It's been a hugely busy fall! I've criss-crossed the nation to deliver keynote speeches on the story of my struggles with mental health, my suicide attempt, and the evolution of Live Through This, as well as workshops on suicide prevention in social media. Last week, I presented at the 5th annual Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Suicide Prevention Summit. While I was in LA, I stopped by BuzzFeed and helped out with this amazing video on living through a suicide attempt. I'm really proud of how it came out.
Like it? Share it. You never know who might need to hear that they're not alone today.
I presented three times over the course of that week. The first was a workshop where I teamed up with Dr. April Foreman, Amelia Lehto, and Tony Wood to teach attendees how to harness the powers of social media at conferences in order to more widely spread the valuable information shared there. The second was a reprise of last year's historic panel at AAS—with Sam Nadler, Craig Miller, and Misha Kessler (the four of us make a fantastic team, if I do say so, myself)—on the wild ride that was 2014 in terms of the successes and struggles each of us encountered in our advocacy. The last was entitled, "Here There Be Dragons: New Voices in Suicide," in which I gave an overview of my experiences with suicide and my mental health, alongside David Covington, Craig Miller (yes, again), and Dr. DeQuincy Lezine. They were each wonderful in their own ways. I still feel so lucky to be able to share my lived expertise with professionals in all areas of the suicidology and behavioral health fields.
What I'm really here to talk about, though, is this amazing thing that happened at the AAS conference: I entered the inaugural Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest (that's a mouthful) and won first place! The purpose of the PGQ contest was in line with my own mission in my work with Live Through This: to encourage those of us with lived experience to tell our stories, because giving voice to our experiences makes for a powerful tool—not only to inspire hope in others who may be suffering, but also to educate those who need guidance (loved ones, service providers, policymakers, and more).
Here's an excerpt of my essay, entitled "Redeemed":
My story is not unique. There are so many others out there just like it, but the society we live in tells us that we can't talk about suicide, that doing so is attention-seeking behavior, that it only happens to "crazy" people. The truth is, this can happen to anyone, and until we stop sterilizing it by talking in figures, stereotyping it, romanticizing it, sensationalizing it, or avoiding it completely, we're not going to save any lives...
I'm not trying to normalize suicidal feelings. I tell this story and I do this work because I want people to know that this doesn't happen in a vacuum. The suicidal mind can't be stereotyped. When we do it safely talking about these feelings can be empowering. It can create identification and breed compassion. It can heal. It can open us up to possible solutions, both for ourselves and the system at large. Maybe it can even save lives, but we won't know until we try.
I wish I could say that I didn't still battle my mind and the thoughts that I'd be better off dead sometimes, but I do. The difference now is that I'm not afraid to talk about it. I'm not afraid to ask for help when I need it. I know I'm loved even when I can't feel it. And I know I will be able to power through any difficult moment because I know, without a doubt, that I'm not alone.
Wanna read the whole thing? You can do that here.
Thanks, as ever, for your support and encouragement. Big changes are afoot!
Last Friday, I was incredibly lucky to present as part of a panel of attempt survivors (with Craig Miller and Eduardo Vega) at the third annual Elevating the Conversation conference in Denver, CO. It was—and always is, when it happens—amazing to talk about my experiences and my work in a way that has the potential to influence future service providers to treat those of us who struggle with suicidal thoughts with a bit more compassion than we've historically been shown. I was also able to meet and photograph three incredible survivors from the Denver area. I can't wait to share their stories with you guys (but it's gonna be awhile before it happens). To top it all off, Doug and Kurt, from The S Word team, flew out and we did some filming! I'm really terrible in front of a camera—unless I can manage to forget it's there—and, luckily, they're very patient with me.
We closed the day out with a poem performed by Craig, and a slideshow of 75 of the portraits I've made for the project set to the LTT theme song, "Redeemed," by Charlotte Martin. It was apowerful day, and those last few moments really took it up to 11. When I got off the stage, I was all teary-eyed and shaky—but in a good way.
