Suicide Stories

Slowly waking from a science and dugs-induced slumber, clinical and academic practice is awakening to the importance of story in a human life. There is much talk these days of the importance of “narrative”. Narrative is just a fancy word for story. Who among us sits round a campfire telling “narratives”?

People tell stories: their own story, other’s  stories, old stories new stories, made up stories, true stories and everything in between stories. Telling stories is what humans have done since, well, since there have been humans.

So how come its taken so long for medicine and clinical practice to wake up to the usefulness? Well, it seems that someone had to come up with a fancy word for “story” : “narrative and,  someone else had to append [fancy word for stick on the end of]  that other fancy word required to legitimize any thing in medicine – therapy. As Robin Mckenzie says in his book “Treat your own back”

“Therapy is when we go into a special room, sit in a special chair, or lie on a special table, and an expert does things to us”

Healing, learning to heal and to stay well – that’s what we do.

McKenzie is huimself an expert- a Physiotherapist who believes most people who fall prey to lower back pain can learn how to look after their own back and so become less dependent on experts doing things to them – his book shows a way how.

So narrative therapy, then, is when we go into a special room, tell our story [and the therapist gets paid.]

Story Therapy

Narrative is a big sword for story – Story Therapy just doesn’t have the gravitas [fancy word for sounding clever] required to sound important enough – or studied enough by credentialed enough people-  to convince either those defending the ivory towers of medicine nor those in the cubicles of bureacracy that must be convinced to cough up the cash:  and  the game today demands that both groups must be convinced. Still, people have always told their stories, what’s starting to happening now is that people are starting to listen. Importantly, some in services and even academia are starting to recognize the importance of creating and holding spaces for people to tell their story so they can be heard and listened to, and for even those appointed as “experts” to pay attention.

Story is how we make sense –   how we weave together the disparate threads of our life experiences that separately may make little sense yet can be weaved into the fabric of a life. how we make sense of all that we have experienced and learned. Story is how we make sense of our lives and how we make a life in a crazy world  make any sense at all.

Story is how we connect the things that happen, that have yet to happen , connects us with our past, each other and he things that our world.

Every human life is a story – our own story begins before we are born and even continues after our body has gone to dust. Story connects who we have been who we are and who we are becoming. 

The power of story to integrate

Dr Daniel Siegel  in Mindsight suggests that maybe, just maybe,  the reason story is so powerful is rooted in its power to integrate:  neurologically, story integrates  left-right brain processes as well as lower brain [emotion] and upper brain [cognition]  and front to back brain process. Story – both the telling and listening to- involves all our brain working together like an orchestra. Story, and work also integrates us as individuals into families, groups, communities – human brains are wired together and rely upon each other: the human brain is importantly a social organ, the organ that connects us with our environment, including all other brains.

Science does not have all the best tricks

Science may claim to have all the best tricks but it is story – in all its forms that helps us make sense. An ddth best scientists have all been amongst the greatest of story tellers, using science to demonstrate enough facts to convince enough folks that the story is true. [e.g. see Gallileo, Darwin, Einstein].

So what of story and suicide?

Well, here’s a piece about how some in Suicidology – for yes, Suicide is now an academic discipline and a field of opining and practice –  are starting  to realise and recognise the importance of hearing and listening to those very voices it has long denied have any worth or any right to be heard. As NYT reports The American Association of Suicidology voted for to recognize for the first time, those who it had previously considered so fascinating to be worthy objects of scientific observation  and theory yet not so fascinating that they were worthy of  hearing in their own voice. Social media has put in people’s hands the ability to connect with those whose story have similar episodes, and with it the ability to build community, ability to organise and create space in which to be heard.

 “About a million American adults a year make a failed attempt at suicide, surveys suggest, far outnumbering the 38,000 who succeed, and in the past few years, scores of them have come together on social media and in other forums to demand a bigger voice in prevention efforts.”

David Webb -Yet, as people like David Webb have long said, these same voices – the ones that that have long been denied a hearing -are arguably the most important voices in the field:  the voices of those who have tried it themselves.


Suicide Prevention Sheds a Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts

NYTimes By BENEDICT CAREY  Apr 13, 2014


Dese’Rae L. Stage, a photographer and writer living in Brooklyn, tried to kill herself in 2006. She has since created an online photo exhibit of people who have also survived suicide attempts and is among the dozens whose stories are becoming known on Internet forums and through social media. Photo  Michael Appleton for The New York Times

The relationship had become intolerably abusive, and after a stinging phone call one night, it seemed there was only one way to end the pain. Enough wine and pills should do the job — and would have, except that paramedics barged through the door, alerted by her lover.

“I very rarely tell the story in detail publicly, it’s so triggering and sensational,” said Dese’Rae L. Stage, 30, a photographer and writer living in Brooklyn who tried to kill herself in 2006. “I talk about what led up to it, how helpless I felt — and what came after.”

