Jennifer Haussler Garing, a suicide-attempt survivor, photographed by Dese'Rae L. Stage.
Tags: Health

People Who Attempt Suicide Are Not Criminals

So why are they treated as if they are? Meet survivors who lived to tell their stories—and help others get through their darkest hours.
Written by

Imagine you called 911 in excruciating pain, and they sent police officers to your door, sirens blaring, to haul you off in handcuffs. Imagine you were in recovery from a serious illness, and your call for help got you fired from your job. Imagine you were a college student whose medical close call got you kicked out of school. For millions of suicidal people, these scenarios are not imaginary. Every year, people who attempt suicide, or express an urge to do so, are treated like criminals, fired from their jobs, kicked out of college, or even prevented from crossing the border

Such treatment exacerbates stigma surrounding suicide, and it perpetuates harmful misconceptions about people experiencing suicidal thoughts, says Dese'Rae L. Stage, a photographer, writer, and suicide-attempt survivor in Brooklyn. People who survive suicide attempts aren’t “just trying to grab attention,” they aren’t dangerous, and they’re not criminals, she says. What they are is human beings in pain—pain so intense that they can’t see through it. 

Stage is one of the leaders behind a new push to bring suicide-attempt survivors out of the shadows. Earlier this month, the movement marked its first milestone—the publication of The Way Forward, a report developed by a task force of suicide-attempt survivors gathered by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (NAASP). The report outlines ways to bring suicide-attempt survivors into the fold of the suicide-prevention community and makes a long list of recommendations for addressing the needs of people who are or have been suicidal, including peer support and counseling for people going through or emerging from a suicide crisis, training for first responders to teach them humane tactics for helping suicidal people, and policies to protect suicide-attempt survivors from discrimination. 

“We want inclusion. We want respect. We want actual, honest-to-god care,” says Cara Anna, a suicide-attempt survivor and a member of the NAASP Task Force. “We are tired of being talked about instead of spoken with. We are tired of people being scared of us,” she says.  As the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States, suicide should command the same kind of attention and legitimacy as other life-threatening conditions. The mental anguish overwhelming someone in a suicidal crisis is every bit as real and potent as the pain of a physical injury, Stage says, yet too often it is dismissed as being “all in your head.” Such rebuffs intensify stigma and make it more difficult for people to get help. 

Seeking support shouldn’t mean losing one’s dignity. “I want help, but if I go to the hospital, I lose my autonomy,” Stage says. “The moment you walk in, they’re locking you up—it’s humiliating.” In a home video, suicide-attempt survivor Harry Miree describes the autonomy problem like this: “Even hinting at leaving the building … means instant confinement to a straightjacket or a padded room or a mind-numbing drug, which is like simultaneously forcing myself to stay in a life that I don’t want while at the same time considerably downgrading whatever quality of life I had.”

Coercive restraints further distress someone in a suicidal crisis and may trigger past traumas, says DeQuincy Lezine, a clinical psychologist, suicide-attempt survivor, and primary writer of the Way Forward report. In many cases, suicidal people are best served by help from family or friends who already know them. People who have been suicidal can provide another important source of support. Yes, they may need some training, but these survivors possess a unique perspective that can make a huge difference to someone trying to recover, Lezine says. For too long, attempt survivors have been prevented from taking to each other, for fear that they’d just compare notes about methods and set each other off, but this kind of separation just makes attempt survivors feel more alone. 

It’s time for suicide-attempt survivors to come out of the “shame closet,” says Stage. Toward that end, she’s created Live Through This to give suicide-attempt survivors a chance to tell their stories. The lesson of these stories is that suicidal urges can happen to just about anybody, and it’s probably happened to someone you know. 

The suicide-attempt-survivor movement can draw lessons from the LGBT-rights movement, says Anna, who collects stories of suicide-attempt survivors at AttemptSurivors.com and Talking About Suicide. “The story isn’t about the private experience, the story is about the coming out,” she says. “Are people fired? Are they expelled from school or never treated? These are the questions that need to be asked—not, how many pills did you take? But were you treated fairly? Were you treated at all? Were you retaliated against? It’s the response to what happened that really does shape the rest of our lives.” 

There’s plenty of work ahead. After coming “out” at the American Association of Suicidology conference in April, one attempt survivor was fired from a crisis center job.

 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Christie Aschwanden is a health columnist for the Washington Post, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and a 2013/2014 Carter Center Fellow. She blogs about science at Last Word On Nothing. Her Last Word On Nothing post about science denialism at Susan G. Komen for the Cure won the National Association of Science Writers’ 2013 Science in Society Award for Commentary/Opinion, and she was a National Magazine Award finalist in 2011. She’s a contributing editor for Runner’s World and a contributing writer for Bicycling. Her work also appears in Discover, Slate, Proto, Consumer Reports, New Scientist, More, Men’s Journal, NPR.org, Smithsonian and O, the Oprah Magazine. Find her on Twitter @CragCrest.