern Virginia in 2003 when our youngest son was born. And things were OK the next couple of years. I got out of my depression, everything. Then in about 2006, I started having issues with voices and suicidal thoughts, and after a couple of attempts, which were my first, I decided, “OK, maybe I have schizoaffective disorder,” and I started medication. I had more attempts until 2008. By that time, I was no longer able to work, things were too bad with medication. At that point, I was on a ton of medication, I think overmedicated. And I lost my job. And actually, it turned out to be a good thing. I spent the next nine months or so doing nothing. When I was at work, I couldn’t focus. I lost my job, stayed at home, things got worse and worse. And when I lost my job, I lost my benefits. I got on my wife’s benefits. I got a new doctor. I went through three or four doctors and they had said, “You’re on so much medication that we won’t take you.” I went to see her and she said, “I’m cutting your medication in half.”

Now I’ve been seeing the same psychiatrist for four years. I’m on a tenth of what I was on before. During this process I was at home, and she said, “You need to get out of the house.” I said, “OK, what do I need to do?” So actually, I signed up for my first online class at Northern Virginia Community College. I had hated school, was never a student, but looking back now, a lot of it was voices. I couldn’t focus. So I took my first class, passed it, and liked it. I started looking at other things I could do. I found the helpline, sent in a resume, was looking to volunteer. Then I got a call from the helpline asking if I wanted to come in for orientation. I went in and became part of the staff about six months after that. They had an opening and asked if I was interested. I said yes.

As I continued to do that, I was taking more and more classes. I had things to focus on. And so I started increasing my load of school, and in 2010 I got an associate’s degree. I am still with the helpline. I find that now, even if I have a bad day, I can get on the helpline and the bad day goes away. I can put everything of mine away and focus on others. So I continued to go to school, and my wife and I talked. I had always wanted to be a social worker, a therapist. In my yearbook, everyone knew. We said, “OK, let’s do that.” I started classes, slowly, and last semester I took 15 units, this semester 18 units.

My mindset has totally changed. Everything is clearer for me. I couldn’t build anything before. Now I can do whatever needs to be done. So I had, total, five hospitalizations. I have two children, one has Asperger’s, and the youngest has bipolar. It’s all been a wakeup call, a reminder of what’s out there, what others go through.

How old are your children?

12 and 9.

How did the attempt survivors’ support group come about?

It branched off the helpline. When I started, I was upfront. I really knew nothing about the helpline. I went in, went through training. My boss, Vicki, was very easy to talk to. Almost from day one she said, “I always wanted this group.” For the next seven or eight months, we talked about it. I started doing more and more. After about eight months in, she said, “So, what you think?” I said it was a great idea. We put together some ideas and launched the group in December 2010. And it’s been going ever since.

It’s hard to get anyone to really publicize it. Most people come from word of mouth. I’d love for it to increase, but I’m not sure how to reach people. It’s such a sensitive subject. The only things that are publicized are completed suicides or the family members, the survivors. This the only group of its type in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., the tri-state area. There are groups out there, a 12-step group based out of Memphis. But otherwise, this has been a big learning experience for me. All the materials, I come up with myself. I scour the Web. There’s very little out there. It redirects you to other things, like family members. There’s just very little out there for attempters.

Why did Vicki want to do the group, and why did she come to you?

She’s run a group for survivors for about 17 years, and she always wanted to run one for attempt survivors but thought she was not appropriate for it. She knew I was a previous attempter. She said, “You can relate to them, you have a common thread with them.” We weren’t sure how it would go over. And she’d never had anyone at the helpline who, if they had been an attempter, had informed her.

What made you comfortable in mentioning your experience in the first place?

I just felt that going to this type of work, I had to be open about it and not hide that I had a mental illness or that I had attempted. Nobody asked. I just felt it was something they needed to know in case things didn’t work out. Nothing personal, but if this makes things worse, I was not going to stay around. Once again, Vicki was so easy to talk to. A very easy person to talk to for two or three hours straight. She always seemed open and accepting.

How did you get the group rolling?

Good question. The first meeting we had was in December. I had five people show up. We had sent out a notice announcing the group. I sent a letter out to basically every therapist in Prince William County informing them of the group. I never heard back from any of them, but seeing as on the first day we had five people, they heard it from somewhere. I sent letters to hospitals in the area. That’s basically it. Also to the local papers and to The Washington Post. It’s not something I ever really delved into, where they heard about it. I know one person heard from her therapist. Another came to a teleconference for suicide survivors, actually two people. Others heard from word of mouth. What we have is, anyone who wants to come to the group, at an undisclosed location, they call the helpline and leave their information. I call back and do a phone interview to make sure they are actual attempters, make sure they are OK for the group. I don’t turn anyone away, but I don’t want anyone else there.

How did it go the first time?

