Talking with Sandra Kiume Dawson

The Canadian activist who tweets at @unsuicide has built a peerless guide to the online world of crisis response, and she’s done it on her own time with zero budget. Here, Sandra Kiume Dawson discusses suicide hoaxes, what Twitter does wrong, the need for transparency, why hotlines are outdated, and how to walk the oh-so-careful law enforcement line between tracking people down for help and scaring them away.

Sandra also makes a special note about why trained peers like herself are crucial online. “We’ve seen the darkness, and it can’t get any darker,” she says. “I’m not afraid of it. I can hold someone’s hand and guide them out of it. And I think there should be more safe spaces like that.”

Who are you?

My name is Sandra Kiume Dawson. I’m a suicide attempt survivor, living with bipolar and other conditions since I was 7. I’ve had multiple attempts. Through treatment and self-education, I’ve learned a lot about suicide prevention, both from the standpoint of suicidology but also from more grassroots efforts. I have a part-time job as a mental health blogger at PsychCentral that helps ensure I keep current with mental health news.

Suicide is not the only topic, but I often write about it. I also have a wiki, Online Suicide Help, which is a directory specializing in e-mental health services, crisis IM chat services, social media supports, peer support forums and more. There’s quite a lot out there and more all the time. I’ve collected these resources into one place so people can find them easily. Another thing I do, I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 as @unsuicide, a peer support suicide prevention account. I’m not a trained counselor, but since I have lived experience and a lot of knowledge of the mental health systems, I can help people navigate both online and off to find supports.

A typical conversation with someone on Twitter is something like, “I have a plan to kill myself.” I’ll say, “Do you want to go to the hospital?” “No.” “Do you want to call a hotline?” “No, I don’t want that. I’m afraid the police will come knocking at my door.”

Or, “I have anxiety; I don’t want to talk on the phone.” That’s where online services are helpful: texting or IM chat services. It’s great to see more and more available. But I also refer people to peer support, because often people are more interested in peer support than professional help, or they want both. People want to know others really understand them; they can talk to someone who’s been where they are and have recovered. That provides a lot of hope, makes people less alone. Feeling suicidal is a very isolating experience, and so anything that makes you feel less alone is helpful.

Where did you come up with the term “unsuicide”?

I thought it was catchy and reflected my goal of people proactively preventing their own deaths. Unsuicide as the opposite of suicide.

When did you start pulling all these resources together?

I started on Twitter in 2009, and created the Online Suicide Help directory in 2011. I had already been bookmarking resources for over a decade.

Do you have everything?

No. I don’t pretend to be completely comprehensive. I’m continually searching for more, and asking people to share links. And there are always more services coming on board, especially with crisis chats.

Do you have measurements of users, traffic, etc.?

I do keep track. I get about 6,000 hits a month and have 15,000 Twitter followers.

Who comes to you?

With the wiki, it’s really worldwide. I’ve had visitors from 158 countries. The tragic thing about that is that while I’m aware of the worldwide need for online services, they’re not always able to access services because of geoblocking – restricting services to one country or even a single town. There’s a huge need to create an international network so people in, say, Mongolia or Malaysia or Ecuador or, you know, any country that doesn’t have the money to start their own services, can access help. People are desperately searching, and it’s devastating when they find there is a service but it intentionally won’t serve them.

Do you get paid at all, and how much time does this take?

No. I don’t get paid for this at all. How much time is really variable. I will check usually every day to answer tweets, share links. I would guess an average of maybe an hour a day, two. If someone contacts me to talk, it can take more time.

What has been the response from organizations you reach out to?

The IASP at least wrote me back. A lot of organizations don’t. I’ve tried writing to organizations that completely ignored me, like the Samaritans in the UK. It’s been frustrating because I don’t have a Ph.D, I’m not a suicidologist, am not employed by an organization and I don’t have credentials. And because of that, I think they’re not willing to engage with me.

You mention that you’ve had the experience?

Yes. It doesn’t make a difference. There have only been a handful of organizations that have taken me seriously. Crisis Chat is one, in the US.

A big exception happened recently with a petition I started to ask the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to change the language of “survivors of suicide” to “survivors of suicide loss” or “the bereaved” in their events and literature. Once it reached 100 signatures, I contacted the CEO, Robert Gebbia, and he was very responsive and respectful and agreed that the language needed to change. I look forward to that happening soon.

What more would you like to see?

An organization that involves and includes users, by which I mean Internet users and app users who are also mental health service users. I see sometimes that organizations will engage stakeholders and say, “Oh, we’ll bring in a couple of people with lived experience and see what they think, or do a focus group,” but those consultants are not always on social media and seeing what triggers people in that realm. It’s people who don’t necessarily know the online landscape. Without mentioning an organization, I saw this just recently and it was really discouraging. I think people with lived experience who are brought on board need to have certain qualifications. Not academic, but the right experience.

In terms of diagnosis? Or what they lived through?

What they lived through, and what type of services they’ve engaged with in the past.

Have they used online services, do they know what they’re like, the barriers involved?

Just pulling someone out of the hospital randomly doesn’t mean they know how a crisis chat operates, or what kind of supports are on Twitter or Reddit, or the pros and cons of texting vs. IM chat.

Do you have a roll call of favorite resources?

Yes. There’s a service called for Canadian youth under age 30, which is actually problematic as a lot of online and texting services are just for youth and adults are often left out. They’re a great site, with texting, chat, a forum and trained counselors. IM Alive is now available 24/7, which is fantastic, and I’m also fond of Crisis Chat. But both those services are for Americans only. I wish I could recommend a peer support service, but I only know a few services that aren’t specifically for suicide. Real-time, peer-led suicide prevention intervention online almost does not exist! There’s one tiny service in the UK, but that’s all I’ve found beyond social media, and those people are lacking organization, training and support. There’s such a need for this. The professional peer support specialist community has not seemed to recognize this need yet, or has not acted on it. Professionalized peer support is only available offline.

How much do you think traditional nervousness around suicidal thinking affects not innovating?

I think it causes a rift because traditional services are hesitant to bring lived experience on board. I think in America it tends to be even more split: peer-led groups tend to be doing their own thing, as often they have a history of antipsychiatry activism. And possibly for that reason, the peer-led organizations – I don’t know, I’m just guessing here – but they’re maybe not privy to the same research that other suicide prevention organizations have access to. So maybe they’re not as up with changes in technology and demographic trends. I’ve noticed, too, that not only have I had trouble engaging with the traditional organizations, I’ve had even more trouble getting cooperation from peer-led organizations. There’s a schism that they’re suspicious of anything to do with psychiatry, and they want to do things their own way, and if you’re working within or advocating the medical model at all, you’re suspect. At least, I’ve been shunned before for that reason.

So that’s why I’m kind of doing things on my own here, you know? It’s frustrating. But if suicidologists don’t want to work with me and peer support activists don’t want to work with me, it hasn’t stopped me from doing a lot on my own.

But you’re on a national consumer group in Canada, right?

I’m a member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada Advisory Council. It’s not a consumer group, but I’m one of three members with lived experience on the council. It’s really exciting because I’m now included in high-level strategic discussions for national mental health policy. People with lived experience are not often involved at that level.

How did you come across each other?

I was already on their e-list. They put out a call, and I was one of almost 200 applicants.

Again, are you being paid?

For the advisory council, I receive a per diem plus travel expenses, yes. For the work I do on my own, no. I can’t expect to be paid for something that’s my own initiative. But I don’t mind, I can do a lot on my own. I went to an e-mental health conference last winter and showed a researcher my wiki, and she was just amazed I had a budget of zero. They spend millions to create a website, and to me, that’s such a waste of money. I can make a
site for nothing. So I did.

Where else would you like to take this?

I’d like to see what I’m doing expand into an international network with the cooperation of Twitter, as well as law enforcement. That’s beginning to happen now, but I’d like to see more peer involvement in the design and operation. When people have already announced they’ve ODed, they need immediate medical attention, and there’s no way to get them care if you can’t track their IP, which only law enforcement can. It’s really frustrating when people leave suicide notes and you can’t do anything else. Twitter is not helpful, all they do is send an automated DM telling the user to call a hotline. A new approach involves cooperation with social media companies, law enforcement and professionals who do counseling online. But it’s also critical to have peer support and lived experience advocacy in that equation. I see a lot of people afraid to talk to nurses and doctors, and even more afraid to talk to police. Peers have empathy, they’re not as scary, they understand and they can have intervention skills training. The right person with the right training and experience can be even more effective as a crisis counselor than someone who doesn’t have that lived experience.

What’s the ideal way to involve cops?

I think there needs to be rational discussions between people with lived experience and the police to see what those boundaries are. For example, many people don’t know the difference between self-harm and a suicidal act. They see a tweet “I just cut myself” and see that as a suicidal act, and if they brought in police to knock on the person’s door, it would be inappropriate. To have that knowledge, to know when intervention is warranted, is vital. Otherwise, you just scare people off, and they don’t trust you anymore. Phone hotlines have this problem, they have a reputation as being untrustworthy because they call police, and it’s a big part of the reason people I talk to refuse to call a hotline. It’s hard to know when to make that call.

Are online crisis services more transparent about their policies about contacting police?

Some are, but generally not that I’ve seen, no.

How do you work with law enforcement?

I’ve only called police a few times since 2009. I don’t involve police unless an attempt has already taken place and the person is unresponsive. One was an example of someone who left a suicide note and left enough clues on their timeline that I was able to figure out where the person lived. I called police, they checked it out, and it turned out to be a hoax. It’s surprisingly common. Another time, a girl, a teenager I had been talking to for over a month, was really depressed. She was saying how she was going to kill herself on her birthday. It was coming in three weeks, two weeks, one. I kept trying to get her to go to a school counselor, any kind of option, but she was not willing to do anything. She just kept coming back at me with, “I’m going to kill myself on my birthday.” When the day arrived, she left a suicide note on her timeline. That was it. I called police. They tracked her down at her school, and she was super mad at me. She deleted her Twitter account, and I never heard from her again.

She was OK?

She was alive.

Did law enforcement get back to you?

No. But she had made so many threats repeatedly, and she was so unresponsive that I felt involving police to get her to help was warranted. There was a similar incident with another girl but not enough clues about location, and when I phoned police, they said no, because it’s on the internet they can’t do anything. They brushed it off. That’s been a barrier to working with police. Unless they know an exact street address, they don’t respond. They don’t have access to Twitter’s user data. Fortunately, that’s changing now with the new Real Time Crisis service.

Why are suicide hoaxes surprisingly common? Why would someone do it?

I can only guess, as I’ve not read any research on the topic. But basically, it’s for attention, it’s to gain more followers or specific followers and get sympathetic messages encouraging them to live.

“Celebrity blackmail” is one very common reason behind a suicide hoax, especially among youth, but I’ve seen it happen with fans and stalkers of any age. The person will send a tweet to a celeb saying, “If you don’t talk to me/follow back/RT me, I’ll kill myself,” and it’s purely to gain the attention of their idol.

Another category of hoaxes comes from people who are genuinely disturbed, trying to gain attention for a personal issue in which they’ve felt silenced. They may tweet repeatedly to mass media accounts as well as anyone who will listen about being victimized by something, and sometimes make suicide threats.

I think someone who creates a hoax does have issues to look at, it’s not something a healthy person does just for fun.

You say Twitter isn’t responsive. Is that the same for other social media companies?

They all have different policies.

How hard would it be for them to make the changes you’d like to see?

It’s a technical issue, isn’t it? On one hand, you don’t want just anyone to say, “Oh my friend says she doesn’t like her life,” and send the police. That would not be a good approach. But if it’s a matter of, there’s a safety team already online and doing outreach and identifying when there’s a real, bona fide crisis and there’s a life in danger, an attempt has happened and a person needs immediate medical care, that’s where I would like to see Twitter and other services working with police and peers. And it’s coming, slowly.

What are the risks involved?

Of service users becoming less trusting of people like me. Right now, people trust me because I’m one of them, I have empathy and I’m not a police officer or a doctor. I don’t want people being afraid to contact me. Transparency is really important. One problem with hotlines is people being afraid of police being dispatched. Some hotlines have different policies. Some will send police and some have confidentiality policies. It would be better to know up front, because people have been quite traumatized by police showing up at their door unexpectedly.

Have you reached out to crisis lines on that issue?


Here’s a question I’ve had a lot: What is a good suicide forum online?

It depends on the kind of support you want. I have close to 100 mental health forums linked in my wiki. Specifically for suicide, there are a couple I don’t recommend, but Suicide Forum is a good one. I also like PsychCentral’s forum, it’s a major one, but it’s not for suicide talk. It’s good for issues of depression or anxiety. You can dance around it, but you can’t mention suicide.

Why tiptoe around the subject in forums like that?

I wish they didn’t! It’s because of the fear of triggering, but where do you go if you can’t talk to peers, right? That’s why projects sometimes turn up on their own with their own rules. And that’s where my Twitter service comes in. People can say anything they want to me. I don’t get triggered. I think those who’ve had attempts are less afraid of talking about it. We’ve seen the darkness, and it can’t get any darker. I’m not afraid of it. I can hold someone’s hand and guide them out of it. And I think there should be more safe spaces like that. I guess that’s what hotlines are for, but they’re so outmoded, and they’re not peer services.

One thing I’d like to see, if we’re talking about alternatives: safe places to go and talk about suicidal feelings without the risk of being forcibly taken to the hospital. 24/7 crisis respite services with peer support and clinicians where people are free to talk about their feelings and not afraid of being institutionalized, even though that fear is often based on stigmatizing old stereotypes and not the reality of modern hospitals. It would be good to see that concept online as well. If you’re going to build a peer crisis service, with warmlines, etc., why not make them online services as well? Demand is there.

I’m not afraid of hospitals myself, and am not anti-psychiatry. Medication works very well for me, and I’ve been in hospital many times without any abuse. It kept me safe and saved my life. But I recognize that there are a significant number of service users who are afraid of hospitals or who had bad experiences and don’t want to go back. They should have an alternative.

How do you protect and take care of yourself when working with people in crisis?

For one thing, when I hear some of the negative things commonly expressed, I can recognize them as symptoms of depression, bipolar, whatever the person is dealing with.

A lot of people I talk to have borderline personality disorder, for example, which I used to have but recovered from. So I know the symptoms. When someone says a statement I recognize, I encourage perspective and insight.

I’m also very good at self-care and managing my moods and reactions to triggers, and when I feel fragile I simply don’t log into @unsuicide. I take a break from it for as long as I need to. I have the flexibility and knowledge to do that.

How did you get better?

It wasn’t simple. It was a multi-stage process. Finding the right medication combination and adjusting when needed, with the help of my doctor, was essential, but that’s not the whole answer. Lifestyle changes were critical: regulating my sleep cycle, getting fresh air and sun, lots of nature. Parks and trees are good for me. Moving to a quiet community that was a less stressful environment was helpful. Whatever I can do to lower stress is good. I also went through both CBT and DBT therapy, which were very helpful. I practice gratitude, and really like mindfulness meditation. I have a lot of apps as well. My mental health toolkit is a formidable arsenal. And last but definitely not least, love and support from my wife has been amazing and so helpful to my stability.

Where are you today?

In a pretty stable place. I still have occasional episodes. I can still get triggered, but I’m careful about self-care and pulling back from things when I’m feeling vulnerable. I’m not on @unsuicide every day if I’m in a low mood. If I’m just feeling kind of jaded about things, not feeling very supportive, I’ll just say, “I need some self-care, I’ll be offline today.” People understand. I leave the link to the wiki: “Here are others who can help you.”

Who else are you?

I do jewelry design as a hobby, and I don’t know, I’ve been many things in my life. I’m an Air Force brat, I grew up all over the place. Then I lost and gained a lot of different jobs, so I can’t say, “I’m a (blank)” because I didn’t have one career. There was so much chaos. In the last 10 years or so, since going on disability, things have calmed down.

I’m a mental health advocate, though I don’t like that phrase so much because it’s so vague. I’ve been on the board of a mental health housing nonprofit society, I’ve worked for a homelessness and mental health research project and I have a part time job at PsychCentral. Never just one thing.

Anything else to add?

I see so much peer support available online in forums and chat rooms, but I see damaging advice being given, flame wars sometimes. And I think there’s a real need for people giving peer support to have some skills training, and I don’t know how that could happen in an unmoderated internet. On one hand, you have certified peer support specialists working one-on-one with people offline. On another hand, you have millions of informal peer supporters online, but those people have no training at all, and sometimes they’re giving really bad advice. They don’t have an ethics background, or trauma-informed care skills, and they often can be triggering to people. I just wish those certified peer specialists would merge with the informal peer support. Set up a free mass training system for mental health literacy and intervention skills, a free webinar, or a site where you can get a mini-certificate. If peer specialist trainers set it up, that would be the most logical thing to do. But right now, I basically see them ignoring the internet and not integrating it into their work. They’ve got to get over that. Mental health professionals are now routinely offering e-mental health services, and it’s time professional peer support specialists were doing it as well.

Talking with David Granirer

Can suicide, and mental health at large, be funny? This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed someone who believes it can, but perhaps no attempt survivor has taken on the question as directly as David Granirer. The Canadian founded and runs an organization that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues.

David sees his work as part of the growing outspokenness of the recovery and consumer-driven movement. “The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, ‘Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office,'” he says.

Here, he talks about taking his students to perform in psych wards, the scandal of a teen’s recent suicide behind bars in Canada and what happens when a psychiatrist takes the stand-up stage as well.

Who are you?

I’m David Granirer, a counselor, stand-up comic, author, speaker and a mental health consumer. I have depression. I run Stand Up for Mental Health, my program teaching comedy to mental health consumers as a way of building confidence and fighting public

And where are you?


How did you get to this point?

My depression started when I was 16 or 17. I attempted suicide when I was 17, and I was in the psych ward for six weeks. All the red flags were there. I look back, knowing what I know now, and I can’t imagine how they could have missed all the signs. No one caught it ’til my mid-30s. So from the time I was 16 til my mid- 30s, I just thought it was normal to always be depressed. I thought everyone was like that. I had no idea there was any other way of being.

Until I was about 26, I was a musician. Then I hurt my wrist. I played guitar but wasn’t able to play any more, so I went through a floundering-around period. I started doing volunteer work with the Vancouver Crisis Center, and it clicked. I met great people, they hired
me as a trainer, and I trained as a counselor.

Then, around the same time, I started doing stand-up comedy and was asked to teach a stand-up comedy course at a local college. This was 1998. It gave me the idea for Stand Up for Mental Health. I would see people come through the class and have these life-
changing experiences after doing their showcase. One woman said she had a fear of flying, then after our show, she got on a plane and didn’t have that fear anymore. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to give people this kind of experience!” I taught comedy to a group of recovering addicts, then cancer patients, some of them terminal, some in remission. Then I started Stand Up for Mental Health.

But you weren’t diagnosed yet, right?

No, I started it in 2004. I was diagnosed in 1993. Yeah, being diagnosed. I’ve done lots of therapy, but getting on medication made a huge difference. I know it’s fashionable in some places to be anti-medication, but anti-depression medication made a huge difference.

Are you still on it?


How has your group gone?

We started with one group here in Vancouver. The next year, there was a documentary called “Cracking Up” made on us in 2005. “Cracking Up” won a Voice award by SAMHSA, are you familiar with them? Thanks to the documentary, it really expanded my reach. Now I run classes all over North America. Basically, I’m contracted to run the classes by different mental health organizations in various cities.

Right now, I’m working with a group in Phoenix and I give classes via Skype. Then, at the end, I fly in and do a big show with the comics. I will also be running a group in Australia starting in the summer.

Is any subject taboo?

In Stand Up For Mental Health, the rule is nothing racist, sexist or homophobic. All the comedy is clean, no swearing, nothing obscene or grossly sexual. We’re often asked to perform in all kinds of places, military bases, correctional institutions, medical school
programs, government departments, corporations, universities, etc. We need to be able to go in and present a positive face of the mental health community. That certainly isn’t helped if people are gross and obscene. It’s really classy, well-done, clean humor. But other than that, people pretty much talk about anything: psych wards, hallucinating, times in psychosis, drug and alcohol problems, suicide attempts. Yeah, that’s pretty much whatever they want to talk about. You can see clips on the website.

Is it easy to find humor in a suicide attempt?

In some ways it’s a pretty black topic, but certainly we’ve had comics talk about it in acts and come up with really funny stuff.