There's been some really nice press coverage of late:
- 15 Suicide-Attempt Survivors Tell Their Stories on Refinery29
- This Artist Is Changing the Way We Think About Suicide — One Photo at a Timeon Mic
- Live Through This: The Many Faces and Stories of Suicide Attempt Survivors onWomen You Should Know
All of these were really refreshing after a time suck of a courtship by a huge national magazinethat ended in me turning down the feature because they continually pushed me to share information I wasn't comfortable sharing. It was a painful experience that left me feeling emotionally manipulated and bullied in a way that seems wholly unique to large press outlets. I've felt it every single time I've dealt with one, and this was my third experience.
A big part of my mission these days is to change the focus of our conversations about suicide. I don't want to talk gory details, I want to talk about how these experiences affect us and what helps. While exposure for the project is always nice, I decided it wasn't worth compromising my principles again. Per the reporter, the editors would still like to run the piece—but only if I give them what they want, information which is in direct violation of the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide (a good resource for all you bloggers and journalists out there). I'd much rather they made the choice to cover this story appropriately, as they claim to want to, but I'd also like to someday pay off my student loans—neither seems likely. I plan on writing more about this later, once I've done a little more processing.
In other news, I'll be speaking at the University of Kentucky in Lexington next Thursday afternoon from 5:30-7:30. It's free to the public, so if you're in the area, come on down.
In April, I'll be collecting stories and presenting at the American Association of Suicidology annual conference in Atlanta, as well as the National Council for Behavioral Health conference in Orlando, next month. I'll make one last stop in Toronto in May to present at the American Psychiatric Association conference, and then I'm taking the summer off to go on my HONEYMOON!
Thanks again for supporting the project. When I started four and a half years ago, I never thought that I'd have built such an incredible community of survivors and advocates, or that I'd find myself collaborating directly with the professionals, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity. There's still so much to do, but we've made a great leap in this past year, and I'm excited to see what happens next!
BIG NEWS: This week I was given the great honor of being NY1's New Yorker of the Week!
I'm so excited for this huge platform to get the word out about the project in the city I love best, and grateful to the many people who made it happen: Gabriel Leal, who shared his story for the project and who also nominated me; Reena Diamante for producing the segment; Wendi Koble of Swoon Films for footage from San Francisco; and Caitlin Coleman and Nicolle Guerra, New Yorkers who've shared their stories for the project and who said nice things about me for the segment.
Leelah Alcorn was a transgender teen in Ohio who died by suicide on December 28, 2014. Her death made national headlines: she left a very public suicide note and both the media and her family have continually misgendered her in their coverage, all of which has caused quite a ruckus. LGBTQ activists are mobilizing with Leelah's Law to ban conversion therapy; Dan Savage is making harmful comments on Twitter; Leelah's family continues to insist that they loved their son (not their daughter); but, in the world of suicide awareness and prevention, things have been mostly silent.
This is a teachable moment. Yes, trans* issues are very much at play here, but this is an opportunity for us to talk about social media's role in suicide prevention, journalism's role in suicide prevention, how suicide affects the LGBTQ community (especially the trans* and gender non-conforming folks within in), and much, much more.
I wrote a blog for The Huffington Post about Leelah, and I appeared on HuffPost Live's QueerView with Josh Zepps just yesterday (below—my segment starts at 8:23), but I'm looking forward to hearing and engaging more with this community—attempt survivors, loss survivors, and clinicians. Let's use this loss to fix society, and not just in the ways she requested when she left us.
How can we circumvent these losses?
For whatever reason, People Magazine seems to be the main disseminator of information on this particular story. To me, it feels gross for a number of reasons—namely, that they were likely only interested because Brittany was pretty. Second, and more importantly, as much as they're separate topics, the public's understanding of suicide versus Death with Dignity is mostly nonexistent, which means a lot of talks need to be had, and carefully. I don't trust People to do that (or anything, really) justice.
Obviously, I'm interested in the concept of choice when it comes to one's own death. I do this work every day. I know it's scary, though. We're afraid of death. Thinking about ending our own lives, regardless of the circumstances, isn't really at the top of anyone's to-do list. But too often, it keeps us from thinking about important things.
A key question we should consider when thinking of those who die by suicide and those who die with the assistance of a physician is, "How much pain must that person have been in to choose to end their own life?"