The first time actually went very well. I kind of explained what I thought the purpose of the group was. I actually told my story, which kind of loosened everyone else up. I rarely tell my story. We have enough people to tell now, so I don’t have to. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and no one seemed quite sure what to expect, so I said, “OK.” I told my story, and three others told their stories. The other two waited for a while to tell, but that was kind of the icebreaker.

What have you learned, and what has surprised you, in getting people talking?

I have a good core of people who have been there since day one or three months afterwards, and for the most part I start with, “How’s everyone?” _ a quick wellness check. I can rely on them to get others talking. If not, I know most of my group members now that I can say, “OK, what’s going on with you?” They may pause for a minute or two, or pass, but within 10 minutes they’re ready to talk. And this being an attempters’ group, there is no taboo subject, because anything can lead someone to another attempt. It can be a family problem, they got a bill, drugs, alcohol, family, work. We talk about everything, because it all affects.

What guidelines do you have?

I don’t have any. We have paper guidelines, but if somebody wants to talk about something, I’m open to it. I don’t want anyone to go home and say, “This was on my mind.” I always tell them, “I’m never going to leave you more upset than when you came in.”

Is there any kind of safety net for when the group isn’t in session?

I don’t really have a safety net outside observation and listening to everyone. Should I have people sign a safety contract? I’ve gone back and forth. I’m just a facilitator. I gave everyone the helpline number, and I gave all my cellphone number. I’m kind of still playing it by ear and winging it, because it’s worked. I have people say, “I’m upset,” then after an hour or hour and a half say, “I feel better.” I try to enforce that they talk to people, family,. And the core group members, they’re not shy. If they’re feeling bad, they spit it out.

How many people do you have now?

Four come regularly. Up to six people max. To be honest, if I ever get 12 people regularly, I’ll close the group and start another. That’s my max number.

Did you come in thinking you knew everything because you’re an attempt survivor?

I thought I knew a lot of it because of the helpline more so than my story. I deal with so many people who are suicidal on the helpline that it really opened my eyes to see the larger picture beyond myself. It’s really a blessing. When I went in, I had no idea what to expect, going in blind. None of the stories have really surprised me. Maybe dismay at hearing how they tried, how many times. I thought I tried a lot with five, but that’s very little compared to some of them. Or the severity of their attempts, or the lasting consequences. I have someone with liver problems because they tried to overdose on pills. I have another who says, “I’m here for a reason, because I didn’t succeed.”

Do you get into them wishing they hadn’t attempted?

I don’t recall hearing from anyone who wished they hadn’t, because it’s part of who they are now. The biggest wish I heard is that they hadn’t tried it that way. I think everyone who continues to come to the group is, well, let me step back. When we started, a number of people were thinking suicide was an option. Now, either they’re lying to my face, but they say suicide is not an option at this point. My last one, she’s still not entirely taken it off the table, Her future was always in the next two or three months, but now it’s, “Well, maybe if my husband dies, that’s the only option.” It’s no longer, “Well, maybe next month I should try.”

And everyone pretty much knows now, everyone pretty much says, “Why would I want to attempt again when everyone here has failed?” It’s kind of a twisted way of thinking, but wow, here’s eight people who tried an average of four times, and none succeeded. They laugh about it now: “We tried so many times and still couldn’t end it? There must be a reason.”

What’s the reason? Have you found it?

Some people say God. I don’t know. They say, “Wow, you tried 300 pills and you’re still here? You tried a shotgun, and you’re still here? You ran into an electric pole going 120 miles an hour, and you’re still here?” I’ve heard people who said, “I took 20 pills and thought it would do me, and you took 300?” They look at each other and go, “Wow.” Like me, I couldn’t do pain. A lot of people say that. That’s not really an option. They kind of turn each other off.

When the issue of attempt survivor support groups comes up, people mention the fear of comparing methods and getting better at it.

My group is fear of failing: “Wow, we tried this many times and didn’t succeed.” The fear of failing and the fear of failing and being much worse off: liver problems, being brain dead and being on a machine. It’s interesting to see how they progress, how we’ve all progressed over it, from the first day or so. How the mindsets have changed, how they’ve changed each other. We listen to each other, respect each other. One of my guys, he was in prison, he just says, “What’s bugging you?” Most of my people are very refined. He’s an ex-con. The nicest guy, but he’s not going to pussyfoot around. He’s gonna ask.

So how will you get others to join the group? You sent me the newspaper article …

I was hoping. I haven’t heard anything since that article. I haven’t heard from a single person. It’s very daunting. I fought to get this article done, and they obliged me, and nothing came of it. One thing I’m hoping is, starting in September, I’ll be doing clinicals at a mental hospital. I will be working with suicide attempters. I hope to increase the numbers. I don’t know. I was very gung-ho when the group started. I was going to the local community college, literally 10 minutes away. Now I’m going to George Mason, a minimum of 45 minutes away. I’ve got clinicals, internships. I don’t have time to go to the library and put up a flier. I don’t have time to do that anymore. It’s very frustrating because I don’t know how to grow it. I would love to get involved with local hospitals and have them refer.

