Coming together on suicide
Somewhere, a myth emerged that survivors of suicide loss and suicide attempt survivors couldn’t work together. That their stories would be too upsetting to one another. Survivors of loss would be plagued by the idea that their loved one died while others lived. Survivors of attempts would be triggered by the trauma and grief that comes from loss.
As an executive board member of the American Association of Suicidology, and as a survivor of suicide loss, I have to say that quite the opposite is usually the case.
Personally, I have found the stories of survival exceptionally inspiring. My brother Carson, a highly successful entrepreneur and business leader, died by suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar illness. Ultimately, I believe that the stigma of his mental illness killed him more than the illness itself. I know in my heart that if Carson had heard these stories of resilience and persistence, especially coming from a person with whom he could identify, he would’ve felt less shame and more hope.
Patrick Corrigan of the Center for Dignity, Recovery and Empowerment has conducted research about suicide attempt survivors that supports this. Coming into contact with people with a stigmatized condition is the best way to eliminate stigma.
I have become friends and colleagues of several “out” attempt survivors through my work, and my experience with their public emergence has been soul-moving. Being involved in the suicide attempt survivors movement is the most important thing I have been involved in, ever.
In March, I was honored to be part of the historic National Summit on Lived Experience in Suicide Prevention in San Francisco. Leaders from all over the United States convened, including the federal government’s top suicide prevention official, to hear attempt survivors tell heartbreaking stories of injustice, discrimination and punishment.
All of us were there to find positive ways to transform our mental health system, promote recovery and dignity, and dismantle the fear divide between mental health providers and people who’ve been suicidal. It was probably the most inspiring professional experience I have ever had.
These experiences have transformed me. While I have always seen myself as an ally, more recently I have been much more of an ally in action.
I had an “aha” moment last fall when I saw barriers that might have prevented this historic new AAS division for attempt survivors from passing. I thought, “Wow, someone needs to do something here.” And then it dawned on me: “Oh! It’s me.”
Today, we are celebrating a historic moment in our movement. This new division within AAS will allow suicide attempt survivors and those who support them to take an official seat at the table, enriching the field with more ethical and meaningful treatment, support, research and advocacy.
Let’s take a moment to celebrate this milestone together.
Survivors of loss like myself often find tremendous meaning in working in suicide prevention and can align well with the growing advocacy work by many suicide attempt survivors.
In turn, suicide attempt survivors can benefit from partnering with suicide loss survivors because, in many ways, we are on the same path. We start out feeling alone. Then we find out there are many others like us. We connect. We organize. We find our voice and create social change.
Suicide loss survivors have a bit of a head start in doing this, so we can stand in solidarity with suicide attempt survivors and strengthen their message.
I believe that together, we’re better.
Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist and CEO and cofounder of the Carson J Spencer Foundation.