More than the "S" Word- A Personal Reflection on Suicide Prevention Month
It was September 2019. I was asked to be a main speaker at a mental health policy conference on behalf of my federal agency. It was going to be recorded and live streamed with an additional 200 persons in the audience. There was a panel right before my presentation that had someone who spoke about her own experiences with living with bi-polar disorder. Prior to attending the event, my talking points had to be approved prior to attending this event. I got on stage and decided to say, “I am a person who has survived a suicide attempt, and I bring this to my work.” I was not planning this declaration. I continued with my prepared, straight-forward talking points and I was fully aware I could not stray from them due to the nature of the meeting. I got off stage and felt so liberated, so free, so myself.
I have worked in mental health, both systems level and community/individual level, for over 12 years. I sat at tables, conferences, and panels with inspiring, resilient people who shared their personal stories and lived experience with the mental health or substance use system(s). Many of them survived traumatic events, childhoods and/or relationships. They also showed any fear when they put their lived experience upfront and center in their biographies and keynote speeches. To me and to so many in the rooms of those events, their disclosure, their ownership of their lived experiences, and their expertise made them instantly credible-- and rightfully so. Countless colleagues and speakers have begun their remarks or introductions with “I am a person with lived experience in X” or “I am in person in recovery” or “I am a person living with a mental illness.” I have organized hundreds of calls, webinars, events, conferences, white papers, and meetings on mental health and substance use -- yet, I never felt comfortable in my role or setting to disclose my own experiences.
When I first decided I might start sharing that I was survivor, I played around with phrasing-- trying to find the most authentic, comfortable way for me to say it. I borrowed and stood on the shoulders of other brave survivors and individuals with lived experienced. Whenever I was a part of a small round table discussion, my heart would pound right before it was my turn to “introduce myself.” I thought to myself, “Is today the day I disclose to this audience? What are the repercussions of disclosing? Will I say more than my credentials that are already known -- ‘Sara, Social Worker’?” This is all to say, I am in the mental health field, working to make our systems that address and intersect with mental health and substance use conditions more streamlined and easier to access for all. And, I still feel vulnerable and scared to disclose. More people with lived experience need to be at the table, not just one or two individuals to meet a quota. The deliberate use of person-first language when talking about yourself or others shows the humanity in this extremely hard battle to overcome.
Representation matters. I was brushing my teeth and I could not recall more than one friend who is ever spoke to me about surviving a suicide attempt. Culture and religion impact how and if we reach out for help. I can recall hearing that if you complete suicide, you will not go to heaven. Race absolutely impacts the services and treatment that people receive. In the United States, suicide death rates are much higher among whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives than among other populations A recent study suggests Black high school students are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Please, honor people while they are still alive. Don’t wait until people are gone to want to support a cause, or to lift up their work. If you do believe that “people are fighting battles you may not know about,” consider your actions in all areas of your life and how one negative review, one mean-spirited comment, one re-share of damaging or traumatic news, one rude encounter can impact others. If you have ever said to yourself "I would have never known or suspected they were struggling" proves that we are almost always wrong when we make judgments about others' lives.
Healthcare absolutely should consider whole health. The healthcare system should see me as a whole person, not just a diagnosis, an illness, a symptom, a blood test, an ultrasound, a problem to resolve. I am still to this day uncovering how other health conditions impact my brain chemistry (like hypothyroidism, menstrual cycle, my family history) and how major loss and devastating life events can shake us.
Recovery isn't linear. I am still living with suicidal thoughts. I have grown my “toolbox” and I use it every time I need to recover. Just because I live with suicidal thoughts does not mean I am weak, regressing, taking five steps back, unstable, unable to do “the work”, and different than you. Today, I celebrate life and resilience. If I could tell younger Sara one thing, it would be to keep speaking from your authentic voice, you’ve got something special to say, babygirl.
Be kind to people, and connection is our biggest asset in the world. I told my story because I need to step into my authentic voice and embrace that this is just one of my life's purposes. My ability to feel and choose joy comes from my darkest hours. My ability to have deep empathy for others' pain derives from the knowingness of deep sadness.
There have been some really great developments, including the recent update that 988 will now be the new number to call for suicide prevention, resources, and referral to local treatment.
For my friends who have lost someone dear to you from suicide or an overdose, I love you and I am so sorry for your deep loss. Nothing can replace that person. Continue to honor their lives by joining in this work in any way you can.
For those who are struggling right now or have gone through an attempt,
It's okay if you have had suicidal thoughts.
It's okay if you still have suicidal thoughts.
It’s okay if you are scared and not sure what the next best step is.
It’s okay if you are afraid of judgement or rejection.
It’s okay to see a therapist.
It’s okay to choose to take medicine, or not to take medicine.
It’s okay to share your story with only those who deserve and have earned to hear it.
It took me years to share my story because suicide is often the “s” word, with shame and isolation at its core. From shame, comes recovery and resiliency.
With the deepest love,
My amazing husband Dan took this joyful photo (no filter) of me on our rooftop during quarantine- love you more than I could explain here).
Flower crown made by me-- and I will be selling them to benefit organizations doing the good work.
I am starting a new business that looks into critical health and wellness topics, mental health and suicidality among those important topics. If you want to tell your story, or work with me in any capacity as I move into this chapter, reach out to me.