The reporter who did the article said the police scanner mentions seven or eight suicide attempts a week. Well, how do I reach those people? I thought the article would help, especially considering it made the front page. I think it’s gonna take a lot more. I think it will take actually going to hospitals, meeting with somebody. I think it will take someone higher up in hospitals or the police department to say, “Tell them about this.” There’s gotta be a way. I’ve talked to different attempters’ groups like in California, and no one can give me ideas on how to grow the group.

At least you know a common situation.

Right. It’s a very taboo subject, and people are very afraid to talk about it.

What makes you so comfortable with being outspoken?

One thing, I’ve been there and seen the worst. My wife, kids, brothers went through all of that with me. My psychiatrist enabled me to become the person I am with her support and correct medication. Vicki was supportive since day one. Working the helpline has opened my eyes in so many ways. And I always wanted to be a social worker. If you can’t advocate for yourself, who can you advocate for? My convictions run deep: In order to truly help someone, you have to help yourself. I’d be a crummy social worker if I had attempted suicide and only tell someone, “Oh, you don’t want to do that.” I think that’s the big thing. I have no problem being honest and open.

Should therapists talk about own experiences?

In my opinion, I think a lot of people go into this type of field because they have had these issues, regardless of it being domestic violence, sexual abuse, suicide. Maybe not to them but to family or friends, growing up. I think it influences a lot, more than they’re willing to admit. I’ve had a lot of people say, “Wow, you used your first AND last name in the paper!” I’m OK with it.

What’s it going to take to get more people to mention their first and last name, or to mention this at all?

Lots more exposure. It happens. There’s nothing wrong with somebody who just happened to try to take their own life. They shouldn’t be an outcast, a pariah just because they attempted. There’s so much confusion, they don’t understand: “Why would they do that?” Well, they really don’t know what’s going on in their lives, their mind, just like we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors. I just think a lot of it is that people are confused and scared by it, because I think seven out of every 10 people have thought about it, whether very seriously or just wishing to end it all. I think a lot have thought about it in passing, and it scares them.

Because they don’t want the thought to become more serious.

Right. Or they don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed or something. That’s only my opinion.

What else would you like to say?

I guess the biggest thing is, we’re trying to help ourselves out of this. I understand, I’ve been there. When you’re in the deepest, darkest hole, it’s hard to get out and see any sunlight. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Every one of my group members can attest to that. No matter how bad it is, it can get better. Everyone needs someone to talk to and not be judged like, “Wow, you’re weird.” Because if you ask me, there are a lot of things out there that are a lot weirder. I’d take a suicidal person any day other than a homicidal person, you know.

Who else are you?

My wife, Jayne, we started dating when I was in high school, and we’ve been together ever since. I have two boys. Literally, if I’m not in school or at work, I’m doing family time with my wife and kids. There is not a whole lot else. I have a half-brother and full brother, both in California. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see them that much.

I think a lot of this progressed with both my parents. My mother with pancreatic cancer, then my father with pancreatic cancer. My mother died on Oct. 15, 2000, which happened to be my father’s birthday. My father died a year and five days later. They’d been divorced 12 years. 12 years? Longer than that. Anyway. My mother despised the man. I have no doubt she died on that day for a reason. And her last days were a morphine-induced coma. I have no doubt she managed to save herself for that day. I also have no doubt my father never stopped loving my mother. They made me who I am today. Their deaths were so close together. When my mother was diagnosed, she was told she had months to live, and she lived three years. My stepfather took care of her, but during the week, I’d be there. Otherwise my older brother would be there. And I was there when she died. That really devastated me. My father a year later fell and broke his leg, and we took him to the emergency room. After being there nine hours, we knew there was a problem. Two weeks later, he was gone. So cancer, yeah, really opened my eyes. Even though it devastated me, it also helped me become who I am today.

This probably is not a fair question, but would you ever consider suicide again?

I would never, ever consider suicide again. Never. Ever. No ifs ands or buts. The only suicide I would consider is no life support, no extraordinary measures.

Is there any one thing that brought you to “No, never”?

I think it’s the combination of realizing I have mental illness, my wife’s support, the helpline, and now everything I’ve learned in social work classes. Now I know the statistic that every suicide is said to affect 60 people. You know, whether it’s your next-door neighbor or whatnot, but wow. Also, you know, it’s more likely that if someone you know commits suicide then it’s more likely that you commit. My youngest will be 9 next month, and he’s been hospitalized three times for suicidal ideation. I could not be a role model for that. Because if I took what I consider now the easy way out, then: “Well, Dad did it. I can do it.” Does that make sense?

Those are why I would never. I see people with terminal illness. When I started with the helpline, one question was who believes in it, to what degree. Then, it was, “Sure, yes.” Now it is, “No.” It will get better. It really will. I have a frequent caller, calling more than a year now. When she started, she had cancer and wanted to end it. The doctors were, “It’s terminal.” A year later, she’s cancer-free. It just goes to show, you never know. And if you take that quick, easy _ not necessarily easy _ that quick jump, you don’t know what you’re missing, your entire life could change.

