10 Things Suicide Attempt Survivors Want You to Know
Part of what’s so isolating and stigmatizing about having suicidal thoughts is that many people can’t relate to feeling such all-encompassing pain. They can’t imagine a scenario in which ending one’s life would ever be an option.
To foster greater empathy and understanding for what someone who is suicidal may be going through, it’s helpful to turn to people who have been there: attempt survivors.
“If we are serious about preventing suicide, we must learn from those who have experience with suicide,” according to The Way Forward, a report by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “The people with the most intimate information about suicidal thoughts, feelings, and actions are those who have lived through such experiences. We all have an opportunity to learn from those with lived experience around suicide so we can do better in the future to foster hope and help people find meaning and purpose in life.”
In that spirit, Health spoke with three suicide attempt survivors. Here’s what they want others—whether living with suicidal thoughts or not—to know.
You can—and should—ask someone who could be suicidal how they're feeling
Barb Gay, executive director of the Area Substance Abuse Council, Inc., a nonprofit substance abuse prevention and treatment agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, didn’t tell anyone for years that she had attempted suicide. “Part of it for me was I grew up in a home where we had a lot of secrets,” she says, including physical and verbal abuse at the hands of her father. “We weren’t supposed to be talking about what was happening at home, that was sort of a known fact.” Looking back, she can see that some of her behaviors and actions were attempts to break down those walls. “I was reaching out to someone to help me. I wanted someone to say, ‘Why are you doing that? What’s going on?'"
Don't be afraid to say the word "suicide"
“A lot of people avoid the actual word,” notes Diana Cortez Yanez, a lived experience consultant and peer support specialist with the Zero Suicide Institute. “In many cases, they’re afraid they’ll trigger something and maybe even make it so an attempt survivor would feel like doing it again.” In her opinion, this is the biggest misconception about suicide in general. There’s no evidence that talking about suicide gives someone the idea to end their life. Rather, talking about suicide can actually open paths of communication a vulnerable person was looking for.
“I’m not saying it’s not a hard subject to bring up, but if we don’t speak about it, that’s where the scary part is,” Cortez Yanez says. “It was a relief for me when people would bring it up. It gave me permission to open up.”
Avoiding the word can make it seem like you're pretending nothing happened, which amounts to a growing elephant in the room, she says. Instead, “say something with love and concern, and try not to assume anything,” she suggests.
It's okay if you don't know what to say
When Clifford Bauman, a chief warrant officer 4 in the U.S. Army National Guard, first started speaking publicly about his 2012 suicide attempt, he noticed that some people treated him differently almost immediately. “People who saw me just the day before, now they don’t know how to talk to me,” he recalls. “That can create its own stress.”
In many instances, it's simpler than you might think to get help for someone who is having suicidal thoughts. It can be as straightforward as offering to call a crisis center or hotline together, Gay says. The people answering will likely be able to walk you through additional steps you can take to assist the vulnerable person, she adds.
It's also fine to come right out and say you're not sure how to handle the situation. "People don’t want to say the wrong thing,” says Cortez Yanez. “You could say, ‘I don’t know what to say, and I’m afraid, but I do care about you.'"
Rather than trying to find solutions, just be attentive, Gay says. "Offer the basic compassion and listening that many of us do every day anyway.”
Talking openly about a suicide attempt can jeopardize a survivor's career
Gay, who is also a member of the Suicide Attempt Survivor Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, remembers worrying about her career before revealing her suicide attempt publicly for the first time. “I thought that it was something if I shared with others it would jeopardize my abilities,” she says. “Are folks going to look at me, like, 'Really? That’s the person we’ve got making decisions and she already has struggles in her life?'"
In the military, people who are dealing with suicidal thoughts often worry that seeking help would let their teams down or result in losing their security clearance, says Bauman, an Iraq War veteran who assisted in recovery efforts at the Pentagon on September 11. “I have maintained my clearance to this day, but those are stigmas that are tough to break.”
In reality, Bauman says his suicide attempt and consequent treatment probably delayed a promotion by about a year—but he wasn’t in a place to be promoted anyway. “I was so messed up, I probably wouldn’t have gotten promoted either had I not gone to get help,” he says. Ultimately, counseling has made him a stronger soldier and man, he says. “It may take a little while to become successful, but you need to get yourself right.”
Suicidal thoughts aren't necessarily about a desire to die
All three survivors who spoke with Health expressed different variations of a common theme: Their suicide attempts weren’t as much about a desire to die as they were about making a particular kind of pain stop.
Bauman was overwhelmed with stress. During his suicide attempt, he remembers feeling at peace for the first time in a year. “I didn’t have to worry about the stress of what I was going through, the stress of what was going on at work, the stress of my family trying to figure out what was going on with me that I couldn’t tell them.”
“My experience wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to continue living with the amount of pain I was living with, especially because it was pain nobody could see,” Gay says. “You start feeling … like there’s no other options.”
“I didn’t want to die, I actually wanted to live, but not with the same pain I was going through,” Cortez Yanez says. “That made suicide an option for me.”
Suicidal thoughts are isolating, but feeling connected helps
When Cortez Yanez first began having thoughts of suicide, she didn’t realize other people had them, too. “I thought I was the only person who was suicidal. I didn’t hear a lot about it because of my religion and Hispanic culture.”