For example?

Yeah. Actually, well, there’s one comic who has a great line, quite black, she says, and I’ll try to get the quote right, she says, “I’ve attempted suicide. Obviously I wasn’t successful, but I did learn one thing: that I CAN tie a knot to save my life.” So that’s an example.

When it’s mentioned, is it kind of fleeting, one joke, or is it all a comic
talks about?

I don’t think anyone just talks about one thing in their whole routine. I think in stand-up you tend to talk about different things. So, no, there’s no one who does a whole routine on suicide.

Does anyone ever point it out and say, “I can’t believe you go there?”

I think sometimes people may be a bit taken aback, but they also realize that people are not making fun of suicide attempts, they’re talking about their own lives. So when you hear it in that context, it sort of takes the edge off. So people would hear it and say, “Oh wow,
that was a pretty intense experience that person must have had.”

Do you have your own joke about it?

Yeah, I talk about my own suicide attempt. To roughly paraphrase it, the joke is, people are really afraid to talk about suicide. My friend says, “I’m afraid if I use that word, it will give you ideas.” I say, “Listen, when I’m depressed, I think about doing myself in every second of the day, so if you ask if I’m suicidal do you really think I’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before’?” So people use terrible euphemisms. Like, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” “Like talk to an idiot like you?” When I tell the joke in Canada I say, “Someone asked me, ‘Are you thinking of going to a better place?’” And I’m like, “Hey man, I’m from Winnipeg, any place is better than that.” In the U.S., since most Americans aren’t familiar with Winnipeg, I use a local reference they can relate to. So basically, it’s a joke about how afraid we are to talk about suicide, and how important it is to bring it up.

(I mention my previous interview with Mike Stutz, who made a documentary about suicide that includes humor and who has faced nervous responses from some suicide prevention people.)

We’re not specifically a suicide organization. Since we talk about so many different things under the headline of mental health, that makes it more acceptable. In general, we’ve had very little pushback. In some ways, Stand Up for Mental Health is the right idea at the
right time. Right now, the recovery movement is pushing the edge. People are looking for new modes of recovery, new modes of spreading the anti-stigma message. The fact that we came along with a unique way of doing it has been picked up by a lot of mental
health organizations: “We’d love to do something like that.” There’s been a minority of cases where someone said they took it to the board: “Comedy? You can’t do comedy about this.” But usually, once they see the documentary, the resistance is gone. I send out tons of copies. Once they see it, they totally get it. I think they’re afraid we’ll trivialize the subject, make fun of it. But then we have fun with it. Mostly what I’ve experienced was enthusiasm, interest, positive interest.

Your website mentions that you’ve performed in psych wards. How did that go?

It’s gone great. People, when we’ve gone into psych wards, they love us, you know. The patients love it, the staff loves it. Let’s face it, it’s not a lot of fun to be in a psych ward, and it’s not fun to have a mental illness. People are dying to laugh. And when you give them a
chance to laugh about it, and the comedy is actually being delivered by people who’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, it’s very inspiring: “Wow, I have the same condition, and if they’re capable of doing that, I can do something amazing, too.”

What was the first time like for you, performing in a psych ward?

The first time we performed in a psych ward, it was a place called Riverview, one of the big ones out here, probably in 2004 or 2005. They actually asked us back every year, but the audience is getting smaller because they’re gradually closing down. The first show had
probably 200 or 300 people, the auditorium was packed with people, and it was hilarious. I think the last show we did, there were 30 or 40 people. Like I say, they’re closing down. I’m not sure, but I think they’re trying to get people back into the community. But yeah, it was
great because there was staff and patients.

It didn’t bring back any memories of your own experience, walking into that setting?

I think enough time had gone by, like 25 years, so no, it really didn’t. I think I was more concerned like I usually am with things like, “Do I have the order of comics right, what parts of the act am I going to do, etc.?”

Do you change the message depending on the place you’re in?

We’re going to be doing a show in a couple of weeks for a government organization. Certainly with them, it will be more mainstream. I’ll probably do the suicide joke, but what I find is if we’re playing to mental health consumers, we can push the edges a lot more. We don’t have to worry about them being taken aback about something that’s too black. For corporate or government audiences, we keep it mainstream.

Is there something you’d like to explore but is too over the line?

Not really. The only thing I haven’t found anyone make funny is the topic of sexual abuse. I just tell people to stay away from it, not because it’s a bad thing to talk about, but because I’ve never heard anyone find any humor in it.

I see you have a Wikipedia page, and I like that it has a note at the top that says, “This page has issues.” That was kind of cute. But maybe that’s an Americanism.

I’ve seen the page, and I know it says, “This page has issues.” They think it’s like a promotional piece. Someone wrote that a while ago. And I’m not sure, to me, it seems factual. It doesn’t seem too _ yeah, it’s out of date. I should get someone to update it. I don’t know quite what they mean.

Have you had any memorably bad responses to your shows?

In general, in terms of myself, I can remember some really bad comedy experiences at crappy bars, stuff like that, just dreadful. I can remember my very first comedy experience. I had wanted to do comedy for a couple of years. I finally got the courage to do amateur night at a local club and had no idea what I was doing. The club sat about 200 or 300 people, but only about 25 were there, just a sprinkling. An empty cavern. They put me up first, threw me to the wolves. I did five minutes of dead silence. So that was my first experience. I thought, “OK, no need to do that again.” I probably wouldn’t have gone back, but this comedy course came to Vancouver, and I took it. The next time I got up there, the club was packed with all our friends etc. I was an amazing audience, an amazing night. I was hooked.

Is there any group you’d steer away from in the future in the mental health routine?

Not really. I’d say sometimes some audiences … You know, it’s really hard to say. Basically, the overwhelming number are really good. Occasionally, you run into an audience that’s real quiet. Sometimes, in part, people in the audience were heavily medicated, not responsive. But there’s so little of that. First of all, people want to be
there, they’re up for it. For corporate and government groups, there’s usually quite a bit of buzz around it. People are excited: “Wow, how often do you have comics come into the workplace?” Some people, they’re intrigued: “Wow, they’re going to be talking about
mental illness?” There’s usually quite a bit of buy-in already. I make sure the comics have good experiences with comedy. We don’t do pubs unless we’re really clearly advertising what they’re getting. If it’s a drinking crowd on Saturday night, we’re not a good fit for that
because they want a certain kind of humor. When you’re partying on a Saturday night, you don’t want to talk about schizophrenia and suicide and all that. And so I screen all the venues really carefully. I think that’s been part of the success, getting in front of the right

Among the students, what moments stand out for you?

Probably I’ve taught since 2004, I’m thinking between 300 and 400 students across North America have taken the class. So, a lot of great moments. In terms of stories that stand out, there have also been a lot, so many. I’m thinking of one fellow featured in “Cracking Up.” Robbie Engelquist had just come out of Riverview after almost six months. He had finally stabilized. When he went in, he was really sick. He thought he had to drink his own blood; he was hearing demons, smashing his head against walls. Anyhow, he came out, and he was finally stable. But it was like he was dead. Unfortunately, the mental health system had nothing to offer him. He said, “I didn’t want to sit around all day going to groups and talking about my illness.” His mom found out about SMH and brought him to a show and he decided to take the program. But he was convinced he would fail. He had failed at everything. I mean, how do you pass school when you have undiagnosed schizophrenia? He was always in trouble with police, etc. But then he succeeded, then he succeeded again and again. He’s probably done 150 shows. He’s one of our stars. It’s completely changed his life. It’s the first time he got attention for something positive. That was in 2005. He’s still around doing shows with us seven years later. Yeah, he just turned into a really good comic, does rap music now, really cool stuff.

Is there anyone you feel you can’t work with, who doesn’t fit?

There have been a couple of cases. I remember we had one woman _ there are certain ground rules, ways of behaving, how to behave towards the class, etc. And also certain ground rules about stand-up comedy. One thing is, it’s all original material. You’re not allowed to steal jokes you read on the Internet or hear at parties and pretend they’re your own. It’s just not done. It lessens the value of the act. The cool thing about stand-up is that you’re doing something the audience can’t do, and if they see you doing jokes they’ve heard they think, “That’s no big deal, I can do that.”

Long story short, one of the comics was doing that. At first, I didn’t realize it, but people started coming to me: “I’ve heard that joke.” I did research. So basically I said, “It’s gotta be original.” She got really angry. She said in her culture they did that (used other people’s
material), and it was OK. I was like, “Um, no. This is stand-up comedy. I don’t care what you do in your culture. These are the rules you all agreed to. You know, if you’re not willing to play by them, you can’t be in the program.” At that point, she lost it on the class, and it
was easy to say, “You can’t be here.” So yeah, a small minority. I can think maybe two or three, who were not let in or asked to leave.

Going back a bit, you mentioned that the recovery movement is kind of on the cutting edge? What does that mean?

There’s a lot recovery through the arts. So people are putting on plays, one-man or one-woman shows about their stories. Ways of reaching the public that way. People also do artwork, paintings, sculpture. So I think the recovery movement, consumer-driven, is
very progressive in the sense that it’s not willing to settle for the medical model that says, “We need to get you on the right meds, and that’s it.” Meds have helped me, but meds alone are not recovery. I think the bottom line, and most people would agree, is that recovery means you have meaning in your life, whatever that meaning is for you. A lot of people find meaning in the arts and explore their talents.

We have a place here in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet, for people with mental illnesses to do their artwork, do art shows. I also work with this organization in Norwich, Connecticut, called Artreach, and they do recovery through the arts. Their big thing is to put on plays, sketch comedy, and they also have a Stand Up for Mental Health group. And yeah, they’re all peer-run, by people who have a diagnosis.

The recovery movement is a big movement, much more so in the U.S. than Canada. You guys have a much more organized, cohesive movement. And every year, you have an Alternatives Conference. I did a keynote there once on my own, about half comedy and half talk, about my program. And last year, 2012, they had it in Portland, and we did a Stand Up for Mental Health show because we have a group in the Portland area. It was really cool. We did a show for the whole conference. So Alternatives is a great example. You see the power of the peer movement. It’s great to see because you meet people
who’ve been involved in the movement for a long time, like the elders who have been around since the ’60s and ’70s, who can tell you what it was like back then: forced shock treatment, lobotomies, all sorts of horrible shit, how far we’ve come, how far we still need to go.

How much farther does it need to go? What would you like to see?

Well, sort of where we’re going is peers. Most mental health agencies now have peer specialists who work for them. So they’re actually considered an important part of mental health system. So peers are working on multidisciplinary teams, leading workshops, all sorts of stuff like that. Also, peers are helping people coming into the system find the help they need. So yeah, it’s really wonderful. I think there needs to be a whole lot more of it. The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, “Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office.”

I did an event for Seven Counties in Louisville, Kentucky, and I worked with their peer staff. One woman was amazing. She has bipolar, and at one point the psychiatrist said, “You’re bipolar. You’ll be sick the rest of your life, you’ll never work again, you’re gonna get dementia and die.” Since then, she’s gone on and pretty much trained all the peer support workers in the state of Kentucky. She’s trying to retire right now, but they won’t let her go. She’s had an amazing career. So this person, who according to her psychiatrist
was supposed to be a useless member of society, found out single-handedly about the recovery movement and brought it to the state of Kentucky. And so I think there are still places where the medical model prevails, still a struggle going on, where those
interested in the medical model don’t want to give it up.

Are things different when it comes to people with suicide attempts or suicidal thinking?

Here’s where I think the peer model is so great. Whatever the issue is, including suicide, you would think a lot of people have been trained as peers. They’ve been through it, psych wards, suicide attempts, often numerous suicide attempts, they’ve experienced being treated against their will, all sorts of stuff. I’m thinking of some people I know. Who better to work with for someone who’s suicidal than someone who’s been through it? Obviously, I think medical specialists have a place too, but I really think that well-trained peers are just a huge asset for whatever the issue is. And personally, I think, especially with suicide.

We just had this case here in Canada, a horrendous case. This girl, Ashley Smith, was in prison. I think she was 17 or 18. She was put in prison for throwing apples at a mailman. So she was acting out. She obviously had a mental illness, but the morons in the corrections service gave her no treatment, just locked her up in seclusion and made it worse. She was transferred so many times in the space of two years. She kept trying to kill herself, and she got the reputation for being a really difficult prisoner. They kept drugging her, putting her in seclusion. They have video with her on a plane with her hands
duct-taped to the armrests. And in the videos, the corrections people say she was dangerous, but she seems to be quite cooperative. Long story short, she finally succeeded. What happened is, the guards kept getting different orders. First, if she tried to suicide, they were supposed to stop her. Then they got other orders: Stop her only if she
stops breathing. So she succeeded in killing herself.

And Corrections Canada videotaped all these incidents and then spent millions on lawyers trying to make sure the public didn’t see the videos. Finally, these videos came out, and there was a huge outcry: “What the fuck did you do with this person?” She had a
mental illness, and being in the system made it a million times worse. She received absolutely no treatment. So, yeah.

You know something, I get so pissed off I can’t remember the point I was trying to make. Whatever I was saying.

I’d have to scroll back … Oh! I remember.

I read accounts that she was trying to strangle herself seven or eight times a day. She really could have used really good peer support. Other stuff, too. But sedating her, seclusion, duct-taping her arms, I mean, they need some peers in that correctional system to make sure hat never happens again. And they need peers with the power to
make decisions, not just a token hire, “We’ll just hire one person and have them empty ashtrays.” Someone with some power to change the system.

(I mention peers in the sense of support groups and the fears that suicide attempt survivors would inspire each other to kill themselves or refine their methods.)

I think once again, that’s the kind of uninformed _ you know, like, my thought is, “Why don’t you ask people if they want a support group like that, rather than make the decision for them?” In class today, one woman was saying, “I don’t go to support groups because it makes me more bummed out.” My thought is, first, “I don’t blame you.” Also if that’s all groups are, I don’t think they’re very well-run. Yes, you need to be able to talk, but if all people are doing is talking about how terrible their lives are, yeah, I think the group needs to be more than that. I think we need survivor groups, and my guess is, most people
who have survived suicide attempts want that and don’t want to be left on their own.

In the professional world, the psychiatrist people, how is their sense of humor?

Most psychiatrists I’ve encountered have a great sense of humor. One performs with us regularly. Also in Ontario. It was fabulous, they were in the green room before the show and they were just as nervous as the comics. The boundaries melted away. They weren’t
on that psychiatrist pedestal. In general, they had a really good sense of humor and welcomed this project.

In general, how do you break the ice on this subject?

Like in our daily lives? I think two things. Two different perspectives. If you suspect a friend is going through a bad time, it’s important to be direct. It’s a huge relief if you say, “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” Because finally, someone gives them a chance to talk
about it, rather than sort of pussyfooting around it, like, “Are you thinking of going to a better place?” Just ask someone directly.

I think that if you are someone considering suicide, obviously it’s a lot harder. It’s really hard to go to someone, “Hey, I’m thinking of committing suicide.” Sometimes, the best place to start is a crisis line.

What if it’s in your past and you want to bring it up? Like, while you’re getting to know someone?

I think people have pretty good instincts. Obviously, it’s not something you’re going to talk about over coffee on a first date. I think most people have a sense when a relationship, a friendship, is building toward a place of trust. So yeah, I think I would say use your instincts
because they’re usually right. Some people are ready to talk about it. It depends on the responses they’ve had.

Where else do you want to go with this?

What usually happens now is that an organization will contact me and have funding for a group, then there’s no more funding and it doesn’t continue. What I’ve been doing is creating another phase when the initial program is over. The comics then have monthly classes and continue performing. I want to have more of these ongoing groups in cities across North America. Australia is also looking pretty good, maybe the UK, New Zealand. Obviously, I don’t speak any other languages.

What’s your favorite memory from this work?

So many great experiences. I guess I’d say my favorite part is once the group is trained. I love the experience of flying wherever and doing a show with them. It’s such a wonderful experience, meeting the group in person, watching them step through that ring of fire. How
great they feel. And so I guess what I would say is, I love performing, but I also love making other people into the stars, giving those who never had that to the chance to be a star.

Who else are you?

I’m pretty ordinary. I have two kids. A 14-year-old boy who actually has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 5. He’s done shows talking about what it’s like to have a dad with mental illness. He’s taken a break the past couple years, but he’s coming back to it now. My daughter is awesome, 21, in the third year of university. My great wife and I have been together 16 or 17 years. I have two wonderful cats. Yeah, when I’m not on the road, I have a pretty ordinary life. I enjoy that ordinariness, no drama, no chaos. Sort of a really nice happy life.

I had meant to ask earlier if you ever get tired of talking about mental health issues.

No, I enjoy it. It’s something really important to me. I find I’m one of those people who has to be doing something he feels is important. I’m really intense, passionate about things important to me. This is one of them.

Talking with Kevin Sheffield

Today is Kevin Sheffield’s birthday. He wrote to me recently from Canada and introduced himself as a young man whose social anxiety had led him on an uncomfortable path through the world _ releasing his bottled-up fears at home as a hyper and destructive kid, and later working a night shift, “obviously, a great hiding spot.” He hugged isolation. He did have a wife and two children, but family life was shaken when he was hospitalized and tried to kill himself.

Over the past year, he’s started to emerge. A friend he reconnected with on Facebook is introducing him to naturopathic remedies, including healthy eating. He has signed up for engineering school in the fall. And he wants to move on from support groups and be around people who don’t remind him of where he’s been for so long. “I’d rather be around a bunch of hippies just hanging out and having a good time than listening to people much older than me try to deal with their depression,” he says, not unkindly. “It’s such a reminder to myself of where I am, and it keeps me trapped in that negative position.”

He far prefers a more holistic approach to mental health and not the stark dictation of doctors and the blank hospital world of empty rooms with chairs and a single TV.

I had worried that he never leaves the house at all, but as it turns out in this conversation, Kevin had somewhere to go.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Kevin Sheffield. I live in Wasaga Beach, Ontario. I grew up in Brampton, Ontario, and moved up here when there was a job opening for me. My fiancée at the time had family up here, and it just kind of worked out for both of us to come up here, to start our family. This is, I’d say, about six and a half years ago that I moved up here. Also, my parents moved up here as well. And yeah, I was working for a retail company in Brampton and they opened another store close to Wasaga Beach in Collingwood, so I came here to work at the new store.

In your e-mail you, you mentioned that you don’t really go out. How do you work?

Well, I think, when I was married, I was working a night shift at Home Depot, and it was easy for me to travel back and forth at night because there was no one on the road. It was very quiet, and I’d work overnight with, like, five other people. So it was something I’d become accustomed to. But I guess as things progressed in my marriage, I found it really difficult to cope with having the responsibility to have to do things during the daytime. So, basically, when I started working 17 years ago, you know, I hid out on nights, and when I got married, I suddenly had to force myself to go out of my shell, and it became a little bit too much, too overwhelming, and it kind of led to me being hospitalized, me being put into Homewood (Health Centre) in Guelph in treatment, and my marriage falling apart, and me losing my job.

What was the worst episode for you?

My difficulties began at work. Basically, I would start to worry about little things, like, “Have I had enough sleep during the day? Am I going to be able to handle myself emotionally when working at night?” Those things would build up prior to me leaving for work. I’d be organizing myself, having everything laid out and ready at the door hours before I went to work, and this pattern continued for many months until I got to the point where I was actually driving into work at night and I’d be in a state of panic, breathing rapidly, and I’d have a lot of negative thinking through my head. That’s when suicidal thoughts would start to come up. If I would drive myself into a tree, or if I took some medications prior to leaving, if I overdosed on something, if there was any way to stop me from going into work. Then, you know, that would be my only way out.

The environment I was working in, along with being on nights, you know, I had a lot of difficulty with the people I was working with. And it just became very fearful to me to go into that environment. And I also had the inability to release any of that emotion when I got home because of my _ I had responsibilities to my wife at the time and to my children. And I was undertaking renovations on the house, trying to keep things organized and working at home. You know, I didn’t have any time to deal with this stuff. I had a counselor at the time, and I would go and see her once every other week. I would express my issues and she would listen to what I was saying. And I didn’t, I wasn’t hearing any of her advice because I was so trapped, so closed that I couldn’t act on anything that she was telling me. I was certain in my mind I wasn’t going to be around much longer. It came to the point when I came in to see her, after dealing with this panic every night, I kind of walked into her office, completely broken. I had convinced myself I was going to kill myself, and I pretty much told her, in a way, that I didn’t want to upset her or cause her any problems, and I thought that would be the end of me.