I guess you could say the same thing about me. Now I say never. Could that change the next year? I guess. I don’t see it changing. I know I put my family and friends and everyone through hell, being hospitalized and everything. I can’t see doing it again.

Talking with Katie Ayotte

Katie Ayotte’s story is a striking mix of what resources are becoming possible for suicide attempt survivors and the disconnects that remain. At least two fascinating twists lie ahead as she talks about becoming a peer leader of a rare attempt survivors support group in the U.S.

Katie also expresses a major problem of suicide more clearly than I’ve been able to do myself. “When you live in a society where you can’t mention the word ‘suicide,’ or live in fear of saying the word ‘suicide’ and there being some negative consequences _ as long as you live in that kind of world, you’re not going to be able to prevent it.,” she says.

Who are you?

I’m Google-able. I’m a person with a Serious Mental Illness, though I consider it Seriously More Interesting. I’ve had a serious mental illness since I was very young. My first suicide attempt was when I was 12. I now speak out about suicide and work to reduce the stigma and shame around it.

Your first attempt was when you were 12. How old are you?

I’m 50.

And now you speak out about suicide. How did the change come about?

It came about with my last attempt, about three years ago as of July. I sit on the board for Magellan, a half-community, half-Magellan governance board. I’m the Adult Recipient of Care representative. I represent the adults who receive care within the behavioral health care system. I’ve been on the board since 2008. During one of our board meetings … Now, no one on the board knew I was struggling with depression, they would have considered me “high-functioning.” I didn’t allow them to see me depressed or down. I had lost my job in 2009, a job I really felt at home with. But certain circumstances came about and I quit on the advice of my doctor so my health would get better. I was struggling quite a bit. Around mid-July I attempted suicide. I was at the board meeting and David Covington had mentioned they were starting a programatic suicide deterrent task force committee.

I had voiced to David that I’d like to be on the steering committee. He told me when it would meet the first time. Little did he know when I asked that three weeks prior I had attempted to end my own life. So I went in without a thought of telling anybody what I had been through. It was probably the furthest from my mind. David started the conversation around suicide, what survivors look like, how he saw it to be able to prevent suicide. There was a lot of talk in the room, and I found it very frustrating, hearing a lot of stereotypes, stigma, fear. And I asked David if I could _ there were probably about 30 people _ if I could have the microphone. He said, “Sure.” And for whatever reason, I felt it necessary to share that three weeks prior I had tried to kill myself. I told them the story of my job, how I had felt hopeless and helpless and a burden on my family because I wasn’t bringing in income. I briefly told how I attempted and what stopped me from completing. Needless to say, the room got very quiet. I had wanted to put a human face to it, so they were not talking about “those people,” that I was one of them. And from there it moved forward. I had a small article written about me in a local magazine called “Together AZ.” That went well. And from there, David Covington asked me if I was willing to do an interview with Ed McMahon, a local talk show host.

Ed McMahon?

Well, it’s not THE talk show host. Or Pat McMahon? It’s on YouTube. Anyway, a local TV show. I just felt the need, the importance that somebody put a face to it. People would look at me and go, “I never would have thought that you would be one of those people.” I had a lot of people say that. I think that just fueled my desire even more. I did a campaign for Magellan, “One in Four,” on depression and a campaign called “Extraordinary People” where I shared my attempt.

What happened next?

I just started getting asked more and more to share my story. I found it to be very powerful to tell it and change people’s point of view.

What were people’s reactions, especially at that meeting? What were the first things they said?

Things like, “Oh my God, I’m sorry. We didn’t know.” “I had no idea.” Typical reactions. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

And what was your response?

You know, it was somewhat comforting that they cared enough to say something. But part of me was like, they were saying these things because they were uncomfortable with the story around suicide that I’d just shared.

Were most, if not all, of them mental health workers?

Most of them were, from various fields.

Shouldn’t they be used to hearing from people about suicide?

You would think so. I guess they weren’t prepared for someone to be so open. Suicide is still a word with a lot of stigma.

Have you noticed any change in reactions since you started speaking out?

People reach out and get to know me better. They’re more interested in getting to know me, they aren’t cut off by my suicide attempt, which is good. Unfortunately, now we’re starting up a suicide attempt survivors’ group and we have to work within the behavioral health system, and there are a lot of guidelines we have to work within. We run into a lot of stigma.

From whom?

Anyone from doctors to case managers. It’s a really interesting experience. I forget what a bubble I live in, my little world where I can talk openly about suicide and not think twice about it. But just the thought of getting a bunch of people who’ve had suicidal thoughts makes people uncomfortable. The fear of the contagion effect. Actually, it’s the opposite. If someone is able to talk, it reduces the risk.

