Voices of Lived Experience Can Save Lives
It has been a challenging year for suicide prevention efforts in the U.S. There have been multiple high-profile celebrity deaths, and a data report from the Center for Disease Control showing an increase in suicide rates in every state over the past 15 years.
The field of suicide prevention is beginning to recognize the need to raise the voices of people with lived experience with suicide. Although a previous suicide attempt is one of the most significant risk factors for suicide, research also indicates that 90% of people who attempt suicide don’t go on to die by suicide.
Who better to teach us about hope and resilience than those who have attempted suicide or those who have experienced on-going suicidal thoughts? We honor and respect people who have battled and survived a bout with cancer but still tend to shun and shame people with mental illness or those who have attempted suicide.
Sadly, until very recently the mental health and suicide prevention community failed to recognize and encourage the important voices who have been at points of desperation and despair in their lives but have now overcome it. Told safely, these stories avoid graphic details about the suicide attempt itself and focus on the transformation of their journey to move past that point. These are the stories of individuals who are now willing to share hope and encourage others to get help.
Emerging studies on media coverage of suicide, indicate that these stories might be more effective for reducing risk for suicide than stories about data or quotes from suicide prevention experts. In the mental health community, we know our stories are the most effective tool we have to end discrimination and change attitudes as personal stories encourage people to see the person not the illness.
Discussing personal details about mental illness and/or suicide attempts is also therapeutic and healing for the person sharing their story, especially when they realize they are not alone and are encouraging others to share their stories as well. Imagine if millions of people who have made a previous suicide attempt or coped with thoughts of suicide shared their stories with loved ones, friends, colleagues, coworkers as well as the media. The more stories shared, the more normalized the conversation about suicide becomes.
This can help the general public and the media better understand suicide. The hope is to advance the positive trend of media coverage being less sensational and more focused on: the complexity of suicide, acknowledging the importance of addressing suicide as a public health issue, educating about warning signs and promoting the availability of resources and help. Such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 and the Veteran’s Crisis Line (press 1 option). Connecting the media with voices of people who have made suicide attempts or deal with suicidal thoughts can also help counterbalance the tragedy of celebrity suicide deaths by providing real life examples of resilience, which inspire hope.
The theme of 2018 Suicide Prevention month is: Everyone plays a role in preventing suicide, and one of the key messages is the importance of changing the conversation about suicide. We can do this by sharing our stories of lived experience. There has never been a better time to raise our voices as we now know that sharing stories can save lives.
Ken Norton LICSW is the Executive Director of NAMI New Hampshire. Ken led the development of NAMI NH’s Connect Suicide Prevention program, a national best practice in suicide prevention, intervention and postvention which has provided training across the US, in over 25 tribal nations and 5 countries. Ken has participated on numerous commissions and workgroups in NH and nationally and has served as a subject matter expert for SAMHSA, the Department of Defense, and the Veterans Administration and presented nationally and internationally, on subjects related to mental illness, suicide and media/messaging. Ken has worked in community mental health, served as a licensed foster parent and has lived experience as a family member with mental illness, addiction and suicide.
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