She immediately put me into a Form 1, took me to the hospital, had me admitted for observation and to see what medications they could put me on. And after that is when my application came through for Homewood Health Centre, where I went to try to figure things out in my life.

How did it work out?

Well, the environment I went into in the hospital scared the crap out of me. I didn’t want to be there. I couldn’t cope with others around me. I had no understanding of other illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar. It was a really shocking environment to go into. I basically made up stories, told lies to the psychologist that I was just having an episode and felt much better after taking Atavan, didn’t need to be there anymore. They only kept me there four days. The whole time there, the only thing to do was to sit in this room, which was just chairs, and a TV with one channel. And it was only on three or four hours a day. The rest of the time, you just sit there. You don’t do anything. After I got out of there, I moved into Homewood. You know, I was doing a lot of different things, a lot of activities, groups were discussing things and talking about their problems. I was managing. I was accepting everything they were explaining, doing all the activities. It felt good to be around people in similar situations. Everyone there was dealing with depression, anxiety. It was easy to talk to people, and to try and figure out things.

But I kind of, well, I did fall apart when in Homewood. Things were really difficult between me and my ex-wife, and I found it really hard to deal with that, to deal with a family at home that wants me to come back but has no understanding of what I was going through and dealing with. The assumption from my family and wife at the time was that this was just something simple, something I can ovecome really quickly, no problem with that. I guess I felt that maybe they were right, something was wrong with me that I can’t seem to get better, can’t seem to overcome this weakness. That’s when I tried to kill myself by overdosing on medication I had brought with me to Homewood. When I did, my roommate at the time came into the room and saw the bottle of pills and asked me what had happened, and he was able to get it out of me that I’d taken a number of these pills. He went and got help. The doctor came in with nurses and asked what I took, and they determined it was nothing threatening to my life. But they searched my room, looked for any more pills, things like that. And at the time, they decided that I should go through ECT treatment. So they did a 14-treatment plan over one month. So every other day I had a treatment. It was bilateral. And after having that done, I would wake up and wouldn’t remember anything about me, really. I wasn’t remembering my family, my friends, my past. I don’t feel that I was feeling any better, I just feel that I lost all the stresses in my past because I couldn’t recall any of them. And so I didn’t find that that treatment did any good for me.

But I came to the conclusion while at Homewood that I wasn’t going to be a good father or good husband anymore. So I made a phone call to my wife at the time and said I wanted a divorce. I didn’t think things were working out. And then at that point, I just turned myself off completely. So I mean, she didn’t really respond. Obviously she was upset with that, but I remember something about her saying pretty nasty words to my counselor, but she didn’t seem to fight for our relationship or anything. So when I got back from Homewood, when I was discharged, I gave a speech to everyone saying how well I was doing, how everything was fine. Again, I guess, I was not telling the truth. I was just trying to make everybody be OK with me so they didn’t have to worry about me.

And I came home, and I moved in with my parents into their condo. And basically, I kept working for the six months after my divorce, and I was having the same difficulties going into work, but I sucked it up and dealt with it until it got to the point where I couldn’t function at work. It used to be difficult driving into work, but when I got into work I could just focus. But then, when I was at work I realized I had no ability whatsoever to keep doing what I was doing there. So I was on and off work many times, many times that I was in the hospital or given notes from the doctor on short-term disability. I got to reach the point where I said, “You know, I’m hurting everybody around me. I can’t keep doing this to people, interfering with their business.” That’s when I resigned my position there.

Then I spent a long time just staying at home in the condo in my room. You know, I do get out occasionally. I do go to visit my sister with my parents. My parents have become very reliant on me. My mother is 67, my father is turning 70, so they kind of realize, “This is good, we have our son here, we can use him to help us out.” So I take my mom to get gas, to the grocery, drive her to work if the weather’s bad, things like that. But it still is a very difficult situation. My father as well suffers from depression, so it’s hard to again be in an environment where it’s very negative.

Then I reconnected with a good friend of mine, a naturopath. I found her on Facebook, and we became good friends. She’s the one who introduced me to spirituality, and she’s helped me, giving me a lot of books to read. And she’s helped me to discover that I’m not alone, I’m not the only one who’s dealing with these things, there are alternative treatments to the medications they have and had me on in the past. I had had a lot of difficulty with side effects.

So yeah, I spent these years in hiding at my parents, afraid to face the world, living in the same patterns as I did when I was a child. Living in fear every day. If the phone rings, who is it? Am I going to have enough money to get through the month? Do I have enough money to pay for child support? All these different worries. But I think I gained enough strength in myself from exploring spirituality that now I’m enrolled in school for engineering, which will start in September. And I’m looking to find a place that I can live, but again, it’s very difficult. Just like when I was at Home Depot, I had to immediately go to Ontario Works and fill out all the paperwork to get on disability, fill out paperwork for unemployment insurance, paperwork for getting on different disability. And so it’s a very time-consuming process for someone who’s having difficulty communicating with anyone or getting out. So it’s the same thing now with trying to find a place to live and get my life back together. Because now I’m only allowed to work so many hours a week if I want to continue my benefit. But if I work full-time and it doesn’t work for me, I could lose that benefit. And also, finding a place to live on such a limited budget is hard. I’d like to get out of this condo right now and have a place to live, but my only option is to wait until September when school starts and have help with rental costs and school fees.

How did you get the idea for engineering school?

I was pondering a career path for quite a while until one day, my friend, it dawned on her the career I should be in. I have a really knowledgable background when it comes to anything mechanical, technical. Not only my experience at Home Depot, knowing everything to know about electrical products, working with electricians. Also, how I am with technology. I use technology, and I can look at it, see what the flaws are. I’m always inventing, creating to make it work better. I’ve done a lot of different things. When I was 13, years ago, I sent off an e-mail, I had a great idea for a blind spot detection system and sent it off to Volvo, thinking it would make a lot of money. I got an e-mail back thanking me. Then I got a phone call from them saying they really liked the idea, that 90 percent of new product ideas comes from their customers. Then they tried to sell me a Volvo. I said, “I don’t make enough money to buy one, but I’m glad you like the idea.” Now it’s a common thing on a lot of cars. I just sent an e-mail to Dyson because I had an idea for a ceiling fan. Instead of having blades, just have a ring that blows. They sent an e-mail saying they can’t accept any intellectual property from individuals. I can have ideas, but unfortunately, I’m not in a place to bring them to life. And I’m not in a place where I have the finances I need to patent anything. I decided, you know, I’ll go into engineering and use the talent I have for creating things, find a career in that field.

You’ve been taking a lot of confidence from the …

… naturopathic approach, that’s what they call it. I have a lot of fear, I know how difficult it’s gonna be for me, but I also know the school does have resources for people with mental illness that I can use to my advantage. The first thing I intend to do is get tested for my ability to comprehend information, to see if there are different ways information can be presented to me. They have options where if you’re writing an exam, you can write in a private room with no one around. So there are things I think can help me achieve what I want to do. But again, I know as I get close to the time of going to school I’ll definitely be battling a lot of fear. I just have to make sure supports are in place when it comes to that time.

What supports do you have?

I have a counselor that I see on average about every three weeks. I have a mood disorders group once a month. I have a psychiatrist I see every two or three months. I also see them at the group every month as well in case of anything urgent. I also have CSP, it’s a community support program, another group that’s there Monday to Friday. I can drop in any time and get help from any of the members.

And then I have my friend. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s a naturopath. She’s also qualified as a nurse, so she can identify if someone needs treatment immediately and she can know to send them into the emergency department. And I think that’s my biggest thing, the thing that helped the most. The treatment, unfortunately, is not covered by our health care system, but it does have a tremendous impact. My first run of remedies completely detoxified my system, took out all the bad stuff. Now the next run will have movement in my life, help me with social anxiety, to work more effectively. Also the fact that it introduced me to things like spirituality, nutrition, exercise, yoga. To shed light on those things to someone in my position was really healthy for me.

You’ve been introduced to them, but do you follow up?

Yes, I have yoga books, a yoga mat, and I practice it when my parents aren’t home. And I’m looking into different groups that are available. I’m slowly building up my ability to do it well before attempting to go into a group environment. I want to find something that’s small, not like a YMCA, gym-style, but something more personal, five to 10 people max. Where I feel safe, comfortable.

In your e-mail, you said it’s not easy to have a healthy diet on a low income. How do you do it?

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, “Food That Kills,” “Forks Over Knives,” “Supersize Me,” but I came to understand that the store that’s closest to me is the Wal-Mart, and I go in there and think, “All of this food is what’s attributed to me wanting to kill myself, sucking the life and motivation out of me.” I look around and see food filled with preservatives, pesticides, genetically modified. Eating food from Wal-Mart is like eating food from McDonalds or any of those places.

I started finding recipes online, not an easy thing to do, and I found there are superfoods out there that are really cheap and easy to cook. So I started with lentils, making lentil soup, lots of steamed vegetables like asparagus, spinach, different things like that that I’ve been able to throw together. But then again, I’m not 100 percent. It’s something where I need to find a place where I can learn to cook, where I can find meals, make meals that are inexpensive and yet healthy for me. It would be nice to find a nutritionist and get information from them, go to a cooking class that I wouldn’t have to pay for and learn this stuff. It’s very difficult to figure things out on your own when you have no experience in these things, and I think healthy eating is something that is so important to overcoming any kind of illness whatsoever. But it’s not something that’s practiced.

Doctors don’t know anything about nutrition. You go to the hospital for surgery and you get a glass of milk that’s, like, 60 percent sugar, and a muffin that’s like 100 percent sugar. They don’t know what these foods are doing to people. I think it’s something that’s changing right now, and that’s good. But it’s just beginning to change. So it’s difficult to find resources. Where I live, there’s just one health food store, and it’s very undersupplied. There’s no fresh produce store or farmers market. I have to drive outside of town.

I’m thinking a cooking class would be more productive than sitting in a room with just a TV and chairs.

Exactly. I’m reading a book now, it’s called “The One Plan.” It’s a week-by-week guide to restoring your health and happiness. It’s a process: Today do this, tomorrow do this, until you reinvent yourself and create new patterns in life. And those kinds of things need be taught when you’re in a long-term care environment. Otherwise it’s just, “Here, take these pills and go home and talk to your psychiatrist maybe in six months or a year, when it’s possible to get an appointment.”

If you were, like, Canada’s health minister, what would be your solution?

My solution? Hmm, I’m not sure. I believe that things happen with _ you know, it’s like dropping a rock in a pond. Once you start the process, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I think what you’re doing, telling stories, is like that, dropping a rock in the pond so people can start to understand what people are going through, can stop and think a bit before they place judgement on how someone behaves because they don’t know the whole story. The biggest thing is to get people into an environment where people actually listen. Not, “OK, we should medicate you, give you ECT, lock you up because you’re going to kill yourself.” It should be more of, “Who are you? Why are you feeling this way? Let’s come up with a treatment plan that encompasses your whole life and understands your behavioral patterns, the proper way you should be eating, that gets you involved in the community where you’re not isolated, you don’t feel like you’re alone, like you’re the only one who’s not functioning the way that society expects you to be.”

That’s why I was mentioning we need an online forum where people can communicate about their problems and have a professional counselor seeing that. “Oh, you live in Wasaga Beach? There’s a group that happens every week on healthy choice cooking. There’s the address, get involved!” But I don’t think there’s any one answer, because mental illness is such a diverse thing and so new that just getting the message that there are people out there like me who are suffereing and dealing with this pain, people need to know this stuff. People need to know that there’s people that are dealing with this and that could use help.

You’re good with technical things, and you’re bright. And it’s not easy to go out. Could you create an online world and live online if needed?

I have a lot of social dysfunction, so me having acquaintances online is something I find difficult. I do send a lot of messages out to people, but again, it’s not anything, it’s me coming up with ideas and sending them out to app developers and stuff like that. It’s really difficult to get in touch with those people. I e-mailed Mike Zuckerberg, I think it is, with Facebook, with an idea for a website. I basically told him, “Let’s make a website like Facebook but basically a website that’s an online country, a virtual country. So anyone globally can join up to the site, log on and become a citizen, and the goal is to create a global constitution, global rights and responsibilities as individuals for the whole planet, not just the piece of land where you live, for all of humanity to live in, as a way of developing a template for eventually uniting everyone on the planet to one goal and purpose.” But yeah, I haven’t gotten a response to that yet. I’m sure he gets a billion e-mails a day.

What would you like to create to help yourself?

I think the biggest thing is finding friends, people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in, groups and activities close by, so not the only thing I do is go to a mood disorder group, so not the only thing I do is go sit in a room with a bunch of negative people who are lost and confused. It’s good because it’s support, but it’s bad because it’s negative and unhealthy. I’d rather be around a bunch of hippies just hanging out and having a good time than listening to people much older than me try to deal with their depression. I go in there and try to voice my opinion, do all I can to help out, but it’s such a reminder to myself of where I am, and it keeps me trapped in that negative position.

I went to a concert recently with my friend, because my friend is into all this stuff. She had me come along and meet her friends. It was a concert called Crystal Journey, David Hickey, you can look him up, but it’s a very uplifting, spiritual, high-energy concert. And everyone I met there was so open and at ease with themselves and happy, and you could walk up and introduce yourself and instantly be friends and have no fear of them being someone other than what you see in front of you. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy doing. I like obviously being in an environment where I feel safe, and where the energy is really good is something I had never done in my life.

You could travel around and follow these concerts.

Yes, I plan to. He does it far away, but yeah, I do plan to continue going.

It seems like a matter of finding the right people and getting out of the house.

Yes. My friend will be here in two minutes, so I’ve got to let you go. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

Sure, and how old will you be on Monday?

I’ll be 35.

Talking with Tom Greensides

Tom Greensides is yet another of the outspoken Canadians who make me wonder what’s going on up there above the border. We spoke this week, and he gave me a good introduction to the surgery called deep brain stimulation, which is the first treatment that has managed to keep his depression at bay.

It wasn’t the easiest procedure, but he pursued it tenaciously, even after being turned down by doctors. “The most uncomfortable part was when they drilled holes in my skull,” Tom says. “It’s like having a tooth drilled. I don’t think you’re as old as I am. When I was young, dentists drilled your teeth and it just about shook you out of the chair.”

Here, he talks about his friends’ teasing about the treatment, his new attitude toward mental health and the modest but important role a coffee shop called Tim Horton’s has played in his everyday motivation.

Who are you?

I’m 66 years old. I was diagnosed with depression when I was in my 50s. Up till then, I had managed to do whatever to get by, but it was later in life that it really hit me. One day, I ended up at the doctor’s office because all I could do was cry. I used to be an eastern Canada sales manager for plant nutrients, and you can’t make sales calls with tears running down your face. The doctor said “depression.” It was the first time I had heard that word applied to me, and I’ve been battling it ever since.

Prior to having the DBS surgery, I needed to supply a list of my medications. I was shocked when I went to the drug store to get it, and it was 35 pages long. I had tried just about everything. I tried two courses of ECT for a total of 29 treatments. Most things worked for me in the beginning, but shortly, three months, whatever, I was back in a mess again. And then in 2005, I started really seriously thinking about suicide. I started a note in January 2005 to my family about what I was going to do and trying to make sure they understood it wasn’t their fault. Finally, the 24th of May, I walked away from home early in the morning and took an overdose that ended up leaving me unconscious under a tree for 30 hours. When I came to, I crawled to an area where I was found. That led to the hospital, where I started to get real help.

I really believe the only thing one leaves in life is their family, and I’ve always been very
protective. I wanted to make that investment in my family and convinced myself that, by taking myself out of their lives, they would all be better off. During my hospitalization, the doctor pointed out to me that the worst thing I could ever have done was commit suicide; my family would never, ever recover from it. I had thought it through, and I figured suicide would be like any other death. We’re all going to die, so I thought they’d have a funeral, and a week later they’d all go back to work. They’d miss me for a while, then go on back to their lives. It was my new psychiatrist who convinced me that this was absolutely not true. They would not recover. I made a commitment with him that, if I ever felt suicidal again, I’d go to the hospital and get help.That did happen twice in the next year or two, but I started learning ways to deal with it myself and not to do it.

I learned to do things like go for a walk. A big effort for me. Depression wants to make one
spend a lot of time in bed. And many times, I’ve been laying down, thinking, “This can’t go on, I’ve had enough,” and getting up either to do something about ending it, or doing something to not end it. On those occasions, I generally put on my walking shoes and walk for a couple miles. In Canada we have donut shops called Tim Horton’s. Where I live now is halfway between two Tim Horton’s, so I can walk about 45 minutes, have a coffee and go home. And each time I get back, all of a sudden “ending it all” is not important anymore. I had to learn tricks like that, doing things even though I didn’t want to. I learned how to take the first step. And once I put my boots on, I might as well step outside. Once outside, I might as well start walking to the corner. And so on. I’ve learned to take life in very small steps right now and not worry about the big picture. This approach helped me to survive until I got the DBS implant.

This September, I took a job driving a school bus. I love the interaction with the young people. I love having to get up in the morning to do something. And without the DBS, I would never have been able to do that. So I consider myself a pretty fortunate person. We live in what is called the Niagara region, and apparently I’m the only person in the region with a DBS implant.

How do you know?

Just by talking with my doctors. It’s still rather experimental. I think one big reason I received the surgery was, maybe, because of my age. They had no experience with people as old as I am.

Tell me how you came across DBS and decided to pursue it.

I looked for answers, and whatever I saw online or in the news, I followed up on. There was a treatment, I think vagus nerve stimulation. It was only available in the U.S.A. and was incredibly expensive. I rejected it. Finally, I found out about DBS, and it looked good. I talked to my psychiatrist, and he at first advised against having it, then we both studied it. He said, “You know, you need to go for it.” He realized how bad things were for me, just struggling to stay alive. So I just kept going for a walk, a little bit at a time, pushing for it. The surgery is done in Toronto. The head of the department was speaking one day to local health care professionals. I showed up at the meeting uninvited, and at the end I talked to him. He agreed to meet with me and started the assessment. I was turned down, but I kept pushing until I finally got it. A matter of being your own advocate.

When did you get it done?

Sept 14, 2011.

How does it work?

I have had two electrodes implanted in section 25 of my brain. Those are hooked up to a
pacemaker-type device implanted in my chest. There’s a battery in it, not unlike a heart
pacemaker, called a neurostimulator. It can be set at a variety of settings. Mine is set at eight volts. They increase the settings as required. I had the last increase about three weeks ago. I’m sort of a medical miracle. I have had skin cancer since 1982, and the last bout was this summer. I needed radiation on the back of my head, and no one is sure what happened, but it knocked me into a bout of depression. They increased the voltage, and it worked very well. I went in three weeks ago tomorrow, and the doctor checked it all out and said, “Its working,” and I said, “I can’t go on like this.” He increased it a full volt. My wife was with me; I think she didn’t trust me to go alone any place. When we walked out of the hospital and within 15 minutes, I remember the exact spot outside the hospital, I said to my wife, “Something’s changed. I feel different.” It happens that quickly. I guess the take-home message for me is, there are a lot of people, including me, who wonder what causes depression: “What did I do to cause depression? Did I eat the wrong foods, work too hard, whatever, whatever, whatever.” I guess what’s been really helpful is to understand that if they can stick two electrodes in my brain and relieve the depression, it’s likely that I didn’t cause it. It’s a chemical imbalance, or whatever. It has nothing to do with anything I did in the past. My wife always wonders to herself whether she did something to cause it or can do something to cure it. And after that, obviously, the answer is no. It’s been a huge relief for me. I love to work hard. I regularly get up at 5 a.m. and, when I was employed, I used to start at 5 a.m. to go do things while other people were still sleeping, and I just loved it. A lot of people said, “You overdid it.” I did a lot of volunteer work, and I loved that, too. “Overdoing it” had nothing to do with it.

What caused it?

I had a grandfather who suffered from depression. It was likely a genetic connection. It missed my mother’s generation, but two of my cousins suffer from depression, making three of us in this generation. So I guess if anything causes it, it’s being born in the wrong family. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have a choice.

What have people noticed about you? What changes?

People can’t believe the huge difference in me. We went to a dinner party with a number of
people a few weeks ago, and jokingly one of them said, “We’re going to take the battery out of your device because you’re enjoying things too much.” My wife really, really notices the difference. And when it wasn’t working after my radiation treatments, she could tell.