Do you have any examples of people’s reactions? Things people said that made you want to smack yourself in the forehead and think, “I can’t believe they said that”?

I had a personal experience with a doctor that made me want to smack HIM in the forehead. My regular doctor, who had build a trusting relationship, had retired. So I’ve had a string of temporary doctors. This last one, who shall remain nameless, I went in to see him because my anxieties were high. He was taking down my history and asked what I did. I told him about my work. And he just locked onto the word “suicide.” “When was your last attempt? How many times have you attempted? How? When was your most serious attempt?” I was dumbfounded. Instead of focusing on what I had come there for, he locked on the suicide bit. I told him, “You know, I’m in a good place, I have my supports _ Hello, look at what I’m doing.” He had the nerve, when handing me my scrip for Klonopin, he held it for just that extra second before releasing it, looked at me and said, “Now, you’re not going to overdose on this, are you?”

Now I understand what people say when they refer themselves to the group, when they don’t want their doctors or case managers to know. I got it. When I tell different doctors what I do for a living, they get that look like, “Is that a good idea?” You can tell it makes them uncomfortable.

Have you found a way to put them at ease?

I try. I try to explain about the group, that I have a safety plan in place, that I have people around me who love me. I can go to my husband or my mother if I have suicidal thoughts. My mother lives with my husband and I. If I come in, sit on the floor and put my head on my mother’s knees and say, “One of those days,” she knows I’m having suicidal thoughts. The same with my husband. And an open conversation can be had around it.

They know what to do? And it works?

Yeah. It’s mostly listening, letting me get the thoughts out. They’re not trying to fix anything.

It sounds awfully simple.

Yeah. It does. And that’s what we try to provide in the group, a safe place where they can get it out and feel better. Instead of trying to stifle those thoughts or figuring out how to work out those thoughts ourselves, on our own, when they run wild on us.

And this work is a good idea for you?

Without a doubt, it is. Even if I’m having a bad day, I can tell the group. I’m a peer. Just like they are. I want them to realize they have the same power I have.

What about taking on their emotions? Isn’t the group intense?

So far, it hasn’t been. It has the potential to be, which is why I have supports in place. I have a co-facilitator, a supervisor, who is a clinician, in place. If there are challenges, there are people I can go to. Going through the phases of talking about it has made me very open about talking about suicide now. I feel it’s easy to go to somebody and say, “You know, I’m feeling challenges from suicidal thoughts.” With the group, I want them to understand I’m not perfect.

Tell me about the group. How many people do you have? What are they like?

We have seven members. It’s a very diverse group. Right now we have two men, two transgender and three ladies. They’re all primarily in the serious mental health behavioral system, where we get referrals from. Most are on disability. There’s one that works, and one does a lot of volunteer work. Three or four are actually participating in several groups or classes.

How does the group go? Have they loosened up at all since it started?

Yes. A normal group starts with the check-in: How’s your day, what’s worked and what’s not worked for you the past couple of weeks. Myself or the other facilitator brings a discussion topic unless a topic has already started during the check-in. We feel the group right now is very nurturing of each other. It’s loosened up quite a bit. It’s really interesting to see the group dynamics change from just two or three members. It was a little tight. It felt almost restricted. They weren’t as open.

What are you all learning from them? What’s been surprising?

What we’re learning is that this type of group is needed. People really are open to talking about suicidal thoughts. It goes against most of the stigmas out there. We’ve been surprised that most of the referrals have been self-referrals. So it’s been enlightening. When they find out the group exists, they want to be part of it. In general, I’m amazed at the compassion they have for each other, the support when one of them is having a challenge.

You mentioned having some restrictions with the group’s setup. What kind of guidelines are there?

As far as who can be in the group, I wish the guidelines weren’t there. I wish the group was open the public in general. It probably would have a better turnout. Because it’s funded by Magellan, we have to keep it within their guidelines. People in the group have to be Title 19, which is … I don’t know how to explain it in terms for someone not living in Arizona. Criteria such as having a serious mental illness, attempting suicide or having suicidal ideations, and you have to meet certain financial criteria. What that means is, you have to fall below a certain _ I hate using the word “poverty level” _ but a certain low-income category. Which makes them eligible for more services. Certain people like myself fall just above and have less available to us.

So if you weren’t the facilitator, would you be able to join the group?

No. Absolutely not. Because I don’t fall within the criteria. I’m only in because I’ve been involved since the very beginning.

How do you grow more of these groups?

Well, we keep getting out there, saying the word “suicide,” don’t shy away from using the word. We go out to the clinics, go to advisory board councils, talk about the group. We’re getting ready to do another round.

What about getting these kinds of groups to spread at the national level?

I guess just by getting people used to the word “suicide,” having people be OK with someone saying, “I’m having thoughts of suicide” or “I attempted it.” It’s got to be a cultural change. There won’t be one until we have more people with a voice ready and able to share their stories.

How do you know when you’re ready to share?

