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Suicide survivors help to shape prevention efforts

Tuesday - 4/16/2013, 6:26pm  ET

Photographer Dese'Rae Stage sits next to a couple of her portraits of fellow suicide survivors in New York on Friday, April 5 2013. By the dozens, survivors of attempted suicide across the United States are volunteering to be part of a project by the Brooklyn-based photographer. "Live Through This," a collection of photographic portraits and personal accounts, is one of several new initiatives transforming the nation's suicide-prevention community as more survivors find the courage to speak out and more experts make efforts to learn from them. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- They look intently at the camera, some impassively, some with smiles, all of them aware that they've just shared with an online audience a most personal story: Why they tried to kill themselves.

By the dozens, survivors of attempted suicide across the United States are volunteering to be part of a project by a Brooklyn-based photographer, Dese'Rae Stage, called "Live Through This" -- a collection of photographic portraits and personal accounts.

It's one of several new initiatives transforming the nation's suicide-prevention community as more survivors find the courage to speak out and more experts make efforts to learn from them. There's a new survivors task force, an array of blogs, some riveting YouTube clips, all with the common goal of stripping away anonymity, stigma and shame.

"Everyone feels like they have to walk on egg shells," says Stage, who once tried to kill herself with self-inflicted cuts. "We're not that fragile. We have to figure out how to talk about it, rather than avoiding it."

Such conversations are proliferating.

In January, the American Association of Suicidology launched a website called "What Happens Now?" -- described as the first sustained effort by a national prevention organization to engage survivors in a public forum. It features a blog, updated weekly, with contributions from survivors sharing their experiences and often using their real names.

In one of the latest posts, the founder of a respite home for suicidal people writes powerfully about her own suicide attempt eight years ago, involving both pills and a kitchen knife, and about the contributions that survivors can bring to prevention efforts.

"Survivors have a unique perspective on what life's like down in the deep, dark hole," writes Sabrina Strong, executive director of Waking Up Alive in Albuquerque, N.M. "We found our way out... We're not afraid to crawl down in the dark hole with someone else."

Seeking to encourage those types of contributions, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention -- a federally funded public-private partnership -- has formed a first-of-its-kind task force comprised of prevention experts and survivors. It plans to issue recommendations this fall for how practitioners and organizations in the prevention field can "engage and empower suicide attempt survivors."

One of the task force co-chairs is psychologist John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of centers that field calls from emotionally distressed and potentially suicidal people.

According to studies cited by Draper, about 7 percent of survivors later kill themselves, a far higher rate than for other groups.

"Yet that means 93 percent go on to live out their lives," he said. "We've got to talk to them, engage then, find out what is bringing them hope and keeping them alive."

The other co-chair is Eduardo Vega, the survivor of a suicide attempt who is now executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.

"Nobody can speak to the issues, the sort of agony, even the decision-making that goes on when you're actively suicidal so much as somebody who's been there, and can relate to all that's going on in a nonjudgmental way," Vega says in a recent video. "That's the sort of magic that will make a difference."

In past decades, the stigma surrounding suicide was intense, and most people who tried to kill themselves avoided any public disclosures about their experiences. There was far more involvement in the prevention movement by bereaved relatives of people who completed a suicide.

Among them was Michelle Linn-Gust, whose sister killed herself at 17 and who, in her current role as president of the American Association of Suicidology, helped launch the "What Happens Now?" website.

"The bereaved, the people who've lost someone, like me, that movement has taken off," Linn-Gust said. "But the attempt survivors have not had a voice. Nobody has given them a home."

Over the years, individuals who had attempted suicide would surface occasionally, writing books or going on the public-speaking circuit to share their experiences. One such communicator is Kevin Hines, who became a prolific writer and speaker after surviving a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. A survivor in Canada, David Granirer, has carved out a specialty as a stand-up comedian whose monologues address depression and mental illness.

Among Granirer's routines is a feigned phone conversation in which he unsettles a smarmy telemarketer. "I'm so depressed," he says. "If you hang up, I'll kill myself."

What's new in the past couple of years is a broader phenomenon -- a surge of collective projects by survivors, corresponding with a keener and more systematic interest by prevention experts in their potential contributions.

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