This is ultimately a tale of heroes and life winning out over death.
But first we must acknowledge some clear and painful truths.
The tragic epidemic
Suicide is a global public health epidemic and a personal tragedy affecting untold numbers of individuals and families.
In case you didn’t know, suicide claimed the lives of over 41,000 Americans in 2013. The overused but attention-grabbing analogy to capture the impact of this number is to imagine 90 jumbo jets full of people crashing to the earth over the course of a year.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, and the 2nd leading cause for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. Someone dies in America by suicide about every 13 minutes. It’s also estimated that 22 US military veterans complete suicide each day.
To fight this epidemic, aggressive efforts have been moving forward in the mental health system at both the state and Federal levels, in the US military and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, on college campuses and among social science researchers. Programs have been developed to bolster suicide prevention initiatives and to intervene sooner to stop people before they can successfully complete suicide. To various degrees, these efforts are sometimes effective and sometimes less so. But the problem remains.
“Live Through This”
I recently had the privilege to attend a presentation by photographer, writer, and mental health advocate Dese’Rae Stage. She spoke at our local university at an event sponsored by faculty who are involved in suicide prevention and research efforts.
In a straightforward and compelling way, Dese’Rae disclosed she dealt with bipolar disorder, years of self-injury and an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. She attempted suicide almost a decade ago, but survived. This was a turning point for her.
Dese’Rae began to seek out and tell the stories of other suicide attempt survivors. She ran ads on Craigslist and other venues, and soon found many people willing to share their stories. Through these efforts, the “Live Through This” project was conceived.
Live Through This (livethroughthis.org) speaks for itself. As Dese’Rae says, it’s about “life on the other side of a suicide attempt.” She interviews a suicide attempt survivor and then makes a photographic portrait of them. On her website you will see the photographs and stories of dozens of survivors. Their accounts are honest, courageous and fascinating. To date, Dese’Rae has interviewed well over 100 people and has no plans to stop.
A role model for advocacy
As I listened to Dese’Rae’s story and studied her “Live Through This” project further, I came to a realization that it exemplifies several different components of effective mental health advocacy. In fact, I think it can serve as an outstanding role model for awareness and advocacy. Its elements should be included liberally in future initiatives to improve the lives of persons with mental illness and to broaden the services and supports they need for recovery.
Here are 6 key elements of effective advocacy that “Live Through This” really delivers:
A clear mission – Dese’Rae says succinctly, “My ultimate vision is to save lives.” The best public advocacy campaigns have a well-defined focus and goals. The mission of “Live Through This” is powerful and clear and leaves no doubt about its purpose.
Diversity – “Live Through This” features survivors from all across America, representing different ages, ethnicities, talents, and occupations. Dese’Rae says, “It’s important to see these faces, to see how different everybody is, but how we’re all the same.” By painting this picture of how suicide affects everyone, we see the universality of the problem and the inherent humanity of the issue.
Lived experience – Each survivor featured in the project has lived through a suicide attempt. They tell their stories with absolutely no anonymity, as their photos, full names, and intimate personal accounts are published online for all the world to see. This lends absolute credibility to the project and also shows many different paths the survivors have taken to move on with their lives since their suicide attempt.
Information and resources – There is a clear educational component to the project. The “Resources” page offers statistics on suicide, risk factors and warning signs, and multiple resources to contact if you suspect someone is suicidal or if you are a survivor looking for support or assistance.
Breaking down stigma – Prior to “Live Through This,” hearing a suicide attempt survivor’s story rarely occurred outside of a therapist’s office unless the survivor confided with a close friend or family. Opening the door to these private moments of anguish and subsequent recovery is groundbreaking. Dese’Rae notes, “The louder I yell and the more people I convince to yell with me, the closer we inch toward breaking down these walls of stigma and shame.”
Focus on life and recovery – Too much of what we hear about mental illness focuses on the pain and suffering. Although challenges and setbacks are a real part of each person’s journey with mental illness, we must also get out the clear message that suicide is preventable, effective treatment is available, and people with mental illness do recover and achieve meaningful and fulfilling lives.
So, yes, this is ultimately a story of heroes and life after a suicide attempt. I believe Dese’Rae would agree when I say that suicide is something we can definitely live without.
Here’s a question: What else can we do to raise awareness about suicide prevention? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!