I believe that’s an individual and circumstantial process. I was in a certain circumstance when I felt it was important for me to speak out. One thing I can say is, someone who decides to speak out publicly really needs to make sure they have supports in place. That way, if something does trigger you, you have someone who gets what a bad day feels like.

(I asked about the concerns that led me to start the blog, described in “About the Blog.”)

Well, yeah. Of course there’s a concern that someone will do something that’s going to permanently affect their lives in a way they weren’t expecting. I can’t even imagine, having come so close to a completed suicide, finding that you’ve paralyzed yourself. There’s always a concern that someone will take a step too far, end up hurting themselves in a manner they didn’t expect. I know there’s a lot of times I worry about the people in the group _ we’re lucky, no one has attempted since they’ve been in the group _ how would I react if somebody attempted and became permanently disabled because of it? There are people who take these risks. I know in my last attempt, it was impulsive. I got halfway through a bottle of Klonopin and decided this was not what I wanted to do. I was in a panic. Was I too late? What happens now? Had I gone too far? I proceeded to make myself throw up as much as I could to keep myself from suffering permanent damage. I was fearful of saying something to my husband or my mother. Both were home and had no idea. This was before we had open conversation.

I hope this wasn’t the same bottle of Klonopin that the doctor handed you.

Yes, it was.

What! Do you find any humor in that, irony or something?

Yeah. He had no idea. The fact is that, the way he said it _ “You’re not going to overdose on ME, are you?” OK, I know whose ass you’re covering!

Yeah, I know others have had experiences like me who say, “Oh no, this is not what I meant to do.” And I bet some end up in worse-case scenarios, end up killing themselves or being disabled one way or another.

What can be done about that? There’s suicide prevention, crisis lines, lethal means restriction work

That’s a hard one. You’ve got all those things, but when you live in a society where you can’t mention the word “suicide,” or live in fear of saying the word “suicide” and there being some negative consequences _ as long as you live in that kind of world, you’re not going to be able to prevent it.

That sounds like a good ending. One more question: Who else are you, outside this issue?

I’m a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend. I mean, I have a wonderful husband and mother who are just so supportive and caring. I have a wonderful daughter and two absolutely amazing granddaughters. I’m just really blessed to have parts of my family close to me. I come from an abusive background. Coming from an abusive home, I never would have thought I would have the closeness I do. I feel incredibly blessed. Like with my mom living with us. She’s 75. I always told my husband it’s a package deal. You get me, you get her.

After hearing this, I feel I should ask the question many people might ask: Why would you want to leave all of that?

As much joy as I have, there have been times when the emotional pain has been as much or greater. The pain and depression just get so overwhelming, and I just lose the ability to fight.

Anything else?


‘Occupying’ psychiatry

“We all talk about it,” said Joseph Rogers. “It’s a good way to get committed, unfortunately.”

Rogers is the executive director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse, which often organizes the annual Alternatives Conference. He was among dozens of people from mental health consumers’ groups protesting last weekend outside the national conference of the American Psychiatric Association. There in Philadelphia to “occupy psychiatry,” they spoke out against the labeling, medicating and forced treatment of a growing number of people in the U.S. The mood was cheerfully defiant. The conference attendees either looked on, curious, from the edge of the crowd or breezed on by.

For me, it was rare to have so many people outspoken on mental health in one place at one time. I wanted to hear their speeches on acceptance and see whether the issue of suicide or suicidal thoughts had a place there.

Just in private conversation, as it turned out. Suicide was outside the protest’s main themes, even though expressing thoughts about it can lead to the treatments at issue. But several people there had firsthand experience with suicidal thinking or action and didn’t mind talking.

“I once put a recording of the song ‘Suicide is painless’ on my voice mail, and my friend heard it and got me committed,” Rogers said. “They thought I was feeling suicidal. Which I was.”

His self-help organization fits the spirit of the protesters, who are looking outside the established system to deal with mental health in ways that maintain a person’s respect, creativity and sense of self and control.

Daniel Hazen was there with a busload of people from his group Voices of the Heart, which later this year will launch “learning circles” to discuss suicide issues openly and without the fear of being locked up. “We talk a lot about it at our respite house: What’s at the root of saying suicide? What does suicide mean to you?'” Hazen said. “The idea is to even have providers feel comfortable. Let’s hear what’s going on, instead of what I call the Band-Aid _ ‘Take this pill, etc.’ It’s not going to be an easy subject. We want a diversity of people to sit down and talk.”

The learning circles will read and discuss the book “Thinking About Suicide” by attempt survivor and suicidologist David Webb. “I think David’s book is beautiful,” said Hazen, who struggled in the past with suicidal feelings and lost a good friend to suicide when he was a teen. “Suicide is a big issue with me. In general, nobody wants to talk about it. But that’s what saves people’s lives _ the connection. Listening to people, why they feel the way they do.”

He added of suicide, “They have the right to do it if they choose to. I’m not going to interfere.”