How has all of this been for her?

It’s been extremely difficult in two respects. One, it’s adjusting your life to someone who has depression, who doesn’t have any fun, doesn’t want to go anyplace, everything’s a struggle. Then all of a sudden he wants to do things, go places. So there have been two big adjustments for her.

You mentioned that your family is your only legacy. But when you look back at your
thinking at the time, that they would hold your funeral and then move on, does that
thinking make sense now?

No, it’s absolutely incorrect thinking. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work. One thing I did recently was speak at a suicide awareness walk in St. Catharines. It is definitely one of the most difficult things I have done. I spoke as a survivor of suicide, and I was speaking to the victims left behind by suicide. It was unbelievable. There were about 300 people there. How much pain and agony was in that room!

And yet I understand that suicide has nothing to do with dying. In my opinion, it only has to do with trying to relieve the mental pain, the anguish, the anxiety. Most people who are so down and in such a position that they want to commit suicide can’t really appreciate what the full impact will be on the ones they leave behind.

Do you think the people in that room can understand that point of view?

Some did. That was my purpose in speaking, to provide them with some relief. To tell them
that the person who committed suicide hadn’t done it to get even or hurt anyone, it was just because they just couldn’t live with the mental pain any longer. And it’s so hard to explain that to somebody who hasn’t been there. I’m not super religious or whatever, but I am a Christian. In religion, they talk about doing the right things to get everlasting life. One thing that terrified me was to get stuck with everlasting life. And I’ve not told anybody that. That’s one thing you’ve got out of me.

You thought that all your life?

No, just since I was depressed. But I understand listening to the minister speak, and the first thing that pops into my mind is, “Why the hell would I want that?”

If your younger self could meet your older self now, would it understand?

Not at all. I would not have been good at it. I’m almost embarrassed at how I handled people, before my illness, who were suffering from mental illness. If I walked down the street and saw someone talking to themself or whatever, I would try to avoid them. And if today I saw them, I’d walk up and say, “Good morning” or whatever. I’ve learned so much. It’s too bad I had to be so old to learn.

You said the many treatments you’ve tried didn’t last long, beyond a few months. Are you worried about the DBS lasting?

I worry about that on a daily basis. Now, the success rate of DBS is over 80 percent with people like me. And my doctor in Toronto tells me, “Don’t give up, we know it will work.” And those electrodes have four positions they can select, and a variety of voltages from five to about 10 and a half, so there are many variations. He said, “If it doesn’t work, we just haven’t found the right combination.”

What about the possible downsides, the cost, the pain, etc?

I have no idea about cost because it was covered under the government health plan. It’s not an issue in Ontario. The pain is like having serious dental work. You have no feeling in your brain, so the only issue was the halo that held me in place. They froze various portions of my skull, and I won’t say it was painful, but the most uncomfortable part was when they drilled holes in my skull. It’s like having a tooth drilled. I don’t think you’re as old as I am. When I was young, dentists drilled your teeth and it just about shook you out of the chair. The nurse knew it would be troublesome, so she held my hand, helped me get through it. The pain wasn’t bad at all. And when they stick things in your brain, you don’t feel it.

You were awake the whole time?

You have to be. To establish where section 25 is, they have a laptop showing me different
kinds of pictures. They had devices in my brain measuring the impulses from what I saw on the laptop. The surgery started at about 9 a.m., and around 9:30 they started probing in my brain. Finally at about 1 o’clock, they said, “I think we can insert the electrodes.” Now, I expect I was anesthetized somewhat. But certainly I couldn’t speak and had to do things like move my hand to say “Yes” or “No,” because the devices in my brain, when I tried to speak, created static on the machines behind me. Oh, it’s sort of like space-age science fiction. It’s really hard for a fellow like me, who was educated before computers were even invented, to understand what was happening.

And yet you were really tenacious to get it.


And your family was OK with it?

Yes. My family’s been involved ever since the suicide attempt. I’ve kept my family fully apprised of what I was doing. The day of my surgery, my son actually booked off work, and he took me to the hospital and stayed with my wife for the day until I was back in the hospital room at night.

What about right after your attempt? Were you so open? Some people, including myself for a while, keep it so secret and quiet.

Before I was sick, I used to do a lot of volunteer work, president of the local chamber of
commerce, president of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, all sorts of things like that. All involved public speaking. After my suicide attempt, my counselor at the hospital said it would be really good if I joined the CMHA speakers bureau. I said, “OK,” but I didn’t do anything about it. The next time she said, “Did you do anything?” “No.” Finally, after three tries, I called CMHA and ended up going up there. And for me, it was one of the best things I ever did for my own therapy; publicly speaking about it and being honest. I don’t know how many times I’ve spoken. It’s been well over 100 times. I’ve never had a bad reaction. To me, that shows the acceptance of people if you can explain your story. And that’s been really, really good for me.

Were there any worries about facing the same people that you had spoken to before in your earlier roles?

I never thought about it for some reason. I’m from a small community called Grimsby, and two years ago, they had an event called Lunch and Learn. I was asked to speak, and they did a poster up that said “Tom Greensides,” and I’m well-known enough in the community that people knew me. And they packed the room. And it didn’t bother me at all. Because, I guess, you can’t hide it.

So the only way, for me, is to deal with it, be up front, talk about it, and I guess the benefit of speaking to a group is they’re committed and listen and you can tell your story. And you know, we have some people we know who suffer from mental illness. We had a mother and young daughter at our house for coffee a couple weeks ago, and they were very reluctant to admit they suffer. My wife and I encourage them not to be reluctant. It’s certainly not going to change overnight. The young person is in her early 20s and longs to continue her education. We are helping her to get involved in our local university which has a good record of working with people with mental illness, letting them set their own pace.

How about the questions people ask you? Anything striking?

I had to have surgery once for something totally unrelated. At the hospital in Hamilton, the doctor I had for the pre-op noticed all the antidepressant medications I was taking. He said, “All you need to do is throw all of these away and take vitamin E.” And I’ve heard that from a few people. Not when I’ve spoken, but I’ve had a handful of people tell me. But I find the hardest to deal with is health care professionals who are not involved with mental illness.


I don’t know. I don’t know. At the mental health department here in St. Catharines, the first
objective of the new executive director is to train the rest of the staff in mental illness. And I’d agree it’s a big, big need. But no, I’ve never had a question when I spoke that I wouldn’t answer. You know, I guess if you tell your story, people are very sensitive to what you’re dealing with. But to do that, you have to be honest with your story.

Why would someone be dishonest?

You gloss over, minimize, whatever, I don’t know. Because it’s not an issue for me. And you know Wendy, and Wendy certainly is very honest.

What’s up with Canada? People seem more accepting up there than in the U.S.

I don’t have enough experience to really comment. But a lot of people like Wendy and so on have been working to try and elevate people’s understanding of mental illness. And again, I have enough trouble keeping up with everything in Canada.

What more can be done about the stigma around suicide?

I think we need to keep doing what we’re doing and do more of it. It’s not a sprint, it’s a journey. The lady I mentioned earlier, she has an awful time with her mother who keeps telling her to just fix it: “So you’re feeling bad, just carry on.” I’ve been there. You can’t do that. So not everybody up here is understanding. But I think we’re working at it. We certainly haven’t done the job completely.

How about the media, public discourse, should that change and how?

I’ve found the media here very supportive of mental illness. I sent you articles from The St.
Catharines Standard. They did a whole week’s worth on mental illness, major whole-page
articles. I guess I wouldn’t be at all critical of the media here.

I’m also thinking about movies, TV, books, portrayals, etc.

I think they’ve become more sensitive about it, but I don’t think the deal’s all done, either.

I want to go back to the question about the time just after your attempt and how open you were. You talked about speaking publicly, but what about speaking with your family? Did you ever keep it quiet at first?

No. I couldn’t keep it quiet. “Where’s Dad?” “He’s in the hospital.” “Which one? Where in the hospital? Why is he in the psychiatric ward?” You know, you couldn’t hide it, and my wife was very honest with them. She explained it exactly. And they came, and we talked and visited and so on. I don’t know how you’d keep something like that quiet. And if you think you’re keeping it quiet, you’re likely only fooling yourself and not anyone around you.

I tend to think that a lot of mental health professionals are drawn to the field because of their own experience, but they don’t dare mention it.

My psychiatrist congratulates me on my speaking. He says, “I have all these letters after my name, but I don’t begin to understand mental illness like you do. And you have such a valuable part to play because you’ve been there.” Maybe I’m being really lucky, being encouraged by a professional.

I like to end with the question, Who else are you?

A grandfather, a father. But I’ve always had a strong motivation to be involved. And now, I
guess, I’ve become almost supersensitive about the issues around mental illness. And I work as a volunteer trying to improve the quality of life for people who struggle with mental issues, personality issues or whatever. I guess we all go in this world only once, and very few of us are allowed to be perfect when we do that. So we need to be sensitive to people’s flaws and not judge them because of that. I volunteer on a crisis line, and I find it tremendously rewarding to talk to someone struggling for whatever reason and try to bring a bit of comfort to their life. I guess I have changed a lot because of it.

With the crisis line, did your personal experience matter, or did you even bring it up?

Not at all. They consider that an advantage because I can work from a point of understanding, because some volunteers have not been where I’ve been.

How do you protect yourself from getting too overwhelmed or too involved or such?

It’s not an issue yet, but it’s something I’m watching. And at the crisis line, there are professionals there, and those professionals monitor people like me, to make sure that it doesn’t become overwhelming, They’re prepared to help us, so there’s a bit of a backup there as well.

Talking with Alicia Raimundo

So let’s talk about the idea of attempt survivors as superheros. Alicia Raimundo stood up at the end of this month’s national conference of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and told a little of her story. We spoke this week, and she’s all for openness on the topic. And some playfulness as well. “Part of me wants to make people feel uncomfortable around me because I’m challenging their beliefs,” she says. “I’m not the media representation of the mentally ill.”

Here she talks about speaking up for a younger generation of attempt survivors, what effect it has on her dating life and how dealing with suicidal thinking shouldn’t be seen as all that different and scary. “If you take a normal person and put them in a suicidal situation, their coping mechanisms in that extreme emotional situation, they would fail too,” she says. “Just like we celebrate cancer survivors for beating cancer, we should celebrate people for beating schizophrenia or bipolar.”

Where would you start your story?

I think I would start by explaining that one of the first things you learn to do is cry, to get attention, to take the pain away, to help you get through something. And as you get older, you put Band-Aids on cuts, call the doctor. But no one tells you how to deal with pain you can’t see. No one tells you how to even start that conversation. To the point that I didn’t even realize I was sick until I was 12, 13. I thought everyone walked around extremely nervous and miserable. I struggled to find the right things to say in grades 7 and 8, and I realized this was a problem not common and unique to me. My classmates were a lot better getting people to talk and like them. That’s when it hit its hard point. And so I tried reaching out to a couple of people but didn’t know how to articulate it. One final reachout was to a teacher helping teach my grade 8 class. At this time, I was kind of known as a problem kid, the one who would not talk to anybody. That sometimes can come off as egotistical. I thought everybody was rejecting me, so I preemptively rejected others. She wasn’t too happy about me asking for help. When I went to meet her, I overheard her say, “I have to go meet this crazy girl,” and I kind of shut down: “I’m not gonna get better.” Everybody misunderstood: “She’s just acting out.” When she amplified that, I kind of just, you know, decided, “This is it. I’m done with this, being miserable every day, waiting for my mom’s car to come and to cry in the car. I’m done.” I made a plan to take my own life. It didn’t succeed, thankfully. At this point, I felt this struggling, like waiting for the next chance for it to come. It’s like just getting enough air to breathe and most days not getting that much.

One time life changed was when I was trying to get treatment on my own. I came across this woman in a treatment center. I was young, a teenager, and I looked like I didn’t care about anything. The woman says, “From one crazy person to another, you’ll need this,” and she gave me a necklace with the word “hope” on it. The ironic part of the story is, the woman was also a client, suffering from a manic stage, and her daughter came up to me seconds later: “I’m sorry, can I have that back?” To me, it was the idea that we can have small things to hope for. For me, it was watching my sister graduate from high school, which happened two years ago. The hope to see things. After that initial hope, my living was not so hard anymore. There are days where I don’t have a good day with it, but I’m a lot stronger. I don’t wish mental illness on anyone, but it’s a blessing in disguise because I had to know myself a lot better than others. I had to know what worked and what didn’t. For me, not knowing is lethal. And so at a certain point, I started getting better and better and wanted to give back.

I got frustrated sharing my story like Spider-Man, anonymously, on blogs here and there, hiding. It was really stupid. I wanted to be like Ironman, in front of a crowd. “Fuck this.” I wanted to do this, go there, start the conversations. I’m super. And from that point on, I share that story with people. You can be that person, sharing in the open. You get this overwhelming support. There’s a stupid comment here and there, but it’s mostly support. I created this peer group who supports me through bad days. I work for a large corporation in Canada, and I was on a large TV morning show here. I took the morning off from work. When I came back, they were really interested. I said this had nothing to do with work, but they wanted to see. One person just said to the other, “If you knew she was suicidal, why did you hire her?” You hear the horror stories, you know this happens. You hear this on trains, buses, people saying, “I can’t hire this person, they have gaps in their resume.” They’re not realizing people can get better. I was hearing this negative feedback nine years after I tried to take my own life, so it was really an unjust comment. Sometimes sick people should be stepping away from work to invest in themselves. If they need to take time off to get better, do it. But me, I was treated with a ridiculous amount of bias.
I was in a meeting with the CEO and a bunch of others. I went up to him after the meeting and said “You’re really concerned about brain injury. There’s a lot of employees concerned about mental health issues.” I told him my story, and he said, “My wife has bipolar. I would not stand for this in a million years.” He put the two gentlemen in touch with HR. I urged not to fire them because they’d get more angry and take it out on others. They started putting this into HR training. One guy came to a talk of mine a few weeks ago and apologized.

It has a strong impact. I share my story and have people telling the life stories they never shared before. Like my train story. I was on suburban rail in Ontario. I’m sitting, talking to a friend about suicide prevention. A gentleman followed me off the train and I thought, “This is kind of creepy.” Then he’s talking to me and seems normal. He says, “I’ve never heard anyone talk so openly about suicide prevention.” I said, “I’m passionate about it.” He’s telling me he felt suicidal for a really long time: “I’m glad people talk openly.” I asked if he had resources. He said, “Yeah, a lot of really great people.” I remember standing outside the station and my dad’s car comes up. “It was nice talking to you.” He says, “I want to thank you.” Why? He says, “If not for you, I was going to jump in front of the train.”

So the power of these conversations, it’s so uncomfortable and scary putting yourself out there, but the good effect is amazing. You just feel this connection with people. People come up to you in tears: “I was planning on ending my life next week, but I’m going to get help.” Sometimes you have to remember the most ignorant voice in the room is sometimes the loudest, the first to say, “That doesn’t happen” or “Your statistic is wrong!” And everyone else is waiting for someone else to say, “Me too.” My dream is showing them if you’re living with mental illness, you’re more than normal. You’re so strong. You have to know that helping yourself can be a full-time job. Help people to not beat up themselves if they’re not so productive at work. The strength of wanting to help people is amazing. [At Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention] I recounted the story of the woman [doing the mental health awareness walk] on the Brooklyn Bridge. She started feeling sick and collapsed in the medical tent. I went in and her husband said, “She has to finish for our son.” Just the power of making any choice, any difference.

I think one of most important messages is, it’s just as simple as asking what you can do for that person. Or giving a list of things you’re comfortable doing. I think there’s so much that needs to happen. It’s great to see these movements, these discussions around suicide moving from every time something horrible happens to a more constant dialogue. Just sharing stories of hope and change, saying people can get better. Because people always look at me. I’m a quirky individual, and they associate that with my mental illness. I’m like, “No, the reason I have a personality is I found a way to live with my mental illness.” My quirkiness is kind of just like … People, when someone knows you’re ill, they look for aspects of your personality they don’t like and think you’re still ill. It’s kind of like doing self-confirming bias, to make it look like I’m always sick. I do have remnants, but one reason I can have a personality is I feel a lot better now. I think it’s just one of those things that strikes me as kind of funny.

At the conference, you also told a story about following a guy around because he was scared of you …

The first time I was ever asked to speak, I was at the University of Waterloo. The guy basically looked at me, and hilariously enough, it was at our campus peer educator group. He was in charge of making information about suicide. He asked in a condescending voice, “Why are you talking about suicide? I said I was suicidal. It was not the most mature thing to do. I just was like, “Yeah, I’m going to prove I’m not contagious and follow you around.” His reaction was so unreal. I just wanted to show them I could sit next to them, have conversations, be a productive member of their team. I’m not going to, you know, snap and decide that I’m going to attack them all. I don’t really understand what goes through their mind. I was just trying to prove the point, it’s not something to be scared of. Most people with mental illness are not going to hurt you. They’ll probably hurt themselves. A lot of times when people do negative things, it’s a time for a conversation: “Why do you think that’s OK?”

And I think it’s been an interesting journey. Talking to people, sometimes they don’t realize what they’re saying is really wrong. They’ve never been told that before. They’ve not been told it’s offensive. And I do that. At the same time, I will stay in situations, and part of me wants to make people feel uncomfortable around me because I’m challenging their beliefs. I’m not the media representation of the mentally ill. The media don’t do the best job of showing it. And people don’t like feeling wrong. This is just something they believed. And one thing I’ve done for a couple of friends I lost by suicide is go to their Facebook page, and when people ask, “How did this person die?” I go in a private message and tell them they died by suicide. They suffered from mental health issues and were very sick. And there’s no type of person that does that. Like you can lose a person to cancer, you can lose them to suicide.

I think the more we can have these awkward conversations with people, make people laugh … When someone reacts weirdly to me now, I say, “Don’t worry, I’m not throwing cats at you” just to lighten the mood. Sometimes suicide and mental health can be really heavy, and making people laugh, showing we can laugh and are pretty unique people ourselves, sort of starts to change the discrimination. It can help change stigma. I’ve seen minds be changed. People come around to it. Sometimes people are not exactly where I want them to be, but it’s a journey. They went up a fair bit, even if it’s not to the level everybody wants it to be at. It just shows the power. When you realize the perception they have of someone else, it’s kind of fun to have fun with them. Make them face their own discrimination. “I thought this person was cool, then she said one word, and now I think she’s crazy”? I tell people I get one of three reactions, bad reactions: Running away, telling me they don’t believe me or never leaving me alone. That’s why I always say, ask people what they want. If they tell you they’re feeling better now, just ask them what they want to share. I don’t go into certain aspects of my journey because there’s nothing positive to pull out of them. I don’t focus on the negative.

Like what parts?

I had many bad experiences with therapists and with treatment in a treatment center setting. I grew up with parents who struggle to understand how I feel. They’ve grown a lot, but sometimes they still say, “Everything will be better if you pray” or, if I stay one day alone in my house, everybody starts calling me, telling me I’m depressed. I know there’s a lot of amazing parents out there understanding or trying their best. It’s just one of those things. I tell parents, bring your kid in! One way to summarize a bad experience: The person trying to help me is trying to treat the illnesses through me, without involving me. Like my parents, and the icon of depression is behind me, and they’re trying to throw things through me to get to it. Instead of asking, “What kind of treatment do you want?” And especially since I was young, no one thought to do that. It’s like fighting the thing within them, not engaging them. I like to tell people to go to as many evidence-based practices as possible. But I also tell service providers to make the treatment fit the person, not the person fit the treatment. It’s so much easier to fight what’s hiding in the dark shadows when you ask them to turn and look at it and not throw things through them. It’s like people trying to throw meds at you because there’s no time to talk with you. The medicine works when you believe in it and when you take it on an accurate schedule. I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t take it long enough. But nobody ever talked with me to realize that was my personal stance. For some things, you need the meds. For me, somebody should have asked me. That’s why kids come up to me, say, on 15 different medications. For side effects, etc. I’m like, “OK, at a certain point you have so much medications you don’t know what’s working anymore.” I’m not anti-medication, but I advocate health care professionals talking to their patients about how they want to get better. And talking to peer mentors, showing them how to get up the mountains. And not everyone will benefit from a psychiatrist. And so it’s one of those things that’s a good message for people. There’s many ways of getting better. If it’s working for you, great. Be careful not to give advice to other people. I’ve had a few people go off their meds the next day: “I’m going to be like you.” I’m like, “No.” Believe in your journey. And there’s not an exact science behind this yet.