The nation’s oldest suicide prevention organization, the American Association of Suicidology, decided in a vote by its board last week to recognize a vast but historically invisible portion of its membership: people, like Ms. Stage, who tried to kill themselves but survived. About a million American adults a year make a failed attempt at suicide, surveys suggest, far outnumbering the 38,000 who succeed, and in the past few years, scores of them have come together on social media and in other forums to demand a bigger voice in prevention efforts.

Plans for speakers bureaus of survivors willing to tell their stories are well underway, as is research to measure the effect of such testimony on audiences. For decades, mental health organizations have featured speakers with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. But until now, suicide has been virtually taboo, because of not only shame and stigma, but also fears that talking about the act could give others ideas about how to do it.

“This is a real shift you’re seeing,” said Heidi Bryan, 56, of Neenah, Wis., who has been speaking for years about suicide attempts she made in the 1990s. “For people working in suicide prevention, they always told us not to talk about our own experience, like they were afraid to tip us over the edge or something. Honestly, we’re the ones who know what works and what doesn’t.”

At a time of increasing concern about suicide among military veterans and college students, experts hope survivors will be able to offer new insights. Suicide is such a relatively rare event, its victims forever silent, that doctors know very little about how to prevent it. No policy, drug or intervention has been shown to reliably reduce suicide risk, researchers say, except in very specific circumstances, like the hours after someone lands in jail. The strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous attempt. About 7 percent of people who have tried once and survived later die by their own hand, more than 30 times the rate for people who have not tried before.

“We as researchers haven’t yet tapped the potential of working with suicide attempt survivors,” said Matthew K. Nock, a professor of psychology at Harvard. “There’s the potential to learn from them not only more about the experience itself, but about treatments, and where there are gaps in our understanding.”

Some therapists caution that there could be downsides to speaking out. “The main concern, I think, for psychologists and psychiatrists who work with suicidal individuals, is their ability to regulate emotion” if their public disclosure does not go as expected, said J. Christopher Fowler, associate director of clinical research at the Menninger Clinic in Houston.

Dr. Fowler said he supported the idea of suicide attempt survivors speaking out, but worried that “being rejected for some reason by people who you thought would be accepting — that’s the kind of experience that could put some people at higher risk of harming themselves.”

People who have survived an attempt and gone public often say the treatment they got afterward — locked down in a hospital ward, with little chance to confide in a sympathetic caregiver — was dehumanizing. They describe encountering a taboo against talking about their experiences from doctors and therapists as well as family and friends. And they identify few, if any, support groups; most are run by and for relatives and friends of people who did commit suicide — and often harbor some anger at the selfishness of the act.

“You’re basically punished for talking about it, wherever you turn,” said Leah Harris, 38, of Arlington, Va., who works for the National Empowerment Center, an organization of recovered psychiatric patients, and has spoken about her own attempt at 16 with prescription medications. “Even in treatment settings, all the interventions are brought down on you if you even mention it. So you just learn to shut up.”

Ms. Harris and Ms. Stage, who has created a photo exhibit of survivors, posted at, are among dozens whose stories are becoming known in Internet forums and through social media. Others include Kevin Hines, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000 and survived; and Craig A. Miller, whose book, “This Is How It Feels,” describes his attempt to kill himself with prescription pills and his recovery.

“For some people, the experience is a core part of their identity, and for others, it’s an experience that happened and they’ve moved on — they’re an accountant, a triathlete, an artist, whatever it is,” said William Schmitz Jr., a psychologist in Baton Rouge, La., and president of the suicide association. “This is the best advertisement for getting treatment, showing that people get better and lead full, productive lives.”

It will be no simple thing to figure out what preventive efforts work. Suicide is not a diagnosis but an unpredictable act. Peer counseling programs have helped people living with schizophrenia or addiction, for example, but it is much harder to identify people at risk of suicide who might be helped by contact with survivors of suicide attempts.

One research project underway will test whether people talking publicly about their experience of surviving suicide can reduce an audience’s prejudices against others like them.

“What we’ve found, with most mental disorders, is that education by itself doesn’t affect stigma much — but contact does,” said Patrick Corrigan, a psychologist at the Illinois Institute of Technology who is working with the San Francisco-based Center for Dignity, Recovery and Stigma Elimination, which has set up a speakers bureau. “We expect to find the same thing here.”

Staff members at suicide hotlines often know from experience that they have comforted people, but they often have no way of knowing how their work affected callers — and generally refrain from talking about their own attempts, if any.

“We as a field need to hear these stories,” said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “and not just to study them but to ask how they found a way to cope and connect: What did family and friends and doctors do that helped, and what did not?”

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1 Response to Suicide Stories

  1. Reblogged this on both sides of the wall and commented:
    another really good blog on telling stories, being heard, and the stigma of suicide… I will need to look further into the study mentioned, because I would really like to be able to connect with others who have tried. There are parts of my experience I rarely speak about (even with a therapist) simply because no one wants to talk to me about it… in treatment circles, you are discouraged from talking about specifics and emotions during the act, but before and after are ok to talk about… they are missing a huge part of that story.


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