It's a question that far too many of us haven't taken a moment to stop and really think about. I wanted to share a couple of things that I've felt have been really helpful in terms of learning about Death with Dignity, what it feels like to the people involved, and why we should care. And of course, because I'm me, they're story-based.
The first is a film called How to Die in Oregon, which is easily accessible on Netflix. It gives a good overview on how the law is applied in Oregon, but it also takes you deeply into the lives of some people who chose to go that route. It's an incredible film (it's also a tear-jerker). Trailer below.
You may recall that I went to LA for the annual American Association of Suicidology conference in April to speak on a panel about my experiences as an attempt survivor. A woman named Peggy came up to me afterward to strike up a conversation about my portraits (and to ask me to make an impromptu headshot).
Little did I know, Peggy was Margaret Pabst Battin: philosopher, ethicist, and advocate for end-of-life rights. Her husband, Brooke, was paralyzed in a cycling accident and, eventually, chose to end his own life. She recently told their story on the TEDMED stage (that's what the headshot was for). It's a love story with what seems like a sad ending.
But is it, really?
Hey guys, remember that time when Robin Williams killed himself and everyone cared for approximately 30 seconds? Remember how everyone had an opinion about it, too? Awesome. Well, in the course of that 30 seconds, Kay Redfield Jamison (notable for being one of the first professionals in the field to disclose her struggles with her own mental health, and author of An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide) wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that pissed me off. I wrote a rebuttal, but by the time I was done, the NYT had closed comments on the matter. It just occurred to me, however, that those sorts of things are what this blog is for (fancy that)! So, here it is in all its glory, still shockingly (not shockingly) relevant two months after the fact:
Kay Jamison has been one of my heroes since I was in my early 20s, struggling with a mind that was self-destructing in ways I could neither properly describe nor understand. She gave me a lamp with which to navigate the darkness. But as I’ve grown to better understand my mind and my history over time, and through my work in suicide awareness over the last four years (especially with my peers in the burgeoning suicide attempt survivor movement), her work feels—to me—too cold, too clinical, too focused on a rigid insistence on [controversial, potentially damaging] medical-model based treatments. She focuses on what worked for her, rather than informing her public that there are many options, and not all of them include the pills Big Pharma pushes at us (and before you ask, no, I am not averse to medication; in fact, I am happily medicated in a way that makes me feel like a semi-normal, functional human being for the first time in my adult life, but that doesn’t mean it is or should be an option for all of us) or zapping our minds into oblivion.
She says competence trumps empathy in addressing suicidal depression. I call bullshit. Yes, competence is important, but what about the key fact that only 10% of mental health clinicians in the US can claim it? Competence in the short-term is unrealistic. Sadly, it’s something we need to strive for in the longer term. There are only two states in the entire US that mandate training for suicide intervention. The laws need to change. The discrimination against those who deal with mental health issues, which is just as prevalent among mental health clinicians as it is the general public, needs to be eliminated first.
Jamison underplays its importance here, but empathy is key. It cannot and should not be considered secondary to competence. The ability to empathize with those struggling with emotional pain is incredibly powerful—and useful to both clinicians and society at large. Empathy leads to greater understanding or, at the very least, a desire to understand, a desire to walk that clichéd mile in the shoes of someone else. The ability to empathize can lead clinicians to strive for competence, instead of “firing” clients in crisis out of a fear of liability (yep, that's a thing). It can lead to a larger desire on the part of the public to learn how to help their loved ones should they ever, god forbid, struggle with a suicidal crisis. Empathy is the tool we need to hone to eliminate discrimination and quell our fear of suicide and of helping those dealing with suicidal thoughts.
Jamison offers no solutions (her words are about as inspirational as a dirty sock), so I will. Here’s what will help in the shorter term:
- Let’s empower the public through breaking down the myths and educating them about suicide. How do we talk about it? What are the resources? How can we help?
- Let’s encourage the media to be a powerful force in doing so (and to use the guidelines set forth for ethically reporting on suicide: http://reportingonsuicide.org
- Let's speak up when we hear people further perpetuating damaging ideas about those who struggle with their mental health—and that includes putting celebrities like Henry Rollins and Gene Simmons in their place (I have lots of feelings on this matter).