And I think one thing too is, I’ve had years and months where it’s been worse and better, where it comes back but not to the same extent. I try to show people that we are mental health superheroes, fighting our own bad guys. Nobody kills the bad guy the first time they fight them. They scare them away. And every time that you seek treatment, you have more sidekicks fighting with you. Some times are bad, but I’ve learned to pull happiness from my journey. I’m helped by that. By sharing my story, I keep myself on the straight and narrow. I have to get help. I can’t be a hypocrite, right? And yeah, sometimes I do have some bad days, but I’m kind with myself, and the reason I don’t normally share is that I don’t want people to think it’s horrible every single time or that it never goes away. I’m probably one of the more happy people you’ll meet. One message I like to give is, if you’re stuck in a place where they’re trying to diagnose you but it’s not helping, just say, “I don’t care what’s wrong with me, I just want to get better. These labels don’t make me better.” People think if you know what’s wrong, you’ll feel better. That’s not always the case. You can feel a sense of doom. Not everyone fits into these little charts.

You talk a lot about superheros. What’s with that? Are you a fan?

I’m a superhero fan, but I really wanted a new way of framing it. I wanted to show people they are strong, and they need to celebrate their strength and celebrate how awesome it is they’ve come this far and not get sucked into comparing themselves with people who don’t go through this. I joke that I used to call myself a mental health superhero in training. I also talk about intentional superheros. When you know someone is part of a stigmatized group and you be a friend to them, that’s how you change people’s minds about racism, sexism. I’m just going to treat you like a normal human being. You’re putting intention behind it, becoming a kind of superhero, becoming someone who will help them through their journey. And yeah, I’m kind of a nerd, whatever. Just taking off that mask and fighting the demons without your mask on and still showing you’re strong. All humans at some time wear a mask of some sort, but being able to show “This is me, I’m suffering with this” in the same way that people say, “I can’t come out today, I’m sick.” Creating the same situation: “I can’t come out today, I don’t feel so good.” Being a superhero shows people they’re strong. You’re dealing with something so much more than the average experience. You should be celebrating that, not thinking something’s wrong with you because you can’t deal with normal life. If you take a normal person and put them in a suicidal situation, their coping mechanisms in that extreme emotional situation, they would fail too. Just like we celebrate cancer survivors for beating cancer, we should celebrate people for beating schizophrenia or bipolar.

How did you start speaking out? And what were the reactions?

When I went to university, I had control of my life for the first time. I could do things and not justify them to anyone. So I started openly telling my new friends what I had went through. When I wanted to get involved with the health community, I was so comfortable with telling friends and family that I just told my mental health mentor at the university, and she said, “We need a speaker.” I gave the speech and was nervous as all heck. I got off there and people gave me big hugs: “If you need anything, let me know.” After that, I reached out to regional suicide prevention things. I would always mention I have lived experience too. When they heard me speak, they just recommended me to be on national TV, and when they needed a speaker, they’d bring me along. It was really just people empowering me, really believing in me. I went on MTV Canada, our national breakfast TV show, and after that I decided I wanted to give back to the community. I was working in research to the front line. I was involved with TED and said I wanted to give back. I tried to nominate someone else, but they said, “Why don’t you do it?” I put in an application and got a phone call two months later: “Can you speak?”

Some people want to have this journey. I’m lucky that people believe in me. I’ve had speaking engagements where no one shows, but I always have had a standing ovation at TEDtalk. I give off positive energy, and people want positive energy, too. It was the scariest thing of my life, but I had so many people share stories with me after that. Then I became a “face of mental illness” in Canada after that, for people with lived experience and who give back. We get to be in a national campaign, meet politicians, work with Bell, which is donating a lot to mental health. It’s been soaring since last year, really. There’s a lot of benefit in putting yourself out there, not only sharing your story but being involved in the community. Some speakers, all they do is speak. Others act out the message. I want to share my story but also want to influence a good message.

The message for other people is, when you start sharing your story, you will find people supportive to you. Allow yourself to build up, and when you’re ready to jump into big things, jump. But don’t jump into big things first. Your experience, for the audience, may be triggering. You don’t have to be 45, 50 years old before your journey with this is done. And show young people we don’t have to be at the mercy of our parents, psychologists, psychiatrists. We can stand up for ourselves. Because we are the only ones knowing our experiences in our heads. If we don’t feed into the dialogue, we will not be as effective as we could be. And young people deserve the best people just like anyone else. If you don’t like your therapist, don’t be afraid to fire them. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to do to get better, as long as it will help you live in the future.

Have your parents seen you speak?

Nope. Well, a that’s a little bit of a lie. They tried to see my TEDtalk, but they don’t know tech very well, so they didn’t get a live stream. They watched the video. My dad’s Portuguese, and he doesn’t understand how he can give me everything and how I’m not super-happy. I own my own journey. My journey is me. Sometimes people say, “We want you to bring your parents,” and I say, “No, this is about me.” I’ve had journalists say, “I want to talk to your parents,” and I say, “I don’t know what they’ll be able to tell you, I was so good at hiding it.” I think one day I’ll invite my parents to talk, but the journey is mine, and I want to stand as an independent woman. I did it alone. Because I assumed that people would reject me, and I want to show if people want to do it alone, they can do it alone. I do have parents who are very supportive of whatever I want to do in life, but with this journey, I shut them out and I’ve only let them in recently. I’ll let them see me speak, but they had no idea what was going on. My journey is something that I own. People try to share their coping mechanisms, parents do that, but that tends to not work for me.

You didn’t really mention the details of your attempt earlier. Do you choose not to?

I choose not to. I say I attempted, but … There is some evidence of contagion, and I don’t want to give people the method because, “Oh, look at her, she’s getting all of this attention now, I’m going to do this half-assed attempt and get this attention too!” Also, out of respect for my family and my parents. But yeah, it’s something that I do. I briefly talk about it because at the same time it’s hard for me to go there. I was somebody who, after being suicidal, it was only a couple years after that I started cutting. Not enough to get really deep scars that friends have, but I have one on my wrist. What we basically are doing is creating external pain to distract from internal pain. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, and I want to focus on the positives. I want to know there’s a possibility of living life for you again.

Are there other possible drawbacks?

It will affect your dating life, I will tell you that right now. I’ll be honest, I’m on a dating site because I’m a busy person. And I talk about being a public speaker. I guarantee nine of 10 people say, “Let me see it,” I send it and they never speak to me again. And you know, it’s painful. Whether people don’t want to get close to a person who they think is going to take their own life … You don’t want to be with people who don’t understand you. If they’re judging you based on one talk, I probably don’t want anything to do with them anyway. And your friends, you deal with a lot of weird initial reactions. I had one say I was faking it because I didn’t go into the details of my attempt, or because I’m better now. Just one of those things where you sit down and prepare an answer to those reactions. Just having a way of having a nice, canned answer for them. “Oh, you’re faking it” or “Oh, you’re scary.” Well, I’m sorry, but if you ever want to have a conversation, I’m here to help you out. And the faking one, I understand, because people are really good at hiding it, and I was too. But it took a lot of effort to get here. This is genuinely me. I do want you to understand you can get better. The first time I got that, it was really funny. Why on earth would anyone want to fake this?

Are you making good money or something in speeches?

Sometimes I get paid when I talk about how to create a discrimination-free workplace or school or whatever. I just think any time someone says something bad, they are scared at the notion it could happen to them, too.

Has any reaction caught you off guard?

My mother. The first time she watched me on national TV, she called me. Up to that point, she had been uncomfortable. I had been bracing myself, but she actually called me in tears and said, “You are my warrior. I thought I had something wrong. I wanted to take this pain away from you but didn’t know how.” My mom was the best surprise to me. I have had weird comments or advice. One person said to get rid of depression, walk on hot coals.

You didn’t try it?

No, I didn’t try. Maybe one day. It was just one of those ones that I just kind of went, “Huh?”

What if everyone just started talking openly? Are we ready?

I don’t know if people themselves are ready. Whatever journey you want to take, be it two or 2,000 people, it’s a personal choice. It’s up to you. It should be based on what you want to do with that message. It’s not based on stigma. With some people, five people know they went through cancer, and for some, 5,000 know. I want a world where people feel OK saying, “I went through that, too.” But as a society, we’re not ready for people to say, “I’m going through that, too.” Because the resources are not enough. People seek help, but they might have to wait a year and a half. So I feel like I’m dangling a carrot sometimes. I’m scared for that “I’m going through that now, help me.” We don’t have a good system to rely on yet. There’s not enough people to help them navigate the system.

You really think there are not enough resources to deal with everyone?

In Canada, there’s a six-month waiting period for psychiatrists and stuff, they probably agree with me for that. I think what we have to deal with more is, you know, having all the organizations work together to rally behind people and help them, but sometimes they all compete for the same funding and don’t want to work together. I remember filling out an application for To Write Love on Her Arms on my campus, but they said they can’t come if we have Active Minds on campus. I’ve seen lots groups working against each other. There’s two therapy offices in the town there I used to live. One deals with family violence, the other doesn’t. If someone comes in and says they’re being beaten by their husband , they would rather send to their partner office in the next town than the one two streets over. The petty competition needs to stop.

Well, I assume that’s a lot different than in the U.S.

Well, here people pay for it with tax dollars. In the U.S., it’s more private. It’s a problem in itself. Everybody deserves to get better. One good response is the surge in online communities in sharing mental health issues. All these people are rallying to help people get treatment. One of my best friends from Philadelphia, she reached out to me on Facebook after the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention posted a story of mine. Just the power of social media, having this community that’s not there face-to-face for a hug but can rally and give a support network when you feel you don’t have one. So people stay in treatment longer or fight for themselves more. I work with Your Life Counts, and they do an e-mail service. They say, “We give you an e-mail back in an hour and give you thought-out answers, so you have one person out there who believes in you.” It’s a great thing that’s happened. It’s really creating stronger people to go out and show people that mental health is something we can talk about. And empowering them to believe in themselves.

Do you know of any support groups online?

I think this a problem. I, with a gentleman in England, started one in the summer of 2011, I believe. But because it’s really hard to get people to talk about these things, we had to close it down. But I think the things you can do is, there are a lot of online communities out there. There’s a Twitter called The Buddy Scheme. You can say, “I need somebody.” And you can message them, you can ask them to find an attempt survivor to speak with over Twitter. Those things are going to come. It sucks sometimes to have to find an attempt survivor who’s a speaker and then e-mail with them, because there should be forums out there with everybody talking to everybody else. It has to come to that. Just knowing you have that person in your corner is a good thing. I have a couple of people in my corner who are attempt survivors.

(I ask about the common fear about attempt survivors sharing information.)

It’s misguided a fair bit. I think it’s very important to have a facilitator to create positive conversations. Make sure the mentor is really stable. There is a genuine danger of someone sinking, and it will be like trying help someone drowning. If you don’t have the proper life jacket, they can pull you down with them. There are times people are straddling the line between OK and not OK and don’t need more triggers. But these groups are good, like Skills for Safer Living. Teach them skills on how to live. We need to see that more often. You know, I have about 15 friends who are suicide attempt survivors. We can get together, laugh, watch movies, we are normal people. There definitely is that fear, but there’s a one in 10 chance this happens. That “We’re not trying this at all” makes no sense to me. Because yeah, especially youth, we definitely need to talk to people who have been where we are because we have built-in BS sensors. If someone is telling us what we know isn’t true, we can lose trust so fast. You know how Judy talks about a survivors conference and not feeling welcome. You have the BS sensor. Even if I’ve been through the same disorder, my experience is very different from others. But we will see more and more people talk about what they’ve gone through. There’s always the issue of stigma. You want to start support groups, but you can’t because there’s not enough people showing up. I tried to do a youth bereaved by suicide group, but no one showed up. Because no one wanted to be part of that, you know? I think, too, the more you can educate people in a fun, light way, the better. I work with Mind Your Mind, and they work with games and celebrities. You can learn about it and have a fun time doing it. One way to break down stigma is not have a lot of super-duper heavy conversation with a lot of anger.

Some people say you can’t laugh at this topic.

If you’re able to laugh at jokes that are well-meaning … Some people say you can’t laugh at this, it’s horrible, but I bet that at some point when a person’s back is turned, they laugh at them being crazy. But laughing with us is great. We’re human, just like anybody else. And sometimes humor and light atmosphere allows to ask questions. One of my big criticisms about the mental health field is it’s so somber. Have you ever watched “The Bridge”? My god. It’s like, “This is the most depressing hour and a half of my life.” It’s all about the balance.

Is there anything else you really want to share?

The way I like to end is, if anyone’s looking at this and suffering, just know you’re worth it, worth living for, you have a beautiful mind, and the world wants to hear what you have to say, though it might not feel like it sometimes. There’s a life to live, and there are supports to help you live that way. You’re strong, and you’re fighting for yourself. Just don’t try to do it alone. Reach out and realize you are deserving of the best possible help you can find.

Who else are you?

I love photography, bad cop shows, hilariously even though they make fun of mental health. I love laughter, pulling pranks, being like, you know, the bad mom jokes, bad dad jokes. I love helping people, even if it’s not mental health. I’m a recent psychology grad from the University of Waterloo. Just quirky little me, who loves a lot of things. And I’m not defined by mental health, mental illness, but I’m looking forward to beating stigma in our lifetime. It’s actually funny, I have a therapist I see every couple of months, and that’s what she asked me: “What else are you? It’s like it’s consumed your life!” Yes, but in the best way. I have time to go out with friends, joke around, be completely like girly girls, complete idiots, jumping into shopping carts in malls and stuff. I’m still a youth, so I do things youth do.

More from Canada, part 2: Listening to Wendy Matthews

One of the several attempt survivors I met last week at Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention was Wendy Matthews, who gave an open, engaging presentation about her experience. “I have finally been able to recover my life, and my illness finally turned into just that. An illness,” she told the audience. “It is no longer who I am. It is something that I have.”

She agreed to let me post her speech here:

Good afternoon, my name is Wendy Matthews. And I thought I would start with a little bit about who I am.

On Dec. 26, I will be married for 25 years to the same wonderful man.

I am a proud mom of an 21-year-old son.

I am a college graduate.

I am a board member of a local not-for-profit agency.

I am a public speaker for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Niagara, United Way of St. Catharines and for my own company. I own three businesses: Happy Being ME, Button Me Happy and Wendy Speaks Up.

My life sounds pretty typical, don’t you think?

What I haven’t told you is that I have a mental illness. I have been ill for over 30 years and was properly diagnosed only 13 years ago. For over 10 years, I was totally unable to do any type of work. My diagnosis is bipolar-schizoaffective disorder. This means that I suffer from deep, dark pits of depression for long periods of time and sometimes for years. Depression for me is like a wet, thick, dark blanket that is thrown over my head. I can’t breathe, I can’t see past the darkness and I can’t lift myself up because of the weight of the blanket.

I also spring over to the other extreme, to the mountainous highs of mania. In this part of my illness, it is the exact opposite. I am light as a feather and as free as a bird. I know I could fly if I just take that leap. During these times, I do not sleep or eat for days on end. I commit myself to everything and anything people ask of me, and I have put myself into unsafe and at times dangerous situations. Mania for me can last for days or weeks at a time.

I also suffer from schizophrenia, which for me includes hallucinations and delusions. Some voices tell me horrible things. Other voices are just my friends, and we chat. Other times, it is just a lot of unrecognizable talk, kind of like being between radio stations, hearing the static and voices but not being able to understand what they are saying. I see dark figures and forms that live in the corners of rooms, behind things and in the ceilings. My delusional thoughts are harder to describe. The best way I know how to describe it is like being awake in a dream or nightmare. Well, more like a nightmare. I think, feel and see life, but no one else is going through the same things. I feel confused, terrified and angry during these episodes. These feelings only intensify when someone challenges me on what is going on.

My illness started back when I was 12, with a deep depression and my first of many suicide attempts. One day after school, I swallowed a bottle of pills that was in the medicine cabinet and left home. I was young and had no idea about how medications worked. I thought I would walk for a while and drop dead in my steps and everyone would be so much better off without me. After walking for a while, I started to feel ill and was getting tired, so I headed home to go to bed and die. I came home, and my parents were there waiting for me. They yelled at me because I had left and not told anyone where I was going.

I was grounded. I listened to them lecture and kept thinking in the back of my head that they wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore. I went to bed and awoke the next morning very disappointed that I couldn’t even get a suicide right. I had survived and no one knew what I had done, and I was still grounded.

By the time I reached high school, I was drinking to cope with school and life. I needed to drink to go to school, to be at home and to go out with my friends.

During my time in high school, I had a few more suicide attempts, and still no one knew. I would overdose and go to sleep. Sometimes I would get sick, but mostly I would lie down and expect to die but always wake up the next morning feeling that same disappointment that I felt years ago. Still, I never told anyone. I didn’t want to admit there was anything wrong with me. I thought other people felt the way that I did, only they were able to cope with life better than me.

So, after five intoxicated years in high school, I left without graduating. After high school, I worked at a bunch of different jobs, dated a bunch of different guys, and finally I met and married my husband. We moved to Nova Scotia, and a few years later we welcomed home a beautiful baby boy. All during this time, I still hid everything, my depression, my suicide attempts and my drinking, which was no longer working for me and had now turned into cutting myself as a way of dealing with everything.

My family didn’t know what I was doing or how I felt. Not even my husband knew. I kept everything from everyone. I was becoming the world’s greatest actress.

When my son was nine months old and I was 26, once again I tried to kill myself with an overdose. However, this time, if no one had found me I would have got it right. I was taken away unconscious in an ambulance in front of all our friends and neighbours.

My secret that I had hidden for 16 years was finally out in the open.

I was hospitalized for a few weeks and was diagnosed as bipolar, even though I was hearing things that were not really there. I was told that the reason for the voices was because I was tired and overwhelmed from being a new mom. So I went home from the hospital. But I needed help and support to look after my son as well as myself. My husband was in the Navy and had to quit his job, and we all moved back to St. Catharines. Back here, my husband found another job and my parents helped care for my son while I attended a day program at the hospital.

Over the next few years, that was how our lives carried on. I had lost contact with my friends from Nova Scotia, and my friends back here slowly dropped off because of my illness. I was not the party girl that they remembered.

Over those years, I had been put on dozens of different medications or combinations of them. Getting on the correct medication was the first thing to help me move forward. Medication doesn’t fix everything, but it helps you with a kind of kick-start to the brain. Even though my medications were working, I, like many others with my illness, have gone off my medications more than a few times, only to disastrous results. My medication does not take away all my symptoms, but it is a good balance between side effects and symptoms.

Finally, at the age of 30, I received my correct diagnosis but was also told that I would never be able to work again. This was hard to hear, but on the other hand, I was almost relieved. I had not worked for a long period of time and knew that I couldn’t. It was validating for me to hear a professional say this. So I went home and settled for the life that was given to me, but only for a while. I wanted a better life. I wanted to care for my family. I wanted friends. And I wanted things to be normal, like I thought other peoples’ lives were. So, never being one to be told what to do, I went back to school. Six months after starting back at school, I finally received my grade 12 diploma.

I then decided that I wanted to work. I started with one day a week. This was hard. It was harder than school. I had not worked in over 10 years, and the medication I was on made me soooo tired. But I figured I could do this one day a week and rest for the other six. Kind of like God, but backwards.

Over the next few years, I was finally able to work full time as well as go to night school. I graduated with a certificate in business management. Work was going pretty good for a few years, but as life would have it, things always happen, and for the first time since I had been back to work I had to go off sick due to my illness.

I felt sooooooo defeated, and I was very hard on myself, but after hiding out with my head buried under the covers for a while, I started to think of what I should do now. During this time of self-discovery, I was also able to finally come to terms with my illness. I no longer was asking my doctor that forever unanswered question of “When will I be better?” It just didn’t matter anymore. My illness wasn’t who I was. It was just a part of me, sometimes big, sometimes small. But I was more than that. My illness does not define who I am.

I had started opening up to people outside of my family, who to this point were the only ones other than a few professionals who knew about my illness. I had worked very hard all these years to hide it from everyone. I was so afraid that someone would find out and treat me differently, or more importantly, my family. I was especially worried that my husband and son would be affected by the reactions of others because of the stigma attached to this illness. But I could not go on hiding who I was any longer. It was exhausting, and it was time to tell my story. So in the summer of 2007, I started speaking publicly about my life. I must say it was quite empowering.

