By Lisa Esposito
September 10, 2015
Taryn Aiken, 39, stands before a hushed audience in the Cannon House Office Building, one of three suicide attempt survivors taking part in a Capitol Hill panel in May. A vivid presence, Aiken recalls traumatic childhood experiences and the rocky road to recovery. Over the past decade, Aiken has spoken publicly about her multiple suicide attempts many times. Yet when she tells attendees about the pain she's lived through, tears fill her eyes. But Aiken doesn't break down – she continues to speak.
The panel of suicide survivors was hosted by U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., Chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus. Napolitano has long been concerned about suicide, including the high rate of attempts among young Latinas. She wanted to put faces and voices to the problem of suicide.
"People kind of hide the fact that this is an issue – the stigma attached to it," Napolitano says. "That fact that sometimes you don't want to expose yourself for fear of being ridiculed, weak or whatever else. To me, we need to look at all the facets. We can't just sit and say it's not happening. This is reality – we have to deal with it."
Congressional staffers said hearing the panel dispelled myths they'd held about suicide. "Everyone's impacted," Napolitano says. "And the sad part is, sometimes there aren't survivors." The hope, she says, is "Maybe by listening to the ones that survived, we can learn a little bit more."
Shelby Rowe, manager of education programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also appeared on the Capitol Hill panel. It's much easier to talk about suicide prevention as an expert than as a survivor, Rowe says. She should know – she's done both. "I've been a public speaker in my professional life as a suicide prevention expert for years, so I'm quite comfortable talking about suicide in front of a crowd," Rowe says. "But it's entirely different and intensely personal when I'm sharing about my own past struggles with suicide."
An engaging speaker, Rowe describes what she calls her "emotional burlesque" as a fine balancing act. "I want to share personal details of my private struggles to give an intimate view of my experience, while at the same time I keep certain details private so that I don't feel emotionally naked," she says. While not minimizing, she says she doesn't share anything publicly that she wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with her sons over the dinner table.
"I've heard it said that exposure is the antidote to prejudice, and I believe that," Rowe says. "So I choose to expose myself by sharing my story, in the hopes that I can shape the conversation around suicide."
Finding Her Voice
Suicide survivors share their stories many ways. Live Through This, an online project, lets viewers click on the image of a survivor revealing his or her experience. "Out of the Darkness" community and campus walks provide forums to speak up in person.
For a long time, Jessica Caudle, 33, kept quiet about suicide in her life – her father's death and her own issues. In 2013, she learned about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and took her first AFSP-sponsored campus walk. "It was very refreshing to me, and heartbreaking at the same time, to see how many lives have been impacted," she says.
Simply wearing a T-shirt from the event later prompted three people to approach her and reveal they'd lost someone to suicide, too. Somehow, Caudle, a self-described introvert, gradually morphed from audience member to an event organizer and speaker. At first, speaking out was "terrifying," she says, but worth it. "I feel like I've grown a little bit more each time I was willing to step into those positions," she says. Caudle recently created an online presentation to let others know they're not alone.
Making an Impact
Misha Kessler, 24, enjoys public speaking, using skills he learned as a student at a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati. He never expected that a few years later, he'd be facing audiences as a suicide survivor, describing his mental health struggles while in college.
"I initially came out on Facebook about my suicide attempts," Kessler says. "It was very motivating, because the amount of positive responses I got was just unbelievable – between people commenting on the Facebook status about how grateful they were for having me as a friend and that I didn't actually die."
His revelation made much more of an impact than he'd expected. People have opened up about their own mental health issues, from being suicidal to depression to bipolar disorder. "I ended up getting hundreds and hundreds of messages," he says.
Kessler has since been a student spokesperson with The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit focused on mental health and suicide prevention in young adults, and he worked with the American Association of Suicidology among a host of other organizations and initiatives.
The flip side of stigma is when suicide is romanticized, potentially making it appear attractive to troubled, impressionable minds. Hearing survivors describe the harsh reality of long struggles with depression, PTSD, child abuse, addiction, hospitalizations and self-loathing – or hearing from a family member devastated by loss – strips suicide of any shred of glamour.
The messenger is important. As a general rule, celebrities don't make much of an impact on people with mental health issues, says Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. However, someone like Demi Lovato, for example, who has spoken about having suicidal thoughts as a child, is considered more credible.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of The Jed Foundation, says his group and others work with survivors on safe messaging for the public. "[Hearing from] someone who has gotten help and is doing well, when the message is crafted in a positive way – that help is there and it makes a difference – lowers the risk," he says. "And we have good data around that."
After Aiken speaks in public, people often approach her with their own stories. One young woman who'd just lost her boyfriend in a car accident talked to Aiken at length but didn't confide further. "A few days later I got a Facebook message from her," Aiken recalls. "It said, 'I just wanted you to know that I have been contemplating suicide. After hearing you speak, I told my mom I was going to try and get into a counselor.'"
If you have concerns about suicide for yourself or a loved one, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.