- Let’s encourage celebrities and other folks with high profiles to share their experiences, as well. Their words are powerful. They have reach. Let’s encourage these people to use their platforms for good (endangered species need help, for sure, but let's try and redirect some of that philanthropy and good will).
- Let’s lobby for mandatory, in-depth (6 hour trainings are not enough) suicide intervention training for mental health professionals across the country. It’s pathetic that licensing bodies have barely even considered this yet. How is it not in every single curriculum across the country?
- Let’s use firsthand accounts of those who have lived with these experiences to inform research, lawmaking, and media, and to show that suicide is not a problem of the “other,” but that it can affect any one of us.
- Let’s develop age-appropriate crisis intervention training programs for school-age children K-12. The reality is that we can’t protect them from this. The next best thing is to educate them.
- Further, let's develop crisis intervention training programs for everyone, and let's make sure they're financially accessible, relatable, and widely disseminated. ASIST and QPR, among others, are wonderful tools, but difficult to access.
It is downright shameful that Robin Williams had to die for this country to take notice of a tragedy that strikes over 100 times daily. Let’s remember him as the man he was—a man who inspired laughter—but let’s also use his death to make a change. Suicide is a problem. For all of us. Let’s do what we can to learn about it. Let’s take care of one another.
I returned from my trip to New Mexico (sponsored by Waking Up Alive and the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition), Land of Enchantment—or Entrapment, depending on who you're talking to, apparently—on Saturday. I collected another four stories out there, which means I've now officially met, interviewed, and photographed 109 suicide attempt survivors in 12 cities across the US.
And I've started to notice an interesting trend that's got me thinking. I'll sit down with an attempt survivor and, right out of the gate, they'll say, "I don't know if my story is what you're looking for. It's not very [interesting/outrageous/gory/extreme/insert your own colorful adjective here]."
I can't tell you how much this hurts my heart. As attempt survivors, we've already got plenty of experience with self-hatred. To further internalize it in such a way that we berate ourselves over the adequacy of the methods with which we tried to kill ourselves cuts to the quick.
The more conversations I have like this, the more struck I am, and I wonder what must be going on behind the scenes to result in such a mindset.
As a society, we assess the seriousness of a suicide attempt based on the severity of the method. If you didn't use one of the more lethal methods, you didn't really mean it. You weren't committed to it (see what I did there?), you were just seeking attention.
In short: your pain is not valid.
This is a perspective rooted in ignorance, and it further perpetuates discrimination against those of us who struggle with minds that sabotage us into believing that we'd be better off dead.
Often, when the media does choose to report on suicide, they seek out the people with most extreme stories they can find (the suicide prevention field is equally guilty of this). They use the cliche 'life-threatening struggle to absolute recovery' story arc. They focus on the sensational: the blood, the gore, a hospital scene, a broken relationship (and if these are things you don't want to discuss, many outlets won't print your story at all). Then they skip over the meaty, difficult content to get to the part with the rainbows and butterflies, and another poster child for hope through adversity is born.
They tell the same handful of these stories over and over, until the telling becomes so sterilized that all we see is a Shining Beacon of Hope smiling at us from the page or the podium. They reframe the stories into empty fairy tales that only allow for black and white, dichotomous thinking, with no room for the grey areas in between. They happily violate recommendations (set out by the major suicide prevention organizations) that we avoid sensationalistic headlines and discussion of methods.
As a result, we readers don't hear the whole story, so we don't think about the struggle. We forget that the struggle is okay, that it's normal. We forget that suicidal thoughts don't always go away forever, if they do at all, and that recovery isn't linear. When we get lost in these contrived plots, we forget that humans are complex and interesting and terrifying and scared and, ultimately, worthy of loving and finding compassion for. We forget to teach readers about warning signs and resources, ways to cope, how to listen, what to say.
What's most interesting to me is that these stories are meant to instill hope—and we all love a little dose of hope on a bad day—but based on what I'm seeing, they have the power to ostracize others with lived experience of these struggles into thinking that even their attempts to die are inadequate or mundane. Stories like these, spun as such, can do more harm than good if they're not balanced out by other stories that mirror a more common experience.