Another thing also happened that summer. I was awoken from my sleep with the fact that I was finally Happy Being ME. Me, the person who had wished myself dead for so many years, was finally happy. These powerful words and feelings would not leave my head. The more it went through my mind, the more I wanted everyone else to feel this way.  To be proud of who they are, no matter what their challenges.

Since this thought was not going to leave my head, I got up and sat at my computer and started a business plan. By the next morning, my business was born. Happy Being ME, offering happy, eco-friendly T’s and accessories, all sporting the Happy Being ME message as well as a fun character from our family, for babies to adults. I wanted everyone to be able to express themselves in this positive way.

The next day, I told my husband my idea, and to my surprise, he said, “Great idea, let’s get started.” But you should have been there for the conversation with my parents. There I sat telling them that their 40-something-year-old daughter who currently was off sick from work due to her mental illness was going to start an eco-friendly T-shirt business with printed stick figures and the words “Happy Being ME” on them. They smiled. You know that smile a parent gives their child when they’re thinking, “What the heck is she doing? But we’re going to support her anyway because we love her.”

I tell you about my business not only to shamelessly plug it _ that’s, and our store is located at 4 Second Dr., St. Catharines _ but I tell you because my business is a very important part of my recovery.

People always ask me what helped me the most, but before I tell you that, I just want to touch on a couple of things that have held me back over the years.

Number one, stigma. I believe that the stigma surrounding mental illness is a direct result of the lack of education. Stigma is probably the most significant thing that has held me back. Stigma was not just pushed upon me by others and society, it was also my own self-stigma that created problems.

The second thing is recovery, or what I thought recovery meant. I look back and remember talking to a support worker and them talking about recovery. I looked at her as though she had two heads. You see, to this point, I had been ill for so long, had problems just getting out of bed in the morning or off the couch during the day. I had already being given that mental health life sentence from my doctor, which I mentioned before. What I didn’t understand about recovery was that I may always have my illness, but I have finally been able to recover my life, and my illness finally turned into just that. An illness. It is no longer who I am. It is something that I have.

So, as promised, I want to share with you some of the things that have helped me in the retaking of my life:

Forgiveness. Give the gift of forgiveness, and start with yourself. I thought that my illness was a character flaw. I had to come to terms with my illness and myself. When I finally realized that the things I had done, felt, or experienced was my illness, it was much easier to forgive myself. Next was to forgive those around me who could not understand my illness. I was angry at people around me, and a lot of that anger was directed at my husband. I was angry at him for not understanding what I was going through or how I felt. I carried this anger with me for many years, but when I started to look at it differently, I finally came to this realization: He was not able to understand my illness. Not everyone is capable of empathy. This was not his fault. It was who he was. But he has stuck with me through all of my years of illness because of his love for me.

Do something new, as often as you can. Say yes. It was much easier for me to stay in the depression, stay in my bed, stay in my cocoon that I had created. It was an awful place, but it was what I knew. But this was not what I wanted for myself or my family. At the suggestion of a professional, I started to add things to my life. I started to do one thing different at a time. Sometimes I would keep moving forward, and at other times I would fall back into the old routine. But I kept remembering that quote by Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Accept help. I took the help offered to me from family and professionals. There were groups and programs out there to help me, whatever I needed help with. This does not mean that they did everything for me. I was the one who had to do the hard work, and with their encouragement I was able to start living a functional life with my illness.

And finally, fake it ’til you make it. This phrase was told to me many years ago, and I have used it many times. I faked a good life, I faked smiles and I faked happiness to the outside world until they actually became my world.

You know, I look at the statistics of mental illness. One in five will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime. One in 100 will have schizophrenia, 8 percent will suffer a major depression, 1 percent will experience bipolar, and so on and so on. And I look at those odds, and I fall into so many of them. I think my number just keeps coming up. I’ve hit the lottery. Unfortunately, it’s the mental health lottery, but as funny as that is, many more people will hit the mental health lottery. This is why I tell my story to complete strangers. My goal is to educate, to reduce and eliminate stigma that surrounds mental illness. I also hope to inspire anyone who is suffering from, or cares for someone with, a mental illness to move forward, to get help, forgive and believe that recovery is possible. But most important, I want people to finally be able to say that I am Happy Being ME.

Thanks for allowing me tell my story.

More from Canada: Talking with Judy James

I met Judy James this week at Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention. A few hours later, we had the following conversation upstairs in her hotel room, with the window open on a beautiful view of Niagara Falls.

Judy’s direct, and she was just one of a half-dozen or more people at the conference who spoke openly about their suicide attempt experience. “I think that this is a natural part of life, as natural as any catastrophic event can be,” she says.

She speaks about how she pushed for years for attempt survivors to be recognized at the conference, and about how professional hockey players helped lead to a breakthrough in Canada’s public conversation on suicide over the past year.

“All you’re doing is having a conversation,” Judy says. “And honest, heartfelt conversations don’t kill. Ignorance and stereotypes and silence, those things do kill. So let’s start the conversation and keep it going until it’s as common a conversation as anything else. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here. This to me makes common sense. But what do I know?”

Who are you?

Oh god. Well, right now, let’s see. I’m a 54-year-old supportive housing worker in Toronto, so my clientele are people who have been diagnosed with serious mental health problems, also have had issues with the criminal justice system. My job is to try to get them into housing and try to keep them housed. That’s where I’m at now. It’s a really far journey from where I started out, which was in … Well, if you were to look on a map, you could not find where my house was. Rural northern Ontario. So I grew up in a small town, excelled in school, skipped grade four, you do all the things that everybody expects of you to do. I was on the Reach for the Top team, like a TV quiz show for high school students. I was president of the student council. I had a weekend job as a reporter for the Sault Ste. Marie Star. I was doing that at 14. Again, to help support my family. My parents were both very abusive alcoholics. I found my escape in doing a lot of stuff in school. I found it was actually quite dangerous to be at home and safe to be at school and excelling there. So of course I had all kinds of aspirations. I wasn’t going to be like my parents, not have their very narrow thoughts on the world, which bordered on what I’d call backward thinking.

So I was out of the house and into a full-time job at 18, married at 20, was working on becoming a graphic artist, and then my marriage fell apart. And then I started drinking. And then I started driving. And one of those nights I just decided to just keep driving until I hit a rock cut. Fortunately, I came to my senses and realized I could kill someone else, not just myself. So I went back to work, but it caught up to me again. I was first diagnosed at age 23 with major depressive stuff, episodes. I got through that, went back to work, life carried on. I had another major episode a few years later, then carried on through work. TV Guide [where she was working] was scheduled to close in 1997, and so I applied for and got a job in Toronto, was going to be project production manager for a magazine. I came to Toronto, looked up somebody I thought was going to be a friend. I was almost raped on that first date. That was the start of a real tailspin. I started to experience symptoms again. When I told my boss I might have to take a few days off because of depression, she said, “I don’t care if you die, just make sure the next edition comes out.” So I checked into a hospital and said “Let’s forget about this.” So I stayed there a while. I was fired from my hospital bed. And then it just went from bad to worse. I was out of a job, in a strange city, I didn’t have any friends, my prospects were looking very bleak. By that point, I had lost contact with my family. So it was just getting bad to worse. I was going to lose my housing. I was down to eating a bag of apples a week, all I could afford once the rent was paid. I had to go on welfare, so I lost all my savings. And of course, I still couldn’t get a job.

This went on until late 1999. I went to see my doctor, and she said, “I think you need ECT.” I said, “ECT, like, that’s gotta be the worst, right? That’s the last-ditch intervention? Isn’t that kind of like using an axe to fix a hangnail?” She said, “In your case, you need an atom bomb.” I had been in and out of the hospital, in and out of a variety of talk therapies from ’97 to ’99 and had become so treatment-resistant. So I went in for ECT. I started to have psychotic symptoms, which I had never experienced before. I thought, “This can’t be getting me better.” I didn’t tell anyone because I thought I was already at the end of my rope at that point. So when ECT didn’t work, I went back and said, “What’s going on?” I was told I would never work again, I might as well get used to being … better give up my apartment, get used to a life that was going to be living on assistance, never having a job, never even getting close to the lifestyle I used to have. So at that point, I just went home and started making a plan. And within a couple of weeks I had amassed enough medication. I went to the most beautiful spot that reminded me of home, and there I decided to end my life. I won’t get into a whole lot of methodology, for obvious … I said that once to a reporter and they went into gory detail, so forgive me if I don’t go there. Anyway, I woke up, and all I was was sick. I think I threw up for about eight hours. But I felt even worse. I thought as low as you could feel to kill yourself, but when you fail in the attempt, you somehow reach even lower. Yeah. So I went back, asked all the questions, people still did not have answers. So I made another attempt. It probably was the best thing I ever did, because once you made a second attempt … I know this sounds silly, but by making a second attempt, it qualified me for Yvonne‘s group. You needed multiple attempts.

So this bouncy lady shows up in my hospital room, this is 12 years ago, and she was like, “How are you today?” I was feeling lower than a snake’s rear end in a wagon rut. She’s telling me how she was going to hold hope for me. I just told her to fuck off. She said, “Anger. I could work with that.” I thought she was some religious zealot coming from the airport. This was prevalent in hospitals at the time. Anyone could come in, people were coming in asking you to come to services out near the airport in a grab for money. That’s what I thought Yvonne was. So she kind of took off, and another doctor showed up. He was an older guy but was doing his residency in psychiatry. For some reason, his name has just escaped me. I can see his face right now. At any rate, he said, “What’s going on? We want you to come back into St Mike’s for more ECT.” I said, “No way I’m going back there because of what happened at the other hospital.” We talked about it. It was all about how I didn’t have a voice. I had always looked upon the doctors as people in places of authority, didn’t question them, they knew me better than I did. and so I left it at that. And after ECT, the way I was feeling before my attempts, I was scared, terrified. I didn’t want anything more to happen if I was going to live. And he saw this disconnect and said, “Why can’t you talk to the doctors?” I told him. He said, “How would you feel if I moderated that discussion and gave you some tools on how to have that discussion?” I thought, “This is weird.” And we did. It was horrible. I was in tears, just a quivering, blubbering mass of goo. But I had that conversation with my attending physician and changed the treatment. It was so empowering. I thought, “Wow, this is cool.”

He said, “How would you feel about going into a group?” I went, “What? You’re going to take a group intervention with me? I’ve been in group interventions, and no doctor has done that.” That was the PISA group. So we did that. I met Yvonne, again. It was like, “You’re not that bouncy religious zealot. You work here. OK.” So we went through this 20-week program. In that program, which borrowed from all kinds of different things, it looks at DBT, CBT, it borrows from all sorts of different models, all over the map. The neatest part is, she actually talks to the people: “What has worked for you? What has kept you safe before? How would you design this?” We had a hand in our own intervention. We became teachers for them. It turned the whole medical process on its ear for me. Yvonne, I love this woman, she’s setting the medical component on its head by making medical students take this program, getting nurses, students, some of us involved in this program. Some of us are becoming facilitators. I went through the group, learned so much. I learned about basic human rights, stuff I didn’t have a clue about. I grew up where the nearest neighbors were a bear and a moose. I didn’t know I had a right to say no, to be respected. I could have conversations with professionals and be treated on a different level. I learned about physical systems, mental systems, gaining autonomy with medication. I learned about relationships, how to change toxic relationships. I learned how to work on a scale of intensity, to identify where I was on my own map of illness, which interventions worked. Oh, wow. There were so many lessons there. I think everybody should take this thing. I think everybody could use this on a daily basis. I learned the physical parts, that it was not just all in my head. I learned about internal dialogues, self-talk, how to turn off a lot of self, the expectations of others, what is expected of me in different roles in my life, that I don’t have to be perfect all the time, the world will not end.

Yeah, so I got through the first 20 weeks, and I thought I really had it sussed. Things were looking up. I still didn’t have anything really going on. Then my best friend died by suicide. It sent me into a bit of a tailspin. Yvonne said, “You’re not ready.” I said, “You’re not kidding.” She said, “Do you want to do the group all over again?” I said, “Yeah.” That’s unheard of in other programs. After that, I then became a group facilitator. At the same time, she let me come into the studies unit, where she worked, and I got a lot of old skills back. How to do research. How to feel good in an office setting again. How to work on deadlines. How to work with other people. At the time I lost my job in publishing, it was the time computers were becoming prevalent, as opposed to typesetting. I had lost the ability to work in that field during the time I was ill. So in 2002, I went back to school. The work they were doing at the suicide studies unit was fascinating. They let me work on just about anything. I was quite happy: “OK, this is cool.” I went back to school, thought maybe I’d get my masters in social work. I still didn’t have a job, money. I got into the social services program, wherein you could major in addictions, mental health or criminal justice. I majored in mental health with a minor in addictions. It was eye-opening. Because then it was forcing me back from the world that was a safe space at the hospital, around people I felt safe with, and putting me back into the general public. At this point, I had all these new skills: “I am woman, hear me roar. I am a consumer survivor, hear me roar. I’m going into the field to help people, to help them navigate a system that is just so wrong.” My own fellow students couldn’t have a conversation with me. They had come from the education system and decided they wanted a career in mental health. They couldn’t relate. At some point, we were sitting in the lecture theater, and one professor asked someone to volunteer as a psych patient being brought into the ward for the first time. I was sitting with a hockey jersey, pants with a belt and running shoes. I immediately thought, “OK,” so I pulled out my laces and took off my belt. So I’m doing what’s common on the ward. People were literally moving away from me in their seats. Why? Because they thought there was some kind of contagion happening. They might catch mental illness. On the day we graduated, we were all going out for a beer and somebody came up to me and said, “I hope someday I can work with someone with a mental illness.” I thought, “People are all around you!”

So yeah. I’ve been out since 2002 quite publicly. And I’ve been advocating for people with mental health issues but also people who have made suicide attempts to be seen as people. Because it’s one thing to have a mental illness, there are all kinds of causes. But with suicide, it’s still kind of a no man’s land. People are afraid to come out because they think automatically they’ll lose their job. I know there are places where, if you disclose, they will covertly not hire you, though they advertise for consumer survivors. Back in the early ’60s, we had a problem with cancer. No one wanted to say the “c” word. People have likened a lot of mental health issues to diabetes: If you have medication, it’s under control. I’m not sure if I like that analogy, because this can be so different. But why are we so scared about this? And why are we so scared of people who have attempted suicide? One myth is that people will always be somehow damaged. I mean, I finally found a place where I can work now that values recovery in mental health. And I want to see more people take back their voices. Because so many of those voices are silenced because of the stigma, financial constraints, all the different taboos, cultural taboos. I think that this is a natural part of life, as natural as any catastrophic event can be. People have illnesses and die every day. Why is it so hush-hush when it comes to those of us who have felt trapped and isolated and scared and worthless and hopeless and that we try to either alleviate the pain or the human condition we think we’ve got or genuinely feel?

How’s that for the start?

You’ve mentioned that it hasn’t been easy taking part in this conference. Why?

I always knew I had advocates somewhere. The first to introduce me to CASP was Yvonne. But I know there were still some hurdles. The first was them asking me way back when to identify as a survivor, but as a survivor in the traditional context of bereavement. And when I said, “I’m here because of my own attempts,” everything just went kind of silent. I’ve been to workshops where there was name-calling. I’ve been to workshops where we were told right off the bat that we weren’t really welcome. So again I’ve advocated and we’ve had different workshops about the language of suicide, what it is to “commit” suicide, to be a “survivor,” to be “successful” or a “failed attempt” or a “successful attempt.” There’s such a weighty language all around suicide. I don’t consider myself a failure. I don’t consider myself … There’s a guilt factor in the broader population are putting on it, almost as if, if you didn’t die by suicide, somehow you weren’t really trying. So in that context, we’re all looking for something, some soapbox to get some sort of unmet need met. And I just look at them and just, “No, I’m just trying to have a conversation so it’s not about us, it’s about everybody trying to see the point that we’re all in this together.” Last year, when I went with Jenn Ward, the survivor chair for CASP, she saw that happen, where I was told that I really didn’t have a place. And she made it her mission this year to make sure I had a place. So this year is all about celebrating having that place. And it has been a huge, huge weight off my shoulders to have that happen this year. I was told it was gonna happen last year, and it didn’t. This year, it did. I couldn’t be happier. I just hope it continues.

What happened this year? You had mentioned you put together a list of everything that happened for attempt survivors.

Wow, this year. I don’t know if there was some cosmic shift or what. This year, it seemed like people got it. I guess for me, last year about this time we were doing this conference, and it was all about teaching people that attempters could still be valuable assets in the community. We had such a great response to that. Some of the people you met today, Cathy and Allan, spoke as well. And then we had CASP. And despite what happened to me at CASP, I met a lot of people who were very positive. At the same time as CASP, we had the national strategy for suicide prevention, we had people asking for Canada to have a national suicide prevention strategy established and have government funding to it. So we at CASP raised a glass to that. At the same time, there was a firestorm in the media. Over the summer, two hockey players had died by suicide. And the media got ahold of it and raised questions. A couple of former NHL enforcers got up and talked about the hardships of that role. When they did, the media again took a proactive stance. CTV, Bell Canada, which owns CTV, announced a mental health intervention where they were going to make substantial donations. CTV ran with it, ran its own thing on suicide. And there was this hockey … Can I say shitstorm? Where a couple of players came out in support of these tough guys. And then Don Cherry, like a national icon up here, he called these guys several derogatory names. The backlash from that went around the world. There was so much support for people who had mental health issues, who had attempted, who had died by suicide in the sports world. That set up a new conversation with their fans. It also allowed a lot of other celebrities to come forward and start conversations. In 2010, the “Do it for Daron” project had started, a youth initiative named for Daron Richardson, an Ottawa teen who died. That has been going like crazy. So all of a sudden, we’re seeing all these support things happen for people with mental illness and specifically around people who have attempted suicide. Not only are we coming out of the closet, as it were, people are not calling us weak and crazy and “Maybe you should have died,” really rude comments. All of a sudden, it’s taken a 180-degree shift.

So everything’s OK? Or what more needs to be done?

So like I say. I don’t know if this is just a blip. I hope not. I’ve found my voice now. I’m thick-skinned. I’m 54. I see every day as a gift now. I worry about the kids and how meanness can be over the Internet, some of the technology they don’t know how to control, and we don’t either. I hope the attitudes are changing and we don’t see a rollback position. There’s too much energy wasted on the bad feelings and the name-callings. Folks like us who have to feel nervous: Do we belong? Are we in the right place? When we enter a room, are we gonna feel welcome?

So you’re seeing the same people at the conference who were rude?

I’m not seeing the same people. Different people come. It’s quite a smaller group this year, I’ll be honest. But I think the core group is here. Because CASP moves around, in a different major city across Canada each year. Last year, it was Vancouver. Before, it was Halifax. All over the country. And so far this year, I have only heard good things. I’m also meeting new people this year who are very much behind what I’m saying. And people like you aren’t afraid to come up and talk to me, either. Because that used to be a thing, too. “Can we talk to her? Is it safe?”

Again, fear of contagion? Or they thought it would set you off?

Just a fear of the unknown. They didn’t know if I would say anything really controversial. I think a lot of it is, “Is she safe to talk to? She’s a person with mental illness, who tried to kill herself. After we talk to her, is she going to jump out a window?” Well, we’re sitting here, you’re typing, the window’s open, and I’m not jumping. We get it. What are some of the things they’ve done to you?

(I talk about my experiences, none of them that severe, and Judy continues.)

I’m coming out there because I want other people to come out and be a spokesperson and do this. It’s not like I have money or fame, anything to gain. I’m coming here on my own dime. Because this is my way to give back. I don’t want others to go through what I had to go through. I want people to have the conversation that needs to happen and not feel scared about it. It’s a conversation like any other one.

I feel like I ask this question of everyone. How to break down the stigma, the silence?

Well, you have a running shoe company in the States with a pretty good slogan: Just do it. Don’t be afraid. Just do it. It’s not like opening the can of worms means you have to go into a whole four-hour intervention with somebody. All you’re doing is having a conversation. And honest, heartfelt conversations don’t kill. Ignorance and stereotypes and silence, those things do kill. So let’s start the conversation and keep it going until it’s as common a conversation as anything else. I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here. This to me makes common sense. But what do I know? The conversation becomes how to make it easier for people to come out. For a lot of us, our voices have been taken over by professionals. These conferences are attended largely by doctors and those in the medical profession. Talking about us.