Once a person begins to feel like there’s no other option but suicide, this pattern of thinking can start to feel like “tunnel vision,” Gay says. “You don’t see the opportunities as clearly when you’re blinded by that kind of pain.”
“You’re seeing through suicide-colored glasses,” Cortez Yanez agrees.
Sometimes all it takes to escape the tunnel or ditch the glasses—at least temporarily—is connection. Speaking with someone can be enough of a distraction that a moment of suicidal crisis can pass, Cortez Yanez says. Connection helps in the moment, even if a person continues to be suicidal afterwards, and it may be the bridge to getting help.
“Even if you don’t think so, there’s somebody out there who cares about you,” Bauman wants anyone who is feeling suicidal and isolated to know. “Let them get the chance to tell you.”
Sharing stories of recovery can save lives
Attempting suicide felt like a “shameful, dark secret” for Cortez Yanez for a long time, she says, but the chance to reach others with her experience changed her perspective. “I found out I could help others to not only talk about their experience but hopefully not have an attempt and maybe even save a life,” she says. “That was worth any shame or embarrassment.”
Two years later, speaking openly about her five suicide attempts has become her passion, she says. “My going out there publicly and saying I’ve attempted suicide and survived—I am living proof that things can be different.”
Like Cortez Yanez, some people with suicidal thoughts may have never encountered others who experience the same thing. But hearing from attempt survivors puts other faces to those thoughts. “When you start sharing those stories, it helps people realize it’s an experience that many people have, that you’re not some odd person experiencing something others haven’t,” Gay says. “This is a human condition, because other people have it, and it’s a survivable condition, something that many people get through. That gives you that hope for surviving as well.”
The day Gay shared her story with her oldest son, they were in the car together running errands. “He was talking about something he had learned at school and said, ‘Can you believe things like this really happen Mom? I feel sad for people who aren't a happy family like us.’ He opened the door for me to say, 'Not all happy people are always happy.'" After giving him the “parental-edited” version of her life’s events, he said, “I didn’t know it happened to real people—then people can be okay!” she recalls.
That hope is crucial, Cortez Yanez says. “Hope is the actual solution to suicide. When you’re suicidal, you’ve lost all hope.”
There is no one type of suicidal person
In the wake of celebrity suicides like the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, Cortez Yanez sees many people react with shock and surprise. “It’s a misconception that it can’t touch certain people with all this money, or a goal to live for, or children. People feel that you’re missing something, and that’s why you’re suicidal. But as we can see in [celebrity] cases, it’s more internal, and that’s your reality, whether or not other people think that’s serious enough to want to die."
That’s part of what drove Bauman to speak publicly about his suicide attempt. (He says he was the first active duty military officer to do so; you can watch a video he made with the Department of Veterans Affairs on the topic here.) “I choose to go out and speak about my suicide attempt not to say I’m unique, but because this could happen to anybody in the audience.”
Different people benefit from different treatment
Some people who have had suicidal thoughts find help from medication, while others manage their mental health with counseling, including cognitive behavior therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, Cortez Yanez says. The coping skills she’s learned in DBT especially have helped her recover, she believes. She adds that her volunteer work in the suicide prevention community, a balanced diet, and antidepressants also play important roles in her ongoing wellness.
Gay hopes that one day, people will be able to casually mention they're off to see a therapist in the same way we mention we're going to the dentist. In the meantime, anyone can check their own reaction to hearing about therapy, medications, or other mental health treatment and work on being more accepting of that part of someone’s life.
Gay says swimming, eating well, and taking time for herself helps her mental well-being. She listens to positive and uplifting songs when she needs a mood boost, and she seeks out caring family and friends when she needs to talk.
Bauman, who was diagnosed with PTSD after his suicide attempt, says it's all about finding balance. “I tell people they need to find activities they enjoy with others and by themselves." He’ll go on short runs with his older son, but reserves his long runs for solo outings, for example. “PTSD really doesn’t go away; you have to learn to deal with your triggers."
Even if a person is no longer suicidal, bad days still happen
As with a physical condition like heart disease or diabetes, people who have attempted suicide may need continued care. “It’s not like I’m a survivor and everything is perfect,” Gay says. “It’s ongoing, it’s forever, you do what you need to be well and you always have to check in on it.”
Cortez Yanez says she's considering checking in professionally again. “I’m thinking about seeing a therapist for a ‘touch up’ because my life is so different now. There are a lot of things in my life now that I didn’t have for so long when I was suicidal, like working full time.”
Sometimes after several suicide prevention speaking events, Bauman says he'll find himself reliving traumatic events in his mind. In 2013, after a photo shoot involving the hats, boots, and gloves he wore on 9/11, for example, he went back to counseling. “I see a therapist when it starts to wear on me,” he says. “You have to be in a good place just to speak about your experience.”
Even if a person is no longer feeling suicidal, there are some lasting consequences. “Living as someone who has attempted suicide means that I’m someone who is more likely to have recurrent issues or to die by suicide,” Gay says. “It’s not unlike knowing your genetic makeup; you have to know your past to really be in control of what your future will be like.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).