Other protesters stripped away the idea that suicide is always linked to mental illness. “When you’re suicidal, there’s not something wrong with you, there’s something with your environment,” said Megan Osborn, who was at the protest with The Icarus Project. She said she was extremely self-destructive for a long time and most recently thought about suicide more than a year ago, when she was working 60 hours a week without overtime for a food service company. “My suicidal difficulties came from feeling dehumanized in the workplace,” Osborn said. She quit and now works with the Mind(ful) Liberation Project in Richmond, Virginia.

The protest and follow-up talks by “Mad in America” author Robert Whitaker and PsychRights founder Jim Gottstein attracted lawyers, documentary makers, PhD candidates, community organizers, bloggers and therapists with the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry. Almost all, if not all, were mental health consumers.

As everyone gathered in a Quaker meeting hall before marching on the conference, protest organizer David Oaks of MindFreedom International reminded the crowd, “We’re the 100 percent.”

Talking with Ginny Sparrow

Was there really a time not so long ago when parents who lost a child to suicide were blamed, silent and ashamed? This was one of the surprising things I learned from Ginny Sparrow.

Ginny is a survivor of suicide, which is a term that can be confusing at first. Survivors of suicide have lost a family member or friend to suicide, and I’m told there can be tension between them and survivors of suicide attempts. But Ginny and I met at a national task force meeting on attempt survivors last month, and she quickly put me at ease. She’s direct, outspoken and cheerful, and she has plenty of experience trying to bring the issue of suicide out of the shadows for everyone.

Ginny asked if we could chat by e-mail (“KIDS! I’ve got two needy little girls!!!”) and here are her responses to a list of questions:

Who are you, and how did you get drawn into this?

In 1993, my mother died by suicide. I was informed at work over the phone, and my boss at the time immediately, literally, put Iris Bolton’s book “My Son, My Son” in my hands. I read it cover to cover on the plane ride home two hours later. It really saved me. She ended up being my support group leader a month later, and told me at that meeting, “Ginny, you and I are going to work together one day.” Ten years later, we were! She hired me to assist her at The Link Counseling Center and it was the best job I’ve ever had. Fulfilling, energizing, who knew suicide could be so enjoyable! Ha ha!

I was surprised to hear that people used to whisper about being a survivor of suicide. Why would that be?

The word stigma. I remember in the ’80s it was shameful to be gay, or even to have a gay family member! Can you imagine? Surviving a loved one’s suicide is as stigmatizing as surviving an attempt in our society. Why? Ignorance. Ignorance about mental health, ignorance about the prevalence of suicidal thoughts in our society because we don’t talk about it enough. Cancer used to be called the C word. Sadly, when I was diagnosed with cancer, my family acted a little ashamed, as they did when a family member came out of the closet, too. If they’d known suicide was around the corner, I’m sure they would have been a lot more accepting of the first two stigmatizing things in our family! It’s considered rude, I guess, to bring up depressing topics, so we leave things simmering. It’s unhealthy and part of the problem.

And how did people go about changing that and becoming more vocal about the issue?

Iris Bolton, Iris Bolton, Iris Bolton. In the ’70s, her 20-year-old son took his life, and boy, was the parent the guilty party back then. Instead of hiding her head, she took her role as director of The Link Counseling Center to begin a Survivor of Suicide support group in Atlanta, Georgia, and wrote her now famous memoir, “My Son, My Son,” which is still one of the best books for survivors, of any loss really, out there. She got a masters degree in suicidology from Emory University and became a public speaker on a topic not spoken about. She went to schools and told them they HAVE to talk about a suicide in their community. She went to news stations and told them they HAVE to quit romanticizing and sensationalizing suicide. Cluster suicides can sometimes be prevented if the first is handled correctly. She ended up speaking on national television a lot, and paid to travel around the world doing informational presentations as well as healing ceremonies. From her groundbreaking work, other organizations grew and grew, and now we have powerful agencies like the American Association of Suicidology in the forefront of the survivor and prevention fields.

What drew you into speaking out, and how has it gone so far?

Iris Bolton was my support group leader, and she personally trained me to lead support groups and speak at prevention and postvention meetings in our community of Atlanta, Georgia. Telling my story in group over and over helped so much (I always likened it to AA meetings) and gradually I found “my voice,” as Iris called it, to speak publicly. On an impulse, I submitted an essay to Surviving Suicide, a publication of the American Association of Sucidology. It was published, they asked me to write more, and seven years later Michelle Linn-Gust, AAS president, promoted me to editor. I’m really honored to hold the position, I feel like it’s a gift having survivors submit to me, bravely sharing their stories publicly. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, and I respect the survivors so much for their courage to contact me.

What is the range of responses when you talk about this, and ideally, how would you like people to respond?