What we need here is a shift in understanding, a shift in perspective. All of our experiences are valid and worth talking about. No one story is more important than another. Each of them is borne of great pain, and we are all, every one of us, survivors.
Earlier this year, in April, I had the good fortune of being interviewed by Dese'Rae for Live Through This. It was amazingly healing to journey through an experience I do not often speak about. During our meeting, we took a detour and talked about language, the ways we claim it, reject it, and shift its meaning. Afterwards, I wanted to think more about the intentional and unintentional ways we choose our words. This blog post attempts to continue the process by narrowing the lens on words in order to revise the stigma of psychiatric disabilities: nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the very small units of sound.
We often use our words without consideration for what they mean. When I say what they mean, I’m talking about connotations: what do words mean beyond their definitions and the letters that craft them? What do words imply? What do they suggest?
What is most toxic about words is the ways they can oppress and unhinge us. They become the things we remember for years. The idiom “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” got it all wrong. Words are verbs. They kick and cause damage. Depending on what is being said and to whom it is being said, words reinforce power dynamics. Most perversely, in their totalizing and marginalizing ways, words can silence us.
From a young age, I have always loved words, the way they felt on my tongue, the way they sounded when I spoke them aloud. As a professor and poet, I have become more aware of the impact of our words. My identities as a queer woman of color with a psychiatric disability make me especially cognizant of the meaning and impact of these units of sound. Just as feminism teaches us the dangers of using sexist phrases like, “stop acting like a girl,” or “you are such a bitch,” we also need to be mindful of phrases that are informed by ableism.
Ableism, similar to other systems of oppression like racism, sexism, and classism, is a form of oppression that positions people with disabilities as being worth less than a non-disabled individual. According to this framework, a disabled individual is read as being weak, inferior, and passive; they are less than. When we are thinking about psychiatric disabilities, ableism teaches us that saying phrases like, “that’s so insane,” “a crazy thing happened yesterday,” or “are you psycho?” is commonplace. These words are said jokingly, as insults, or without thought.
Full disclosure: I am guilty of this. I too often find myself saying “crazy” or “insane” for emphasis: “That’s so crazy,” has come out of my mouth more times than I care to say. Its definition, according to dominant culture, has entered into my lexicon and it is something I am trying to stop. The fact that I am finding it is a hard habit to break speaks to the subtle persistence of ableism, or the fiction that the non-disabled body and mind are normal while all else is out of the ordinary.
Just as much as I believe in the power of words, I believe that the words we use to name ourselves are just as important as the words we use to name others. I started to think more about this when I began claiming my manic depression as a psychiatric disability. I started to identify myself as disabled because I believe it is powerful to politicize our identities. I use the language “psychiatric disability” as opposed to “mental illness” because “illness” connotes a defect. To me, "mental illness" also suggests that we are constantly and perpetually mad and unstable. It suggests that our depression, our disassociation, our psychosis, whatever our “it” is, never ceases, backs off, or improves. Under this framework we are always in a chronic state of madness.
I know that this myth of consistency is not true for me. Like anyone else, I move through ranges. I have productive, happy, and successful days. I also have days where my depression makes me feel like I am struggling through mud. Because of these diverse experiences, I believe the labels “mental illness” or “mentally ill” are all too encompassing. Manic depression is only one part of my identity; it’s not the whole of me. Claiming psychiatric disability allows for the reality of ebbs and flows, the shifts that everyone experiences. It also refuses to play into dominant culture’s inaccurate belief that we are perpetually ill, damaged, and insane.
I am certain that there are many ways to undo the stigmas of psychiatric disabilities. For me, one tangible way of beginning this process is re-examining the words I use to name experiences and myself. I extend this process of exploration, this return to and unpacking of language, to you.
Shayda Kafai is a lecturer in the Ethnic and Women's Studies department at California Polytechnic University, Pomona. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University and her dissertation focuses on the work of San Francisco Bay Area-based performance project Sins Invalid, a group that creates space for queer, gender non-conforming, disabled people of color. Shayda is dedicated to dispelling the ableist myths that forcefully craft our lives. She continues to teach and write about disability, sexuality, and gender in California.