A lot has to do with the same social determinants as anything. A lot of people can’t afford to be here. A lot with suicide in their past are living with mental illness, living under some sort of subsidy, so to come to a three-day conference … We talked about this on the panel yesterday. It would have been impossible for Richard to be on the panel unless somebody subsidized his being here. It would be impossible for most to pay three nights’ accommodation, food. One of these junkets can easily cost over $1,000. I’ve made friends with a number of researchers, This is kind of our junket. We lecture, take a bit of time off. This is our vacation. We come as individuals, then hang out together.

How many people at a conference like this aren’t “out”?

Good question. Talk about the 4,000 who die each year in Canada. So the guesstimates are, for every 4,000 who die, another 10 for each person are affected. So, extrapolate to coworkers and friends. Now, when you consider the other 10 times the number for the people who attempt this year, 40,000, you tend to see how the numbers are skewed in terms of who’s at risk, who will be at risk in the future. I heard one doctor today come out. I thought that was cool. It was at a seminar I hadn’t planned on going to. And Dan this morning. So the professionals are starting to come out.

How did it go with the doctor?

Usually, the survivor panel happens on the third day of the conference. This year, it was right at the beginning, so we got all the baggage out and aired. Yesterday, I didn’t hear one negative comment. Nobody said anything. That’s a first. We heard a lot of positive stuff. I’ve met a lot of people since then who’ve said, “Right on.” I presented in Rome in 2010. Of the audience that we had, there were only two I didn’t know. Which is to say that nobody was interested in our topic. And at that point, this was the first international conference where they had attempt survivors, as such, presenting.

Which conference?

The 13th European Symposium on Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour. Anyway. Yvonne, I and another PISA graduate were going to present on the journey we had taken away from suicide. We had Yvonne’s group from Ireland watching. The Canadian delegation. And these two Belgian folks who actually wanted to hear the presentation.

That’s it?

That was it.

So it will take a while.

It will take a while. But I’m encouraged.

Go back to the doctor. Was it a moment? Were there murmurs?

It was actually part of his presentation. He told us what he did. He had it up in the PowerPoint. The methodology. How he was saved by his wife. Right on! We’re human!

And the reaction in the crowd?

No. Given that Dammy was there, Tim was there … These are past presidents of CASP. There wouldn’t have been any hooplah, I think.

Tomorrow, there’s an unusual session on euthanasia, assisted suicide, assisted dying and how they fit into CASP. What do you think about that?

I was at the session in Vancouver where it was pitched. I don’t know how it will go over. I think it’s gonna be controversial. We’ve just had a fairly recent example of where a woman was allowed to, she hasn’t died yet, but has permission from the government to end her life when she chooses. I can’t remember her name now.

So this is a national issue now.

Yup. CASP doesn’t shy away from being controversial.

But do you believe these issues come together?

Could. There’s still a lot of people of the belief that you and I would be aberrations because we have messed with God’s plan. I’m saying that with heavy-duty quotation marks. And a lot of that comes from a few of the bereaved survivors. I think we’d be kind of foolhardy not to look at it. And I think, I’ve looked at this issue myself, and I don’t know how I would be. Who knows in another 20 years. I already have some mobility issues. Where would I be if I were in excrutiating pain? Where will I be if I can’t make a contribution to the world, where I can’t clothe, eat, feed myself, look after myself? Those are all the things we have to look at. How to make a decision? Those are the questions I’m sure we looked at when we were facing suicide before: What was our life worth? I see you nodding your head, yeah. I don’t know where I’m gonna be 20 years from now. Am I gonna want to advocate for suicide prevention then? I don’t know. As long as people feel they can make a contribution, where society can help. I mean, we don’t live in a society anymore where it’s survival of the fittest. We’re here to take care of each other. We have programs in place, where the value of life is sacred. I don’t want the attitudes of, like, my parents to be around, where if you don’t pull your weight you have no worth.

So, where are we now?

I was waiting for you to pull out the perfect answer.

You think I’ve got one of those?

What have I not asked?

This is a totally different conversation than I’ve had. You and I don’t need to have this conversation. You get it. I had this conversation with a reporter from The Ottawa Citizen, who said, “I don’t know if I can have this conversation, because I am a Catholic.” Which was cool, because he put his biases out there: ‘”To me, you’re a mortal sinner.” I said, “OK, at least I know where you’re starting from.”

How did the conversation go?

I don’t know. It was long. It was good! He won all sorts of awards for that article. It was candid.

I’d like to read it.

Well, it would have been October 2003. Yvonne still has that thing hanging up on her wall. It won something like 13 awards. It was part of a series. But they were so nervous talking to me because they were afraid I was going to get triggered and they would get lawsuits.

What kind of questions did he ask?

Well, the whole thing was startling for him because he never considered asking before. I wasn’t sure how to talk about stuff, either. He said, “Off the record, tell me what you did.” I thought he would withhold it, but he didn’t. He went into great detail. I don’t know, I haven’t taken any courses in how to deal with the media.

How does the media up here deal with suicide?

Were you here yesterday? We had a reporter from The Globe & Mail for the plenary. He went on about how suicide contagion is not something the media should be responsible for. But we’ve seen where they report on methods, suicide styles, and all of a sudden there are clusters happening. Again, I felt bad. I hope nobody read what happened in the Ottawa thing and then … Yeah. I mean, that’s haunted me. I mean, it’s nine years later and I’m still thinking about it. The hardest part for me is how I’m coming across in the media. Do I sound like a crazy person? Do I sound like I have my head screwed on sideways? Thankfully, you haven’t asked dumb questions like, “How’s your medication?” because I’m not on any.

And you haven’t asked the follow-up question, “So why aren’t you on any?”

I’m still typing!

Good answer. No, I think the media has a responsible place to be in all of this. I don’t like the use of the word “commit.” It’s not a crime to be so low that you want to die. It’s criminal to have to be in that space in this day and age. It’s not anything criminal against the person. So yeah, the word “commit” is big. And then they go into the whole lexicon I have feelings about. What’s a “completed” suicide? “Successful”? “Failed”?

What are the terms you prefer?

Call it what it is. Suicide.

What if you’re still alive?

Then it was an attempt. I attempted to die. I mean, I have a whole problem with the word “suicide.” It gets lumped in with “regicide,” “homicide,” “infanticide” … You know.

You didn’t like the idea of the media talking about methods.

Just the contagion thing. And some people get hung up on how sensational it can be.

Maybe this is just me, but I worry that so many people go into their attempts not really knowing whether what they’re doing will kill them: “Maybe this will work.” I’ve spoken to people who are blind because of their attempts, or who are in a wheelchair. And I worry that others who never really meant to go that far ended up dying.

Then there are the people who thought they had chosen the ultimate _ jumping in front of train, out of a building _ and are still here, breathing through tubes or in a wheelchair. Part of that is what saved me. My ignorance. And maybe that’s not so bad. I don’t know if I messed up my head a little bit with my methods. People have thought jumping over the falls was pretty foolproof. We heard the mayor of Niagara Falls talking about people who jumped and lived. You could hear how nervous he was talking to this crowd yesterday. Again, I think it’s about normalizing the words. We do the same thing with funeral announcements. They say “died suddenly,” “died tragically.” They died! Leave it! And start talking about it at funerals and stuff, so again it’s a conversation. I’m not just a survivor of my own attempts. I told you about my best friend. I’ve also lost two clients, and this year I lost a colleague at my workplace. And courageously, the wife of my colleague at the service talked about suicide. And you heard a couple of audible gasps. But once they got over that, we had some conversations. And again, it brought it out of the darkness. That’s the conference theme this year. So let’s give it a voice, take it out of the closet. Call it what it is and get rid of all the crap around it.

I’ve asked my main questions. Sometimes I ask whether it’s actually better to never talk, to pretend it never happened.

No. Because nobody’s talking about it. It’s become a big part of my life. Hopefully in the days, months, years to follow, I’m just going to become Judy again. Not the “Judy, the crazy woman who loves to talk about suicide attempts because nobody else will.” Because it’s gonna become commonplace.

Talking with Cathy Read-Wilson

How many people working on crisis lines have had their own experience with suicide? Cathy Read-Wilson’s suicide attempt came after she had started volunteering with one. She found that the organization didn’t panic, later hired her and has worked with her ever since.

Cathy explains the system, including how it keeps her supervisor informed when she has a crisis while keeping the record of the crisis relatively anonymous. She’s also free to mention her experience to callers. “I have had callers happy they had a person on the other end of the line who knew what they were talking about,” she says. “And they know I’m not calling 911 on them, because I know that sucks. But I tell them that if I need to, I will.”

She decided to speak out about her experience because she found it hard to find resources for attempt survivors, and she came across Yvonne Bergmans‘ group in Toronto.

Who are you?

I’m a mother of three kids, ages 22, 19 and 15. I live in a small town, fairly small, Elmira, Ontario. I grew up here. I went off to university in Hamilton, ended up coming back, getting married, raising a family. I’ve done all sorts of work in the meantime, working in a newspaper setting, washing windows, doing anything I could, until recently, I decided to move to a profession that I’m doing now, counseling.

What kind of counseling?

What I’ve been doing part time is working on a crisis phone line. A lot of work is either distress or crisis intervention. It could mean just listening to people as they needto vent, or helping keep them from grabbing a drink when they’ve been clean for a while. I’m moving into more front-line work. I’m working on the AIDS committee for Cambridge-Kitchener-Waterloo area. I’m working on the education end of things, reducing stigma.

In your work for crisis lines, did you disclose your own experience?

It makes it very easy for me to work with individuals. In some ways, it’s more easy to work with a suicidal person than a co-worker. I would disclose depending onthe situation. It’s supposed to be about the caller, but I found that sharing a bit about my experience has benefited. I have had callers happy they had a person on the other end of the line who knew what they were talking about. And they know I’m not calling 911 on them, because I know that sucks. But I tell them that if I need to, I will.

But did you tell the crisis line organizers when you joined them?

Actually, my attempt was while working with them. My first two attempts, I call them pseudo-attempts, were 10, 15 years ago. I started volunteering three, three and half years ago. I literally had quit my job as a part-time custodian, getting more into social services. What I could share then was my struggle at times with depression, how I ended up being on sick leave because of mental health, how I could relate to bereavement, PTSD, the kind of stuff relevant then. Literally two years ago, I actually had my major attempt. And so it was ultimately only since then that I disclose my attempt. I mean, I use my own services now.

You didn’t know about them before?

When I went through other struggles, I had no idea that a phone line existed. Now, actually within the last six months, I’ve phoned coworkers late at night. There’s a very political way of the organization in working with it, no backlash. I’m very fortunate. They have full respect for the fact that I am using it, really.

How does it work?

If I phone in, coworkers will make note of the call but make it at an anonymous level. And that way, volunteers can’t necessarily see it. If I choose, they could put my name in. My coworkers actually have a copy of my crisis plan right by their desk. I can access the schedule, so I know who I’m going to be talking to. It’s kept anonymous when it’s put in the computer. My supervisor is notified, though. So she is aware. If there’s any contact with the mobile crisis team, it’s kept relatively anonymous. The paper trail gets folded up, put in an envelope and given to the supervisor’s superior. So there’s a record, but nothing no one else needs to know about.

How does it feel coming in to work afterward?

I could show up the next morning at work, yeah. I’ve only used it a few times. At first, it was somewhat awkward. My first person on my crisis plan is my supervisor. So she knew prior. It just happened that the mobile crisis person that morning was also the union rep. He was actually the one, he saw us talking, came in, explained to me the confidentiality stuff. I had no idea. The call had to be made, I didn’t know how it would be processed. But knowing now, I’m OK with that. I’ve got a great support system. And I’m not the only one who used the services. We provide a service for others in need, and we should be able to offer it to our own employees.

Is this a private organization, or a governmental one?

It’s the Canadian Mental Health Association. Out of the Grand River branch. Which may not be standard throughout Canada.

(I ask about the difference in stigma around suicide in Canada and the U.S.)

There is stigma. I had been looking for work, with resumes out there like crazy. I know it’s a tough market. But I’m so open, I’ve been in newspapers, on TV, that a part of me wonders _ it also shows up on my police check _ to what extent I was not getting a job because of my openness about my suicide attempt. I don’t know. I speculate it might be some there. For the most part, I get a positive response. I don’t know what they’re saying behind my back. I guess I don’t really care.

How did it come about, your openness?

My attempt was July 7, 2010. I was in the middle of my master’s course. I went in on a Wednesday to the hospital, and I was able to get myself into crisis respite on Monday. I did stuff I wouldn’t recommend to clients to get through the system. Once I got there, I started Googling “suicide survivors.” Everything that started coming up was those bereaved by suicide, and I got rather ticked off at that. No, I’m a survivor, too. I’m not going to keep quiet about it. I was very open with my kids, my family. There was only so much I could hide already. With my kids, I had a counseling session, and the counselor asked, “How do you want me to do this?” I said to right out suicide, call it exactly the way it is. It does no one good to sweeten it up, to make false comments. As far as coming out to the public, it was a year later. I was open with close friends, within my work environment. I didn’t not talk about it. I’m actually a shit instigator: “What did you do this weekend?” “I attempted suicide.” The deer in the headlights response. The humor gets us through. But I was determined something needed to be done. On suicide awareness day, I had my own event in Elmira. Basically there was a newspaper article for all of Elmira to read about my attempt, like coming out of the closet, so to speak. The interesting thing is, my parents live in town and people would go to them before talking with me, comment how brave I was, blah blah blah. Now more people come up to me still. They actually bring it up in conversation. I always thank them.

They never go over the line? Is there no line?

I’m open to anything. I always have the right to not answer. I’ve been asked “Why,” “How could you possibly feel that low,” “What about your children,” if I ever got angry at God, so a more religious component. No, I’ll answer whatever. The most hurtful comment came from someone I knew fairly well, it had to do with it referred to as a selfish thing to do. That one hurt. But for the most part, no. And if I’m in the right frame of mind, if someone asks if I’m doing it for the attention, really, none of us do it for attention, right? You have to be in a pretty deep hole. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, I take it personally.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, what would you say?

I would say it’s more a cry for help than a cry for attention. The words are not there. You don’t have the words to speak for yourself. I’ve been trained, I know intervention, but if I’m in crisis tomorrow, will I know how to pull that stuff out of a hat? Not necessarily.

About the comment on being selfish, did you have any response?

I never did. It was someone I had greatly respected growing up. I just put it in the back of my mind. Sometimes you say things in the moment you don’t necessarily mean. And you know, if I were to see him now, I probably would say something to that effect. but at the time, I didn’t know what to say.

Is there any downside to being open?

Yeah. It’s the triggers. And I have to really be careful I’m not overdoing it in my suicide prevention promotion stuff. I suffer from emotional hangovers, so I can be go, go, go, go for a while but then pay for it after the fact. I slide pretty quickly. But do I ever regret my reason for sliding? No. And if I slide so far I have another attempt, would I regret it? No. Because I still would have accomplished stuff prior to it.

Is there any risk in you talking with me? You know there is the common concern about attempt survivors talking with each other about it.

That’s such a myth. The best group I ever sat in on was Yvonne Bergmans‘, sitting in as a peer. and being able to sit in on a room of fascinating, creative, intelligent individuals and hear their struggle, like yours. No, I still keep in contact. Our conversation is generally, “How can we continue to talk more about it so it becomes less of a concern and so more people reach out and get help?” There are times _ I was at my therapist’s yesterday, I was literally given the choice of hospital, respite or otherwise, and that was a little over 24 hours ago. I never know what will be triggered, to get to that certain point. I’m sure she’d cringe at a comment where I’d be willing to risk my life literally by talking about it, but she knows me well enough. I’m determined enough to talk about it. And, by the way, I didn’t end up in respite or the hospital.

How did you manage that? 24 hours?

Well, resiliency. I guess I just have a driven mindset. Ultimately, I think those with high ideation and behavior, they don’t really want to die of suicide, it’s in the moment, “I can’t take it anymore,” right? So I’m fortunate with the resources that I have. I have a crisis plan I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I put people on there specifically I know I can’t bullshit. So I hate them in the moment and would like them to go away. I know there’s a backlash on me right there because they’ll be reading this!

How do we make people more comfortable with the topic?

Starting the conversation. Every opportunity we have. The people I talk with from the group, my youngest is 15, their kids are a little younger. But we all believe in talking about it, going into the school system. It’s something we would like to do. Opening it up to youth groups. Any opportunity we have where we can share our story in a conversational kind of way, right? Because we could talk and talk and talk, but once you talk for a little while, people start to get curious and ask questions, and it becomes more of a conversation, and right there it just opened the door for them to be with a peer somewhere down the road who sends out a red flag, “I wish I were dead,” that one meeting could turn into saving a life down the road. That individual will be comfortable enough to ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?” Saying the word is the hardest, right? When I was in training for the crisis line, I learned how to say the word directly and not, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” Having them say the word “suicide,” they’re using it and they’re not going to get a negative reaction. There’s a few of us, we’re all to the point where we would much rather open up and try to share our stories than try to keep closed about it.

Is there anyone, any organization, leaning in and saying, “Talk, but tell it this way?”

I’ve never had anyone tell it to me, but maybe they did and I chose not to hear it. You know, one of the first things Yvonne says in the group is, she basically says the whole group process is a learning process. You are the experts, I am also a co-learner. So ultimately I have that dual hat, which helps. I spoke with a group of individuals, medical students. I was there because of my mental health and suicide attempts, but even in that context, it was interesting. There was no sort of guidelines, “You shouldn’t say this to medical students,” everything was up front. I can always learn from someone else. I like that expert stuff.

These are relatively smaller-scale efforts. What about talking on a bigger scale, through the media and such?

Maybe down the road? Maybe open the door to work organizations, a fascinating place to have maybe a day where you have someone come in and talk about it. No one is immune to suicide. I would say nine out of 10 people, if not 10 out of 10 people I’ve spoken to or in front of, have a story to share. The more we talk, the more the word will hopefully get out. I’d love to say one day I’ll be a big international speaker inspiring people’s lives, right? Yeah, grandiose and ideal.

I wonder if talking on a larger scale would change the response.

The domino effect, right? I go out and speak often with Tana Nash. She lost her sister and grandmother to suicide. Oftentimes we get together. If I had not had my attempt, I would not have met her, had those connections. I would not have met Yvonne. Not that I recommend that; I always put that in parentheses. Where was I going with that? Oh, I go out with Tana, and in going out with her, I recognize there may be 15 people, 50 people in the audience. The benefit of the smaller group we’ve seen is, there’s more disclosure in that group because of the comfort level. Whereas in group of, like, 150, you might have disclosure, but after and one on one. So ultimately, even if there’s just one person I’m talking to, I kind of look at it from that perspective. You’ve gotta start somewhere. But that’s OK. But we’re doing a television series, going for filming tomorrow. The local cable station is doing a series, “Mind Matters.” Canada AM had a big special on suicide. the potential is out there, right?

What about the people whose attempts are so quick, so impulsive, that there’s not much time to reach them when they think they’d need it?

How to get to them? First of all, they’re in the moment and don’t necessarily … You hear a lot about having plans, leaving notes and stuff. But if you look at the statistics, not many leave notes. It’s all a very individual thing. I guess you’ve just got to hope. We’re not talking about how we’ve tried it. I don’t even get into my means. I might sort of vaguely dance about it. That’s one of the rules in the group. We don’t talk about our means. Just the thoughts, how to control and work with those. The crisis plan, I’m a firm believer in that. In mine, I’m very open. For instance, in starting this job next week, I might give them a copy of my plan, though I don’t have to have it. I mentioned it in my interview with them. The more I mention it, the better chance I have at my own survival. right? We don’t do the group with the expectation that we’re going to come out without the thoughts or behavior. Even when you’re feeling good for a while, you have the “OK, it will never come back again,” but when it does, you just have to accept and contain it so not to have those spontaneous moments. I don’t ever expect it to be easy. And maybe I make it sound easy, and I had someone in the hospital who said, “How do you do it?” Another thing is, don’t compare yourself to that person and how you think they’re doing. She ended up dying by suicide. It was very difficult for me. We each have our own stuff. I never know when will be spontaneous or last minute. I don’t know. I hope I’ll have the right frame of mind to text. I’m big on texting. It was an email that saved my life. You just have to use the tools you have.

How did an e-mail save your life?