I’ve learned to be super careful!  And to know my audience! Remarkably, groups of mental health professionals have the most alarming response. I could tell numerous stories of how sharing my mother’s suicide story elicits uncomfortable reactions from those you’d think would be the best armed to deal with it. It’s also a conversation stopper at a dinner party, a “Change the subject, please” topic in many one-on-one conversations. I’ve learned to really temper my story with education. If it comes up, and the truth needs to be told, I often say things like “Yes, I did lose my mother in my 20s. You know, she was mentally ill for a long time, and her illness was never diagnosed as she hid it well and never sought real help. She finally took her own life at age 49. I’ve had a lot of therapy around it, and have ended doing a lot of work in suicide prevention _ I feel it honors her memory. I don’t think about her in her last moments anymore _ I have tons of great memories!” As you can see, I try to finish it up with a tad of inspiration! It removes a little of that awkward gawking I receive.

I really don’t care how people respond. It says more about them than it does my mother’s decision, so I just allow people to feel however they want. It doesn’t insult me anymore when they act appalled. They just don’t know, and that’s OK.

People have said that there can be tension, if not anger, between survivors of suicide and attempt survivors. Have you seen that, or do you have any examples?

Yes! And it really bothers me. I feel attempters have so much to give in the prevention field; I’m curious why they don’t have a bigger voice. Do professionals look at an attempter as a failure on their part? What do survivors feel about attempters? I have one story that really was insightful. My very first survivor support group meeting was a month after my mother’s death. I was a blubbering mess, and petrified of speaking, hoping I could sit in the back unnoticed. At the beginning of group, Iris Bolton announced that a young lady who had survived her own attempt recently wished to speak with us. The girl spoke for maybe 40 minutes, and I was mesmerized. I felt I finally understand how my mother felt in the last minutes of her life. The girl spoke of how yes, she was sort of doing it as a “take that” to the world, but mostly she felt so horribly useless and was tired of being a burden on her parents. So she cut her wrists, but some force of nature intervened; she never lost consciousness, and all she felt was numbing in her arms, then she was nearly paralyzed in her arms. Panicked, she called 911, in fear of living and being disabled. Months later, she was still numb in most of her fingers and wasn’t sure if she’d ever regain use of them. Now, she really felt a burden on her parents. But she wanted to speak out to help people understand suicide is not the way out. She wanted her story to be a warning to others.

After she left, Iris asked the group how we felt. The parents in the group looked ready to explode. They were so angry at this girl, they could hardly contain themselves. They wanted to yell at her, they wanted her to know exactly how much pain she had caused. I had the opposite reaction, I wanted to hug her and thank her for giving me a window into my mother’s world. But I seemed to be the only one in a group of 40-plus people who felt that way, so I kept my mouth shut. It was my first meeting, after all! Since then, I’ve noticed survivors’ reactions to attempters, they almost shun them. So odd to me, you’d have to ask them for an explanation. It’s just painful, I suppose.

Now you are on a task force for attempt survivors. How has your own attitude toward attempt survivors changed? And what brought about that change?

My attitude’s the same as it always has been _ that they hold valuable information to help survivors understand, and to help the world be more sensitive to hurting people.

What are the issues that may be the toughest to address if the two groups are to get along or work together?

That weird un-acceptance survivors have. I doubt any of them would admit it, but it’s obvious to me the chill in the room when someone confides they have attempted. At the AAS Conference in 2011, a brave woman stood up on Survivors Day and shared her experience at attempting and spoke of her book “Struck By Living” and gave it to the speaker at the time. When the session was over, I sought the author out to talk to her about interviewing her and reviewing her book for Surviving Suicide. I thought others might want to chat with her, so I rushed to find her, but there she was alone in her chair, packing up her bag to go present a workshop on her story. All alone. I found it so odd. I felt the impulsion to hug her and salute her for her bravery. I wanted to attend her workshop but was committed to cover another one for AAS. I always wondered how that workshop went, if any survivors attended, if any professionals attended.  It would be worth looking into.

And how would you like to see them work together?

I’m not entirely sure they can work together. But I think there’s information to be shared that can save lives. I think if survivors realized how unselfish an attempter feels at the moment, it would help. And I think if attempters could see the aftermath of a suicide, they could use that to inspire them to go on.

What else would you like to add?

I would love attempters to gain the voice in our society that survivors have. Survivors have a walk similar to the breast cancer walk, called Out of the Darkness. I don’t think attempters need their own walk; it seems like attempters could benefit so much from co-walking with survivors. Perhaps one day they will! Perhaps they already are, and we haven’t noticed.

After Ginny replied, I asked for a little more about who she is outside this issue:

Well … Ginny Sparrow is a huge foster child advocate in her free time! I kept the first baby they gave me three years ago, so my husband says, “No more” because I can’t give them up! I also have a talented 8-year-old biological child who keeps me busy and an adorable shelter dog who is the love of our lives! That be it for me! Keeps life full here in sunny San Diego. When I have any time or money left, I buy books and lose sleep with them. Books are my constant companion.