Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lifting their Voices: Suicide Attempt Survivors Speak Out

[Reprinted from American Association of Suicidology's NEWSlink June 2011]

The roadmap of suicide prevention is filled with challenging terrain and blind spots around the curves. Just when we feel we have advanced to a new frontier, another uncharted land lies ahead. Last year at the annual conference for the American Association of Suicidology we heard the voices of the clinician survivors come to the forefront: clinician survivors built solidarity around unaddressed needs and created a forum to advance the work to address these needs. At this year’s conference another group got organized and found momentum for organized empowerment: survivors of suicide attempts.


AAS Panel about helping attempt-survivors and their families (photo by David Covington)

Most notably, the conference featured a plenary panel about suicide attempt survivors called “Silent Journey: Helping Suicide Attempters and their Families.” Stephanie Weber, the Executive Director of Suicide Prevention Services in Batavia, Illinois shared her experiences running a support group for suicide attempt survivors.

“At last year’s conference,” Stephanie said, “a woman asked me ‘This is for survivors, but I am a survivor of my own attempt, not of someone else’s death. What is here for me?’ I told her ‘Next year we will have a panel of attempt survivors who are no longer alone or ashamed.’” Stephanie continued, “This is the last stigma. Why is it when we lose a loved one to suicide, we grieve, but when we have a loved one who attempts suicide and survives we are angry and don’t know how to talk about it?”

CW Tillman, a suicide attempt survivor, talked about his experiences with first responders and family members. He said, “There are several ways to help suicide attempters. The first way is just to be honest. At first, after my suicide attempt they told me, ‘That was a stupid thing to do,’ and I know they meant ‘I love you’ and ‘I want you around.’” CW recommends not using the term “failed attempt.” He explains how he sees his suicide attempt as a success by virtue of its not resulting in his death.

Jason Padgett, Project Coordinator for Tennessee Lives Count, talked about his experiences with family members who had gone through suicidal crises. He said, “For all those out there who support those who struggle with suicide, you need support too.”

Finally, Dr. Kate Comtois, Associate Professor at University of Washington, shared findings from her research. After evaluating the similarities of effective psychotherapies for suicidal individuals, she concluded they have at least three qualities:

1) Suicide is treated directly, not just by treating the diagnosed mental illness or by observing or constraining the individual. She said these therapies focus tightly on what is making people suicidal and what can be done about it.

2) These therapies employ an overt, determined, and persistent collaborative stance. The therapist connects with the individual, not using the perspective “We, the experts will fix you, the patient,” but rather “Together, let’s see what we can figure out.”

3) Clinicians work as part of a staff team – they meet regularly to discuss cases and burnout.

Dr. Comtois also summarized what participants in her research said about their journeys after attempting suicide:

1) The pressures on individuals who have attempted suicide are tremendous. The response of our mental health system is to diagnose mental illness and prescribe medication, yet this will not solve their problems.

2) Individuals who had attempted suicide reflected that the researchers asked many more questions about their suicide attempt and their history of suicidal coping than the referring clinicians or team had.

3) Study participants engage in and appreciate the suicide-specific treatment that the researchers developed. This was not consistently the case for the treatment as usual group.

4) Study participants followed most of the recommendations from emergency departments, inpatient units, and the researchers.

Some of the conference attendees found the panel moving. Eduardo Vega, himself a survivor of a suicide attempt, said, “Suicide is not a problem that is fixed in a hospital. Bringing the voices here really touched me.” David Covington, Executive Committee member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention said, “The leaders of suicide attempt survivors are changing the way we think.”

I too am moved by their lived experience and believe their inner wisdom holds the keys to our ability to better understand suicide prevention.

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