Discussed less often, there are around 1.1 million attempts at suicide every year — or over 3,000 a day, on average — many of which do not end in death.
Nevertheless, we often struggle to bring up suicidal thoughts with those we love, even when we know someone might be struggling, or we’re struggling ourselves.
I believe it isn’t that we don’t care, rather that we don’t have a common language to discuss such topics or an awareness of when we should reach out and how. We worry that we won’t say the right thing, or worse, that we’ll say something that’ll cause the person to act on their ideation.
In reality, asking someone directly about suicide is often a way to both help the person feel heard — and help them find the help and resources they need.
Too often discussions around suicide are controlled by those who have no personal experience with suicidal ideation or mental health.
SUICIDE PREVENTION’S MISSING VOICES We rarely get to hear directly from those who have experienced suicidal ideation or survived a suicide attempt.
Hoping to shift that paradigm, Healthline teamed up with Forefront Suicide Prevention, a Center of Excellence at the University of Washington that focuses on reducing suicide, empowering individuals, and building community.
Jennifer Stuber, the cofounder and director of Forefront, spoke about the program’s goals, sharing, “Our mission is to save lives [that would otherwise be] lost to suicide. The way that we think we’re going to get there is by simultaneously treating suicide as both a mental health and a public health issue.”
Stuber discussed the importance of every system, whether metal health care, physical health care, or education, having an understanding around suicide prevention and how to intervene if needed.
When asked what she’d say to those who are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts, Stuber said, “You can’t possibly realize how much you’d be missed if you weren’t here because of how badly you feel. There is help and hope available. It doesn’t always work the first time around, it might take several different tries at it, but your life is worth living even if it doesn’t feel like it now.”
For those who’ve attempted suicide, it’s often difficult to find spaces to tell their stories, or people willing to listen.
We wanted to hear directly from folks personally affected by suicide in order to give a face, name, and a voice to a much too common experience.
On their experience with mental illness
I feel like suicidality is something that’s been an inherent part my entire life.
I think that we live in a culture that values strength and perseverance and has this very naive belief that everyone is born in the same circumstances with the same bodies with the same chemicals in their brains that work the way they’re supposed to work.
It’s been ultimately just being lucky enough to have good enough people in my life that are willing to talk to me till 3 a.m. or give me advice and honest feedback on stuff.
For me, if I give it time, eventually I’ll will not feel like dying and that’s time — doing the best you can.
On how you can help people experiencing suicidal ideation
Just listen to them. Be really honest and make good boundaries about what you can and can’t hear. Be wary of silence when you know that people have been doing bad, even when people seem to be doing good.
On experiencing mental illness
I’ve been in the hospital three times for depression [and suicidal thoughts] and two times after suicide attempts in the last seven years.
On the upside of mental illness challenges
There’s a stigma with mental illness. [But] I’m definitely not ashamed of my past! If I’d never dealt with this stuff, I wouldn’t be the person I am today and I wouldn’t have figured out who I am or the person I want to be.
On advice to people who experience suicidal ideation
I think doing what makes you happy in life is the most important. That’s why I dress the way I want. I want to show others it’s okay. Don’t let other people tell you how you should live your life.
On mental illness, homelessness, and poverty
Because I grew up homeless and lived in a lot of homeless populations, we didn’t consider people sick. Drugs, alcohol, being suicidal, being schizophrenic — that was all just normal to us.
At the time it felt like the only way out was suicide. That I didn’t have any other options, there wasn’t anybody coming to save me, there was no system that was going to swoop in and take me away from the things that were causing me pain.
On barriers to getting help for people living in poverty
I didn’t have a framework around what [it meant] to be mentally healthy, what [it meant] to get help.
Everybody says there’s help, get help. What does that mean? There was nobody who said, “Hey look, if you don’t have the money, here’s volunteer organizations.” I got no information when I was discharged from the hospital [for attempting suicide] besides don’t do it again, find help.
On receiving affordable help for the first time (from Open Path)
It was the first time in my life that mental health was in reach.
It was the first time someone articulated to me that [following through on suicidal thoughts] wasn’t an imperative. I didn’t have to listen to it. That was life changing for me.
It was actually when I decided to attempt sobriety that I first even learned that idea of having a toolbox of coping mechanisms and then starting to shift it. I didn’t know there were other ways to cope with these feelings that I had.
Having an alternative to feeling suicidal was a whole new world, it was a game changer. Even if I was too depressed to get off the floor, I had a mental health tool box and a language to talk to myself that I’d never had before.
I had to learn that too, that I had become one of my own abusers. That was a revelation. I was just following in the footsteps of everyone else… Yet I want to escape from the cycle.
Making those connections made me feel like my body is a worthy vessel and that I am worthy to live in it and stay on this planet.
On losing her husband to suicide
My husband had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and he also had what we call a “moral injury,” which I think is really important when talking about veterans. The way I’ve heard it described is that it’s basically having performed acts during your time of service that were required by your service but that go against and violate your own moral code or the code of society at large.
I think my husband suffered from tremendous guilt and neither he nor I had the tools to figure out how to process this guilt.
On the isolation of survivors
About a year and a half after he died I quit my job as a lawyer and began to do photography because I needed something to do for my own healing.
What I experienced was profound isolation and that sense that you know, the world was out there, and everyone was moving on with their daily life, and I was on what I used to refer to as “planet my husband died by suicide.”
On her life as a survivor of suicide
What I have come to discover is that it’s actually pretty common when you have a first-degree suicide loss like that to continue to have [suicidal] feelings yourself.
I know what’s helped me is spending a lot of time particularly with my veteran friends who have been trained in peer support and suicide prevention. It’s so helpful to have someone who can check in and say, “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” but to go further and say “Do you have a plan and do you have a date?”
On advice to those affected by suicide
We are very antiseptic in the way we think about death and grief, particularly the taboos around suicide. When someone says “You’re very young to be a widow, what happened,” I’m always honest.
If he were around with what I know now, my message to him would have been, “You are loved unconditionally even if you never feel better than you do right now.”
There is always hope
Through organizations like Forefront, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, and others, there’s movement towards shifting our approach to suicidality, reducing stigma, and breaking the silence.
Our hope is that the brave individuals you met above can help be a part of that movement and that breaking of silence, bringing light to a topic that is too often avoided, ignored, or stigmatized.
For those experiencing suicidality, you’re not alone, and there is always hope, even if it doesn’t feel like it now.
Caroline Catlin is an artist, activist, and mental health worker. She enjoys cats, sour candy, and empathy. You can find her on her website.