SHARING OUR STORIES: THE POWER OF LIVED EXPERIENCE
On an individual level, our stories of suicide loss and suicide attempts let others know they are not alone. While no two people experience these challenges in the same way, knowing that another has survived these nightmares offers hope. On a family level, the generational transmission of suicide risk can be arrested when family members understand the truth. When we can talk about the loss like we would other causes of death and despair, we can take out the mystery that leads to fear and misperceptions and we can encourage our loved ones to take steps to promote protective factors and reduce risks.
On a community level, our stories let our leaders know: this issue matters. If we stay hidden, the public doesn’t realize what a significant public health issue suicide is. Rates, trends and statistical significance satisfy the head, but stories move the heart. Our brains process these two types of information differently, and together science and stories are the solution to stigma. We can use our stories to testify to our legislators, work with our journalists, and speak to our educational leaders to let them know we need their leadership and influence to champion change.
On a societal level, our stories help shift the collective conscious. When we don’t speak about our experiences of loss and of recovery, the issues of suicide remain a hidden mystery. When we collect our stories we can learn about the themes that bring people to crisis and the themes that lead people back to life. We can let people know: everyone can play a role in suicide prevention, hope and recovery are possible, and suicide is a social justice issue as well as a mental health and public health issue.
Storytelling is a powerful tool in our suicide prevention work. Before considering speaking publicly about your experience with suicide, ask yourself, “what is my goal?” and “what risks are involved?” If you or someone you know is considering sharing your story to help others, know there are some practices that will help make your efforts safe and effective. First, craft your message and your calls to action to align with the goals you want to achieve. If you want to educate students about the importance of reaching out, make sure your story includes these messages and talk about your positive experiences with helpful resources. If you want to let grieving parents know they are not alone, talk about how your journey as a grieving parent led you to be connected to others.
Because these stories are so profound in our lives, emotion can sometimes catch us off guard. Thus, it is important to practice, practice, practice. While showing genuine emotion before an audience is appropriate for the stories that we share, we do not want the audience to feel they need to take care of us. By practicing telling the story in front of people who we trust, we can be sure we are in control of the story rather than the other way around.
Finally, we want to make sure our stories help others and do not increase risk. Because we know that glamorizing or romanticizing stories of suicide can increase suicidal behavior among vulnerable individuals who over-identify with the deceased, we need to be careful in what we say and don’t say. Suicide is a complex issue, often the result of a mental illness and many intertwining risk factors, so simplifying the cause to a single trigger is often problematic. Discussing the means of death and the death scene can also increase risk.
When we adhere to the safe messaging guidelines, speak from our hearts, and share our experiences, survivors of suicide loss can help create momentum in the suicide prevention movement.
More on safe messaging and the power of story telling here:
Conversations Matter: http://www.conversationsmatter.com.au/
Framework for Successful Messaging: http://suicidepreventionmessaging.actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/
Safe and Effective Messaging for Suicide Prevention: http://www.sprc.org/sites/sprc.org/files/library/SafeMessagingrevised.pdf
Best Practices for Presentations by Suicide Loss and Suicide Attempt Survivors: http://www.sprc.org/sites/sprc.org/files/library/Best%20Practices%20for%20Presentations%20by%20Suicide%20Loss%20and%20Suicide%20Attempt%20Survivors%20-%20FINAL%202012.1.pdf
Center for Dignity, Recovery & Empowerment: http://dignityandrecoverycenter.org/center-programs/transforming-suicide-prevention/