I sent out about 22 e-mails. I did not get up with the intention. I had major back pain and started trying to treat it. A combo of pills and alcohol. I knew I wasn’t in a good head space, I knew where I was going. So I sent out very vague messages. The last one I sent to two specific individuals. I found a poem online that said what I was doing, what my intention was. It was not “I love you, blah blah,” basically, “This is were I’m at, what I’m doing.” I sent one to my counselor and the other to someone at work. My counselor read it, where she never ever reads e-mails before going out to supper, but she read it that night. She didn’t second-guess it. She phoned me on my cell. I had charged my cell, done the laundry. I was literally playing the Russian roulette. If there was no intervention, it’s all right, I’ve got everything done. I was not willing to disclose where I was. I hung up on her. She made calls to find out where I was. She talked to my daughter. Somewhere in there I had texted a friend, who had already phoned my daughter to say something was wrong because I had spelled a word wrong in my text. My daughter and friends already were trying to find me. My therapist ended up phoning me back, tried again to use the kid card, saying my daughter was in tears. But it was not working. She hung up on me, called 911. I answered again, and the number showed up unknown. I thought it was her, but it was 911. A number of years ago, I did a 911 course. What saved me at that point was analyzing the job she was doing. I started thinking, “North, south, east, west” and told her how to get there. She kept me conscious until they got there. The therapist told me there was nothing short of miraculous that they found me

Is there any sort of pride in this? To look back over it all for the details?

It makes it scarier, to go back and find what went wrong. To others, it would be what I did right. But if I get determined again, I know what not to do to get that much closer.


I wish I could answer that. I think it’s just part of my way of thinking. It’s just a mindset the mind goes into. And it’s hard to draw it out, it’s hard to pull out of it. But at the base of it is the hopelessness and the wanting to end the pain.

Do others create crisis plans around you?

I’m sure they make phone calls behind my back. I set myself up, right? But I also have to appreciate that side of it, too. As much as I might be ticked off at my therapist in the moment, I’m grateful in the end. When i was house-sitting at my parents’, I had a neighbor call my cousin out of concern because I hadn’t taken in the recycle bin. To make sure he called, to make sure I was OK, right? I could look at it as the busybody neighbor, or I could look at it as they were concerned, wanting to make sure I was OK. There’s always two sides.

How are your children?

My youngest is very much my hawkeye. He was the one to check on me afterwards: “Mom, do I have to worry tonight?” He’ll be going out the door: “What are you doing today? So you’ll call me if you go out?” “I’ll leave a note.” “No, so you’ll call? I know they worry at times. My sister is trying like anything to understand, because she never experienced depression. Again, I don’t mind people asking, I don’t mind the conversation. With this intervention stuff, the people I don’t want to see me at my worst are my closest family, because I don’t want to scare them. Like the onion, layers of support. As I get to the external edge, the more and more in crisis, I’m gonna look more to the professionals then. I am one of these professionals. I know it will take a certain type of intervention to get through to me. Besides, I have certain people on that outside edge I can make comments to, and it’s OK. It’s a friend as well as a professional thing.

(I ask about professionals who have their own experiences with suicide attempts and whether they should be more open about them.)

I’m sure there’s lots out there. In some cases, unfortunately, their work environment is not so open to it, right? They’ve got a lot to learn in the workforce to deal with someone with mental health issues. A good chunk in the helping profession, that’s probably why we’re in it, right? So depending on whether it’s domestic violence or whatever,  there’s a clumping of individuals that’s where their specialty kind of lies. There’s an extent of disclosure. But when it comes to suicide, you probably wouldn’t get a lot as open. But there are. Because I’ve talked to individuals who’ve had suicide attempts, but even their co-workers may not know. In a sense, I wish medical professionals had more of that component to it, the lived experience. I wonder whether it’s not lacking a little bit because it’s so clinical. That’s why it was nice to talk to those medical students. It was not just me that day, there were people with chronic illness. They were learning what it’s like to live in those shoes.

(She asks me why I decided to be open about this subject, and I told her. I said it could be exhausting to try to hide it.)

Exactly, it’s exhausting to try to hide it. And it’s exhaustion that drives us to do it. My first attempt, no one knew it was an attempt. The second one, my one friend knew, she got me to go to the doctor and get antidepressants. But no one knew. At _ how old am I? _ at 47 years of age, my family only then found out, the depression, the thoughts I’d been living with since I was a teenager, if not earlier.

And? How did you approach it? How did they take it?

Even when I weaseled my way out of the hospital, I thought it would be fairly easy. I’m surprised at how draining an effect it was. It was a lot tougher than anticipated. My mother insisted on a group session when she found out I took my husband and kids in. I hear a lot of the time that “I don’t have support, I don’t have this, that.” I recognize how fortunate I am, but in retrospect, I did not have that support when I was hiding it. I was the happy-go-lucky citizen of Elmira, a member of the theater company, you name it. When I had the event at my church, they just couldn’t believe this was the same person who was Sunday school coordinator for four years, always being bubbly and bouncy.

Can you tell now, looking at people, that they have their own experiences and may be trying to hide it?

I never really thought about it, I guess it would depend on the conversation. Honestly, the poem I sent out as a help message, the individual who wrote that, I tried to track her down. I found different poems written by this young lady, I felt that was where she was. I’ve been trying to track down a way of contacting her. There is no way. My gut is, she may no longer be with us. Learning to go with your gut, right? That part of me has been strengthened. When talking with people on the phone, you don’t have body language, any of that stuff, right? Sometimes, yes, in the stuff they’re saying, the way they’re approaching things … I would not hesitate to question. I’ve got a friend who is generally good at getting back at e-mails. She’s not. She’s been going through stuff. I’m going to tune into her not responding right away. It was the death of a friend that really bottomed me out, watching the death of a friend at 46. So I kind of look into that whole loss thing, the loss of a job, a friend, endings, right, so when I hear people talking about the things they lost, yeah, I start to tune in a bit differently. Even if they say they’re OK, I might tweak in a sense of concern, but do I know? No, I don’t really know how a person is coping unless I ask.

(I asked about other signs she picks up on.)

A change in behavior is one of the biggest. Really, anything you notice in the other person that doesn’t quite seem like the person you are most familiar with. It doesn’t necessarily mean you jump to suicide, but it might be something on their mind. But this friend of mine, she lost her friend to cancer, she lost her mother, she’s not e-mailing, sure. I’m gonna start to bug her. Not necessarily because I’m thinking she’ll become suicidal, but I know she’s having a hard time coping. Suicide wouldn’t necessarily be in everyone’s line of thought. When a group like Yvonne’s, for those of us who struggle on an everyday basis, one of the common denominators is past trauma. That’s where the hard work comes in, I really do believe you have to do trauma work. I think to a certain extent there’s stuff to be worked on to start to be able to move beyond and cope differently. And yes, I avoid my own trauma work.

Wait a minute, you don’t do it at all?

No, not that, but if I can distract the counselor, get off kilter …

There’s a debate in Canada right now over the right to die. Is that a completely different topic?

They’ll be talking about that at the upcoming conference. There is a difference between someone being chronically ill and wishing to die and someone just wishing to die because they can’t take it anymore. I think they’re really looking at assisted suicide for those chronically ill, who are not going to live anyway. There is a distinction there. I personally, yeah, it would hurt if someone I knew died by suicide, I would definitely never consider assisting them in that, as I would never expect anyone to assist me. Yet on the flip side, I would understand why they maybe made that choice and maybe ended up dying by suicide. Yeah, it’s two different topics, right? And I think the whole, like, you’re looking at individuals who can’t look after themselves, function poorly, have no sense of life, that comes into that. It’s a debate, all right. It will be interesting to see how that conversation goes.

Are you speaking at conference?


And finally, who else are you, aside from these experiences?

This is what has made me, really. To me, maybe this is who I am. I mean, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you, right? OK. Photography, I love my photography. I played a lot of sports growing up. I  was a very active person. There’s not a lot that I wouldn’t do on a challenge, so I hope to jump out of an airplane next year. With a chute. I have my goals and my aspirations, and they keep changing. But really, I have to look at my experience with my suicide as my stepping stone for who I am now and where I want to go and who I want to be. And ultimately, I would like to help others.

I wish you luck with your new job.

Thank you. I’m excited and nervous.

Talking with Yvonne Bergmans

“So many care providers only see people when they’re not well. They don’t get to see the other side. The gift I have, I get to see all sides.”

Yvonne Bergmans started a support group for suicide attempt survivors at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto more than a dozen years ago, and she has been pushing for more recognition of their voices ever since. She’s happy to report that this year, a national conference on suicidology for the first time will put a “huge focus” on attempt survivors and their stories. Her group has been featured in a documentary, which can be viewed online, and some members have posed for a series of portraits and interviews. A few have collaborated with Bergmans for published academic studies. They are fascinating.

Two group members tell their story, with strong advice for professionals, in a 2007 study. Anger, accusations and even eye-rolling don’t help in a crisis, they say. “Don’t punish me for being ill. Admit to yourself that you may not understand. Let me help you.” Even simple, practical things: Don’t lose their personal items. Keep their families informed. And this: “Call me by my name. … When I am in crisis and I feel that all is lost, I must remember that I am someone.” They remind the reader that they are educated, employed and high-functioning, but such things don’t mean a crisis can’t happen.

In a 2009 study, other group members talk about the risks and benefits of being open about their experiences. “When I naively disclosed (about suicide attempts) in my college mental health-related classes, I was shocked at classmates’ reactions, which were split between the morbidly curious and the physically repulsed,” one writes. And yet, “my clients with suicide issues or a history of attempts have appreciated the honesty,” another writes. “They tell me they can relate better to me; it gives me ‘street cred.'”

One of the support group’s first steps is to create a safe space not only for members but also for the topic of suicide and its effect on others. “We often go at it from the perspective of how to communicate your distress,” Bergmans says, “and have people hear it and not freak out.”

She also introduced me to the concept of the “prosumer,” the professional caregiver with his or her own experience with suicidality. Something to explore for later.

How did the group come about?

It came about 13 years ago when I was hired by the then-chair in suicide studies, Paul Links. Psychiatrists saw a lot of people with recurrent suicide attempts coming into the emergency department, and there was a definite gap in service for these people. There were very few places people could go. He hired me to create an intervention. I was hired in November 1998, and in February 1999 I started the first group. We started and just kept on going. It was sort of a situation where I initially was told we’d be doing a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) program. It just didn’t work for me as a therapist, getting my tongue around the language. Clients were not terribly engaged. Together we started creating an intervention that they could engage in, and we have now had probably well over 300 clients.

Was the documentary a good representation of how the group goes?

Yeah. There were probably more men in that group than there are normally.

As the group grew, what adjustments did you make to help people open up?

It was not really an issue. Once it was safe enough to talk about suicide without getting into means and methods, and you could use the word and not have people freak out and rather ask the question “What does it mean for you?” and recognizing that it doesn’t always mean imminent death, and people coming to a place where there’s no judgment, this is your reality, and being with people who get it. That’s one of the most important pieces. People are not completely alone and adrift in the intensity and pain of experiences. So the way we approach it is in talking about suicidality. We often go at it from the perspective of how to communicate your distress and have people hear it and not freak out.

So, how do you?

We do a number of things. The first is, can you identify how safe or unsafe you feel? Can you identify what it is taking you to the place where suicidal ideation is so great where you think you can’t manage? Things like, “I called colleagues, I called friends, I tried distracting myself, and I still feel unsafe. I can’t deal on my own, I need help.” The other thing is, “I need to be in a place safe enough that I’m nowhere near the environment where this got triggered or started, I can’t be anywhere near my means, and I need someone to help me with that.” There’s a lot of work about developing a language of safety. Knowing early warning signs, knowing the tools to use. And being a teacher to the care providers you work with. We work from the perspective that everyone is a learner and teacher. They are experts by experience.

(I asked about the level of nervousness among therapists in working with suicidal people and whether it’s different in Canada.)

I’d say it’s about the same. You’re working with a person with a high potential of dying. It’s just scary. Yeah, so comfort is something we try to work on. When we do groups, I have many colleagues from various professions working with me, co-facilitating, so they develop a skill set. So they come to realize that when our clients are in good shape, they’re just a hoot and half, a human being you could meet anywhere, a cooking course or anywhere. And the difference between the acute phase and their normal lives. It’s a very different presentation. So many care providers only see people when they’re not well. They don’t get to see the other side. The gift I have, I get to see all sides.

What are their responses to seeing people on the other side?

I don’t think I’ve had any co-facilitator who hasn’t found it a useful experience, having learned something.

Is the group always a mix of people in their normal state and in crisis?

Yeah, and sometimes we get a group when all are in really rough shape. You take it as it comes every week. You certainly hope that people, even when feeling really vulnerable and fragile, they are still able to use some of the skills they were using, and whatever little energy they might have had to get themselves here. A skill called determination.

Have you lost people, or had people leave the program?

Yes, we have lost some people that I’m aware of, probably lost five by suicide. We had a few lost to various medical conditions. And there are people who said, “See you later, never see you again.” Others show up five years later. You can do two groups with us, and we’ve had some grads to come back and become peer facilitators.

How are you, doing this for so long?

It’s a gift. A real honor seeing people shift and change. As a care provider, I can walk with them on the journey, but I have to be clear I can’t do it for them. It’s a parallel process whereby I’m inviting them to participate in a safe place for themselves. I have to do the same professionally, ask others to be another set of eyes. So as a result, we always make sure to have weekly supervision with all facilitators so we can stay honest about our emotions.

What are your personal experiences with suicide? Or is it something where you know you’ll never have to deal with it?

I don’t think anyone can ever be sure they’ll never have that struggle. I think I can’t ever assume I won’t get to that place. I started this job in November, and the following August, my cousin died by suicide. It went from professional to personal.

Did you want to leave, or to work harder?

No, it just left me knowing where I needed to be at this point in time in my life.

Does the group address some of the root problems behind some suicidality, economic ones and so on?

I can certainly help get them to case managers who can help them. I do a lot of crisis management. There’s an expectation that they have a support system, because in the group, there are things they’re not going to share that have personal meaning for them because it’s a group. I can point them to directions and assume they follow up. I assume capacity and capability.

Are there cases where you turn people away?

We rarely turn away. Maybe because of a psychotic disorder. and sometimes the housing situation for people is so fragile they don’t know if they’re able to get to group, so sometimes that’s been an issue. I say that very, very rarely.

What have been the surprises? Any points of view you hadn’t considered before?

That’s really hard to answer. Because every day there’s something new. To say what stands out, I couldn’t name anything. It depends on the day and people in it. People’s persistence and resilience perpetually humble me.

Any examples?

Just the lives that people have to live, endure and survive. You just sit back and go, “Wow, have you got a lot of strength and courage.” Some people might think they have a great big black cloud over their head. A wide variety of different experiences.

Any way to make the cloud go away?

I’m not going to make it go away. I can give you an umbrella and show you how to open it!

(I asked about the openness around the topic of suicide in Canada vs. the U.S.)

Absolutely not. It’s SO not different. A stigma is a stigma.

That’s just the way it is?

Heavens, no. The AAS (American Association of Suicidology) is doing a great job giving people who have attempts, giving them a platform. We are trying to do the same in Canada. And a huge focus in our conference this fall is going to be on honoring the voices of those who’ve had the experiences.

For the first time?

It’s been an evolution. I’d say the evolution has been in the last 10 years. This year’s organizers made a very clear, a mandated part of the conference that more sessions will have first voices. And the AAS did that in their spring conference. I think it’s a general move now.

Why did it take so long?

Stigma. Fear. Prejudice.

But these are the therapists and researchers.

Yeah. Sometimes people have to get out of their own box. I’ve been jumping up and down for a loooong time. My role as a social worker and advocate, it’s been a long path. A very long path in terms of having the voices listened to without the professionals taking over in terms of the sound, shall we say. Because I think medicine has traditionally been quite hierarchical, “This is what you’ll do, what’s good for you.” Whereas social work has client-centered approaches. Nursing has jumped on the bandwagon of late.

(I asked about professionals having their own experiences but not saying so, or saying it quietly, and whether they tell her.)

I think it’s when I go to conference. There’s a small body of literature that talks about it with the “prosumer.” They’ve been able to say they have participated in both realities. And it’s an “and” as opposed to a “but.”

How does the trend move along to more openness?

I think persistently we plug along together. Raising awareness. That suicide is preventable in most cases. Recognizing that it’s very much as it used to be with cancer or HIV, these perceptions are what need to be blown out of the water. And alongside that, the resources. Right now there’s not a whole lot of resources for people struggling with suicidality. The resource allocation at the larger social level is imperative. A lot of myths-busting needs to happen!

Do you have a favorite myth?

Not really

The one about just trying to get attention, just a gesture?

Yeah, that’s where I get a frying pan … Just kidding. That’s so disrespectful. What we often have is, if a person is saying they want to die by suicide, there’s a need not being met. If you tell them it’s manipulation, you’ve missed the point.

How to make this a more comfortable subject in public?

It’s portrayed in the media in such a sensationalized way. There’s not a whole lot of understanding of the despair and compassion required. It’s everybody’s biggest fear, right? How to say, “This is a fear and we can talk about the fear.” I don’t know a whole lot of people who have made it through and can say, “This is what it is. This is how you can be helpful. This is a real struggle. And it feels like a life sentence. And it can be different.” It seems to be more deficit-focused. And if you focus on what’s wrong, you’re not going to get to what’s right.

Among the 300 or so people you’ve worked with, are any of them outspoken?

Yeah. Definitely there will be one, two, three, possibly four at the conference. And there have been a couple who have been interviewed in the Ottawa Citizen. They did a series. And the folks who responded to yourself or to Doug. That’s where there are openings.

Who else is doing what you’re doing?

There’s a group called SAFER in British Columbia. To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only game in Toronto.

What about the issue of involuntary commitment, does that come up with your group?

I can’t commit anybody. I don’t have that capacity. When I work with people, we start with the premise that we all have a right to feel safe,and a responsibility to ensure others feel safe around you. I also work with the second premise that behavior is a choice with an effect. If I’m feeling unsafe, I tell the client I feel unsafe and need help. I always work with the folks so they make their own choice. I’ll support them, meet them at the emergency department, whatever it takes. There are times I’ve had to call 911. I hate it and people get angry when I do it. But when comes to this, I’ll do it.

While they’re in the group?

Somebody calls me outside the group. If it’s in group, I’ve been known to walk with people down to the emergency department. Or to my office, figure out a strategy, talk every few hours with them, ask them to let me know how they’re doing. Sometimes going to the ER can be more traumatizing than their actual feelings.

How will people ever feel comfortable enough to come out? What else needs to happen?

Currently, if a person is brought into the hospital by police, it is on their record that they have has an interaction with police, It does not clearly state it was a contact only. As a result, if people need to have a police check done for work purposes, it comes in the report. This is traumatizing and stigmatizing, and many have lost employment opportunities because if it. Sadly, it does not get removed for five years, and then only if the person requests it. Currently, there is a coalition trying to work on changing this because it is so discriminatory.

Any other ideas in mind that you’d like to pursue if you had the resources?

I would have a Maytree. I would have a number of Maytrees. And it would have a dog, and a cat, and music therapy, and dance therapy, and art therapy, a little medication if needed. If you need meds, a doc would be on site who could do it. And no one on staff freaks out at the word “suicide” and you’re not dumped out if you have suicidal thinking. It’s pretty hard for folks to talk about it if they feel constantly under threat with no safe place to go. How can they heal and become advocates for themselves and one another?

How’s that idea going?

I have mentioned it for the past 12 years. I have invited many people to find me millions of dollars. Interestingly, everybody I’ve invited hasn’t been able to, so there you have it. That’s my biggest bugaboo, people being thrown out of programs at the thought of suicide. My biggest frustration, but hey, life happens.

What else would you like to say?

Nothing I can think of.

Who else are you? The group isn’t all you do.

You haven’t seen my workplace, have you? I started off as a youth worker, a special ed behavioral teacher, the guidance counselor at an inner-city school. Then I ended up here. Every stop prepared me for the next one.

When the word “suicide” first came up, what was your response?

I had basically called to say, “Listen, do you have any jobs for part-time casual?” and they said, “Paul has this suicide thing going on, he said it’s yet to be created.” I said, “Hmm, I’ve worked with high risk for all of my career. I’ve worked with groups. Suicide is the new factor here. Let’s go for it.”

Can the public come to the conference?

Absolutely! In October in Niagara Falls.