Overcoming Fear Together
Although the field of suicide prevention has made enormous strides in recognizing the contributions of people with lived experience, it has not totally overcome the fear of engaging suicide attempt survivors in their own recovery as well as in efforts to prevent suicide and improve the systems that help people recover. Attempt survivors are still often described as fragile and unstable—as people who need to be protected from themselves. Far too often, this “protection” takes the form of silence.
I experienced this silence after surviving my own suicide attempts. It sent a clear message that I should not talk about my attempt. It left me afraid, lonely, and isolated. Yet my experience also taught me that suicide attempts can be prevented and that people who attempt suicide can and do recover. I used this knowledge in my work. But I did not share my personal experience with suicide for more than 25 years, because I was afraid that that I would lose credibility and that people might see me as weak, unstable, or unprofessional. This fear also kept me from talking about what I had accomplished and how strong I was. It kept me from sharing my knowledge about how to help people see alternatives to suicide as well as how care should be provided after someone attempts suicide.
Silence sends the wrong message—a message that runs counter to what we know about preventing suicide. We know that people should not be afraid to ask for help if they are experiencing a suicidal crisis. We know that both lay people and professionals should not be afraid to directly ask a family member, friend, or client if he or she is having suicidal thoughts. We need to believe in the messages of hope and recovery that we promote. Engaging people with lived experience in our work can help us better understand how to prevent suicide and to help people who have attempted suicide find hope, rekindle a desire to live, and recover.
Attempt survivors have much to contribute across the entire spectrum of prevention and treatment activities. We can help create prevention messages that will resonate with people at risk for suicide. We can help combat the misconception that talking with someone about suicide will cause harm. We can help clinicians learn to talk about the attempt experience in ways that promote recovery rather than risk and help them understand how the clinical and therapeutic environment can be made supportive of recovery. And we can help other attempt survivors reintegrate with their families, their jobs, and their communities.
The field of suicide prevention needs to engage people with lived experience. We should be represented on suicide prevention coalitions, advisory groups, speaker panels, planning groups, and the boards of behavioral health organizations. Our experience is not just one of risk, but of recovery. And what we have learned from these experiences can help others make this journey.
Engaging Suicide Attempt Survivors: A SPARK Talk by Barb Gay
The Way Forward: Pathways to Hope, Recovery, and Wellness with Insights from Lived Experience – Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention