Talking with Amelia Lehto

It’s always valuable to hear from someone who can see the suicide prevention world from both inside and out. Amelia Lehto is a crisis counselor who knows what suicidal thinking feels like.

Here, she explains why crisis counselors might be better trained to work with suicidal people than therapists, but she pushes back against the idea that clinicians don’t need those tools.

“It shouldn’t be absolute: ‘We don’t deal with that, send them to a crisis center,'” she says. “That’s not convenient or safe for anyone. People don’t want to be pushed off to the next guy.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Amelia Lehto. I am a crisis line coordinator and specialist in suicide prevention at a crisis center in metro Detroit.

For how long?

This will be my fifth year as coordinator, but I’ve been with the agency for seven years. I started as a volunteer and worked my way into my current position.

When you joined, was your personal experience addressed?

Yes, in the screening process. For volunteers, they ask us our past history. Mine was brought up. I lost my best friend when I was 13 years old to suicide, something I’m always very open about. In that process of losing her, I had sought treatment because I was having suicidal thoughts myself dealing with the trauma of her loss, in addition to childhood sexual abuse that came up in that process of treatment and getting help and coming out with all the trauma I experienced at that young age.

How were the reactions to that?

I felt very safe in the process. I was very comfortable. I had a volunteer facilitator along with, I think, a staff member and then it was just a couple of people and myself. It came out conversationally. We were interviewing each other. It flowed very naturally out, and it didn’t seem to be a concern. I wasn’t questioned about my history because I already had been honest on my application. It’s always just been a part of who I am.

What were you doing before then?

I went to broadcasting school.

Did you pursue that?

I interned for a while locally but was a single mom at the time, and it was not financially feasible to continue. I went on to supervise at Starbucks full time, started volunteering and picked up a second job at the time.

What led you to volunteer in this area?

Six months before I started, I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer, and I was very deep in grief. I wasn’t leaving the house very often. I was not an attentive mother. My cousin who was working at a crisis center saw me over Easter holiday and told me more about her job and how it might interest me, so I pursued that into the screening process. I discovered a lot about myself in training because they asked a lot of personal history to practice, so it feels genuine when role-playing with another person. It’s a safe environment. It was really good and cathartic to put all my stuff out there to practice, with the loss of my mom, the abuse scenario. Really cathartic and healing, what I needed at the time. My mother had already encouraged me to pursue my passions, and it took her passing to find it.

What are some of the striking things you’ve learned on the job?

I was surprised. I picked a Friday night shift, and I had imagined that Friday night would be the night of crises. People were going to be overwhelmed, they were going to need help. It was the slowest shift. So my first couple of months there, I felt I had all this preparation and I was ready to take on this role. I had an amazing trainer, a former Marine, who drilled the empathy model into volunteers, really encouraged us to explore the situation and find the elephant in the room. I didn’t take on a full-on suicidal crisis call until five or six months in. A lot of calls were people who were in need of support but not in crisis, emotional support. It was incredibly valuable. I heard stories of people you don’t generally hear. It’s an honor to do that kind of work and give support. It really is incredible to have a genuine connection to another human being.

When I received that first true suicidal crisis, it was terrifying. You know, you have this sense of responsibility, and it’s ultimately not your responsibility, all you’re doing is being there for another human being. I was being a support to another person. It was a really challenging experience, and I had really great support from my supervisor. It was like a two-hour long call. They felt hopeless and helpless, but we were able to talk about what kind of plan was coming next. They ultimately decided to reach out to one of their family members. We role-played that situation and what they would say to ask for help. At the end of the two hours, they felt more comforted, and the crisis had passed. They felt more comfortable talking with their family, who was coming home shortly. You don’t usually see that 360, from crisis to resolution: “Oh, I can get through this.” They had reached out for mental health support in the past, and it had failed, but they were willing to try again. I can see myself sitting in that cubicle in that building that’s no longer there. It was a really good call.

Has it in certain ways gotten easier?

I have had the opportunity to go though multiple trainings, to connect with people like yourself, all these thought leaders in the field, taking their skills and experience and applying it to my work. My confidence has grown, but each call is its own. It’s not black and white, it’s one person in that moment, and it’s what’s gonna work for them. It’s always different, but I’m much more confident in my skills.

Are you allowed to bring up your own experience, or do you want to?

It’s not something we encourage on the job. We want to keep that kind of professional boundary, so we don’t put ourselves at risk in that moment. I think that’s something the warm line does because they have that ability, and I really appreciate that perspective, and it’s something to talk about in the future. But I think it would be uncomfortable initially. But I do have that ability in my personal life, and I do have people who have reached out to me, and I can really connect to them. So it’s different when on the job. I can see the value in both approaches. With warm lines, there is a more personal conversation. The peer on the other end may share their own experience and what their experience has been. While on the crisis lines the focus is on the caller and their experience, with the crisis worker reflecting the caller’s experience.

How do you take care of yourself in what can be quite stressful work, and what do you do if your suicidal thoughts come back?

I debrief, debrief and debrief on shifts and off of them if I had a really difficult call or experience in the community. The work by nature is stressful, demanding and so necessary that I really feel humbled doing it and honored by it. I am with people in what may be the worst moments of their lives, and I never take that for granted. It can certainly add up, though, over time. If I take on too many projects or had an especially stressful day, I can be hyper-vigilant when I leave the office. My husband can probably speak more to this than I can. My family is naturally affected by the stress that may build up, but they are also patient with me. Though they may not fully understand what my day was like, they know to love on me, and we do our best to leave it all at the door. For self-care I laugh, I love and I enjoy all the small things. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel, which I thoroughly enjoy. This past weekend I was at an event at a local metropark that is just beautiful, so I took the time afterwards to visit the hiking trails, enjoying my time alone.

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of peer support. How would you use that in your work, ideally?

At my center, we do have peer support on site. We’re a 24-hour crisis center. The peers are there with the person beginning to end to share their own experience. We definitely see the benefit on site. It’s something of interest for the phone side. We are interested in the warm line idea, and that’s something on the to-do list, the wish list of what we’d like to offer the community. There’s definitely a benefit there. I know many of our volunteers and staff have their own experience of one kind or another. The lived experience and attempt survivor movement led me to share more about it on a regular basis. It draws empathetic people. If not personal experience for themselves, then somebody in their lives. I would really like to see that happen for my crisis line, bringing peers to really connect with people on a personal level.

You must hear a range of voices. Do you think the lived experience movement is doing a good job of reflecting diversity, and what other problems need to be pointed out?

I think diversity is important, in general. Everybody, no matter their race, religious affiliation, their age, financial status, is immune to suicide, suicidal thoughts, critical situations, one way or another. It affects everyone. I hear from those that are well-to-do suburban white-collar settings, but I also hear from people who are from under-served areas. I don’t always know those specifics, but I have talked with a number of people who, the running theme is loss of one kind or another, whether it be financial, a relationship, their freedom, the loss or the threat of a loss. But we certainly are not an island unto ourselves, we have these shared losses, and I don’t think everyone fits in one category or another. Cultural diversity affects us all, and it is something that should be respected in regards to suicidality. We’re all in this together, we’re all human. The LGBT community, the black community, the Asian community, or elderly, you know, middle-aged men, across the board. It’s easier to break people down into groups, and that’s more easily digestible than to say everyone’s at risk, which puts fear into people.

With concerns out there about crisis lines calling the police or other emergency responders, what do you think is the best practice for keeping callers informed and putting them at ease?

Reaching out for help, no matter where to, takes an enormous amount of trust and an incredible amount of bravery. Often times, people are calling for the first time because they were recommended to call or had heard about it through the grapevine. This work isn’t black and white, there are shades of gray, and this interaction that a caller and a crisis worker enter into is intimate, but it is malleable by the caller. They are the driver in these interactions, while the crisis worker is the navigator. The caller has control and always should be treated as such. The difficulty lies with the negative interactions, those calls where the caller and the crisis worker weren’t on the same page, and the sometimes devastating effects that can have. The benefit of the crisis line is vast and diverse for each caller that reaches out. There are some great studies that have been conducted, namely by Madelyn Gould.

Too many times, we hear of the negative rather than the positive outcomes that happen. There is good work being done on crisis lines. There are staff and volunteers who are truly invested in the best outcome for the callers. For me, the most collaborative and least invasive responses work best for both parties, reducing the trauma and stress an active intervention _ police or other emergency responders called in _ can have. It takes three positive interactions for every one negative, but the failure here on the crisis line part is for that one negative; it’s unlikely a caller will reach back out for help or give feedback. It’s not one size fits all. If someone calls in and doesn’t connect with the crisis worker, I’d encourage the person to call back and speak with someone else. For those positive interactions, word of mouth is best practice. Share your experiences and encourage others to utilize crisis lines if necessary. They are safe, confidential and anonymous, and now there is crisis chat online. And for the negative interactions; please call back, give feedback. If we know better, we can do better.

Sometimes it seems people at crisis centers are better equipped to deal with suicidal people than clinicians are. Why is there still distrust around suicidal people, and how to break that down?

I’ve heard talk among clinicians who have fragilized people with suicidal thinking or people who have disclosed. And I think that those, in especially clinical roles, I don’t think they are as exposed to suicide in general on a one-to-one basis. They may have read about it, they may know how to treat some related symptoms, but suicide is not as comfortable a topic with them as with those at a crisis center because we’re trained to talk about suicide. In the heat of the moment, if you will. It’s a different skill set, a different training theory and background, and I think you hit it on the nose. The crisis centers, we talk to people in all sorts of states, and that’s to be expected. In a clinical setting, you’re treating long-term, ongoing mental health concerns or challenges in that person’s life. And people know if they call a crisis line, they can talk about suicide.

Do you think clinicians would benefit from the training you get?

We’ve had interns, volunteers, coming from varied educational backgrounds: psychology, psychiatry, you know, we had aspiring doctors volunteering with us this summer. We’ve had some GPs come and observe say, “I think we’d really benefit from this!” I don’t think that’s generally taught in the classrooms. I think all can benefit from the empathy model. We can all learn from each other, kumbaya.

Crisis centers appear to be taking on more and more of the work with suicidal clients from clinicians. Do you think that’s the right way to go?

I don’t. The training model I’m aware of in regards to suicide, the Air Force does a really great intervention and prevention program, and Henry Ford has a really cohesive and collaborative approach to suicide, and those networks always include the whole scope around the person, and everyone is included in the plan, and everyone is aware of what’s happening. We don’t know when we’re going to have a crisis. It can come on for whatever reason. Skills would be beneficial to all the people. They should have empathy model training and know how to truly listen to somebody instead of considering what they’re going to say next. Listening to others is really important. If they’re not comfortable with it, they can refer, but it shouldn’t be absolute: “We don’t deal with that, send them to a crisis center.” That’s not convenient or safe for anyone. People don’t want to be pushed off to the next guy. The basic skills can be had in the moment when the person needs it the most. It’s beneficial. And it’s much easier to build into the educational training that clinicians go through, to have on hand when needed. I think it would help them feel more confident in their skills.

How to address the liability question by clinicians?

I am an American Red Cross CPR trainer, and one of those first bits of information we share with people is the Good Samaritan law. If you’re intervening with someone having a heart attack, as long as you’re doing what you’re trained to do, what your skill set is at, you’re covered by the Good Samaritan law. I think that should be applied to somebody in a suicidal crisis. And you know, it is life and death in both cases. Again, the medical vs. the mental health model, the disparities between the two as if they’re different. The mind and body are the same. We have an organ in our head, and it runs down throughout our body. I think Good Samaritan law goes for bodies, and it should go for our brains.

How did you decide to be open about your personal experience?

Dese’Rae Stage and Leah Harris have been very vocal about their experiences. Along with my belief that human connection is really important, and sharing stories can be really valuable to others. I’m also an ASIST trainer. I learned the ASIST model, I went through the training for trainers a couple of years ago, and it reminded me how important our stories are and how important it is to be heard and have a genuine connection. It can be very helpful to share. So I’ve had the benefit of talking with different people over the years, to know how sharing my story has helped them. And hearing other people who’ve been through certain experiences has helped me. #SPSM chatting, seeing people connect on just a basic level. We all have skill sets, training, professional roles, but when you break it down, we’re all trying to live life the best we can. The best way is to be honest with each other.

I’ve definitely been apprehensive over the years. I’ve started blogs, deleted blogs for privacy reasons: “Who would want to read that?” But this past year, I’ve been much more involved. I auditioned for a show called “Listen To Your Mother,” and I shared a story about being a young mom, losing my mom, coming into that role now, and it was really incredible to come on stage and share my story with 400 to 500 people in that room, and it’s out there on YouTube. At least one of my stories is. And I have had encouraging feedback from it. And I’ve had a couple of blogs posted on Stigmama.com. I think storytelling is really beautiful and honest.

The big question: What can we really do to change the system?

I think getting the influential people, you know, those who have organizations, starting the conversation there is really important. The information trickles down, the conversation can start in those circles. The heads of organizations, the communications departments, those involved in social media, because social media is a powerful way to connect with people, and a personal way. Smartphones today, everyone has them in their face and accessible. I think starting those genuine conversations, sharing with networks. Sharing resources are so important. People are not always going to pick it up once it’s presented to them, but continue to reach out: “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you!” and explain why this is happening and what has happened so far.

It’s been really great, the network sharing and resource sharing, the movement, broadening the scope to all the people to so they know these things are accessible and OK to talk about. Because we’re social creatures, and we connect to others. And suicidal thinking, we self-isolate. Whether we’re in a room of people or not, we feel completely alone. And often, people don’t realize others have been through this and that it’s OK to talk about. It’s scary to talk about, but others have been through it. If you can’t talk to family or friends because of shame or embarrassment, you can talk to someone who’s been through it. The influential people, the ones with an ear, is a good place to start. Break it down into why this benefits them.

Is there another level we need to move to, to make our case?

I know people love their data and analytics. Unfortunately in the mental health and suicidology field, the funding and researchers are not able to keep current up-to-date stats. Our latest stats, because of the nature of our work, the most recent is 2011. We’re three years behind.

Do you mean nationally or at your center?

Nationally. The stats released this year through AAS were for 2011, and they’re usually two or three years behind. The researcher doing it is incredible, incredibly passionate and thoughtful, but you know, three years behind. We need more funding, we need more buy-in from our government and to have those funds allocated to the proper researching departments. Funding is so critical in this work, yet we are severely lacking.

Is there anything else you’re really passionate about that you want to see changed?

You talked about the difference between crisis centers and clinicians. Last week at #SPSM there was a roundtable, and JD Schramm, who did that awesome TED Talk, when he was asked about suicidal ideation and thoughts, he was like, “I’ve never really heard that terminology.” That really speaks to the general public, breaking down language barriers we might have in talking with people not familiar with mental health and really engaging those outside this community. So I think it’s breaking down barriers of language we use and making it understandable to those who aren’t clinicians and are not working directly with other peers and who maybe never sought mental health treatment before. The language we use is really important. One of my biggest soapboxes is how we say what we say matters. Those who are not as familiar with mental health or suicide are important, and it’s important to value what people are bringing to the table.

Who else are you?

I am nicknamed “the mother” on many of my crisis line shifts. I’m an eternal optimist, a mother, a wife, a lover, a friend. I love baby goats and sunshine and traveling and all sorts of things. I am more than one definition. I am 32 flavors and then some.

You cut it out! (To her 4-year-old)

Talking with Sarah Gordon

As a teenager, Sarah Gordon was told not to return to her studies and that she would never be able to live on her own. Now she has a PhD, a husband and two children.

The New Zealander is currently helping the police shift their thinking around people in crisis, and she dreams of a day when her university will have a school dedicated to lived experience-based research. But bringing other professionals “out,” researchers or otherwise, remains a challenge. “I think the fact that it is most difficult for mental health professionals to disclose is incredibly sad, because it reflects the stigma and discrimination that exists within the system,” Sarah says.

You can also read her guest post this week at sister site Attemptsurvivors.com.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Sarah Gordon. I have personal experience of mental distress. I was first
diagnosed when I was 17, and I was put in a mental health hospital at the time. I was there six months before I was discharged back into the care of my family, with the advice that a return to university would not be wise and that independent living would not be an option for me.

As it turned out, my parents were not compliant with that advice, and they facilitated and
paid for mental health support to enable me to go back to university. At the beginning, it was on a very part-time basis, so I did one paper per semester, and I required about 15 hours of mental health support per week to enable me to do it. As you can appreciate at that time, it was not the best cost-benefit investment.

But as it turned out, over a number of years I managed to complete a bachelor of science, which I majored in psychology, a law degree, which I majored in health law, a masters of bioethics and health law and a PhD in psychological medicine. But more important than any of that, I don’t live independently, I live with my husband and two children. And now I work for the department of psychological medicine, University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand. My job is what I describe as a “service academic.” I use my personal experience of mental illness to inform all the research and teaching undertaken by our department.

How did you come to be talking with me?

For a number of years after I was diagnosed, I was very secretive about my experience and didn’t disclose very much at all. In 1998, I happened to get a job as a consumer adviser to a mental health service. It was very clear when I went for that job that my personal experience with mental illness was a qualification to do the job. And yet, I didn’t fully appreciate what that meant. Essentially, everyone I came in contact with knew that I had personal experience, purely as a result of my position title. At the beginning, I found that very difficult, because I felt that people responded to me in a way that was quite different to those situations where people didn’t know. But I came to see overcoming that stigma and discrimination as a real challenge and one that I actually ended up enjoying. And my work since then has always involved me using my experience in my work. And so that’s maybe how you became aware of me.

I heard of you during my interview with Louise Byrne.

Yes.

What is the lived experience community like there? Is there an attempt survivor community at all?

Since I’ve been involved, I’ve felt that New Zealand has always has quite a strong lived experience community. However, the extent of our influence and the opportunities for influence have varied since I’ve been involved. And I would say that in the last few years
there have been a number of changes in mental health policy at the national level that have
meant that we have less influence than we may have had some years ago.

How did that happen?

I think there were a couple of things. One is that the government dropped mental health as a health priority. And the second was that our mental health commission was dis-established.

That seems unusual. Was it a budget problem?

Well, that’s happened since the economic crisis, and it also coincided with a change of
government here in New Zealand. But it’s certainly unusual compared with a number of
countries in other parts of the world where mental health has become a priority and mental
health commissions have been established. I think New Zealand was seen as leading the way in many respects prior to this, and now I certainly wouldn’t consider us to be in that same position.

How have reactions to your experiences changed over the years?

Well, I find it quite interesting now that I don’t feel like I experience stigma and discrimination as a result of my experience. That might be partly due to the fact that even if I did, I wouldn’t take any notice of it. But what I find more is that people tend to respond to my experience by somehow feeling like they’re able to share with me on a different level. So a lot of people will speak to me, even if we don’t know each other that well, about their own difficulties and struggles in life. And I think somehow with me being so open about my
experience, people then feel safe to expose and share their difficulties and struggles, often, I believe, with a great sense of relief.

Do you like that? Or do you get too much of it?

No, I find it all right. I mean, in some situations it’s quite funny. The last one I had was just last week. I went to an appointment and he ended up telling me about lots of his family
history and how he had had a major operation last year and the struggles he’s dealing with as a result of that. After about half an hour, he sat back with a bemused look on his face and said, “I don’t know why I just shared all this information with you! Normally when patients come to see me, I don’t talk about myself the whole time!” You could see him trying to figure out what it was, my face, my qualifications, and I said, “No, it’s mental illness.”

Did he know what you were talking about?

No, he looked even more bemused.

Being so open and public, do you ever feel like you have to hide a bad day?

No. I never do.

What would you like to change about the mental health care system?

I think we focus too much on trying to using medications to cure people. And I think, you
know, we don’t necessarily have or take the time to support people as they need to be
supported. I think, if someone’s attempted suicide, then there’s an amount of emotional
distress there, and it takes support that involves a lot of time and effort for the person to get through that. And I think ultimately it needs to be focused on social roles and relationships. And we just don’t do that.

How are people treated now?

If a person is at risk to themselves, they will be physically protected until that’s no longer felt to be required. And I use “protected” very loosely because often that protection involves
compulsory treatment, seclusion, those sorts of things. And in most cases, medication will be the first and often the focus of the treatment.

What would the ideal treatment look like?

As I say, I think a person who’s suicidal or has attempted is suffering, to my mind, extreme
emotional distress and very often is very disconnected from most things in their life that are very important. And so our supports need to be focused around supporting the person until whatever is distressing them can be resolved. Support to reconnect is imperative, particularly in terms of those relationships that are important to the person.

What arguments have you had to make in your career to prove that you could do what you were pursuing?

I think relationships are an incredibly powerful thing. And I have found that generally in my
work, if people are opposed or hesitant about working with me for whatever reason, that if I
persevere and develop a relationship with the person, generally we get to a situation where
that person comes to appreciate and recognize the value lived experience can bring. And as a result, some people have been really quite staunch supporters of both my involvement and the involvement of others who come from a personal experience perspective.

How to make suicidal thinking a less scary topic overall?

I think it’s important that we talk about it more, particularly as we wish to support others in
distress. I think one of the reasons that talking about it is not common is because of the
perception that by doing so, it could lead to more tragedy. However, I think that if we’re
aware of how to do it in a way that does not increase risk, that ultimately is going to benefit
everyone.

Is this something the media should take on?

I think absolutely the media needs to be involved. Tell the stories that people can get through it and people can recover. Those are the most important stories that we need to get out there.

What are you working on now, and what would you most like to accomplish?

For the moment, the main thing I’m working on is the development of a training package for the police, specifically around how they respond to people who are experiencing mental
distress, and obviously that includes people who are suicidal. And the particular approach
we’re taking is that we’re moving away from their education being presented in a way that
pathologizes the distress and more toward supporting the police to learn about what might be going on for people when they’re experiencing this type of distress, and the approaches that can be most supportive in those situations. That’s exciting.

Going forward, my dream is for our university to have a school dedicated to lived experience-based research, where we can start building a really significant and substantial amount of knowledge that is informed by people’s own experiences of both distress and recovery.

In the police project, what have been some of the more striking questions or observations?

We’re very much at the beginning of this work. The police of New Zealand have set up and
invested in a major project to improve how they respond to people who experience mental
distress. I have to say that the people leading that project from the police have been incredibly receptive to what we are proposing from a service user perspective.

Can you tell me about the International Association of Service User Academia, and how and why it came about?

Very often, people who work from a personal experience base in academia are sole voices
within departments, schools, institutions, and it is vitally important that we have both
a professional and a personal support network. Hence, I established the International
Association, a Mendeley-based e-network, in 2012 to enable service user academics and their supporters to engage in topical discussion, share experiences, enhance collaboration, keep abreast of advancements and exchange information.

In general, how do we get others to disclose their experiences, since they’re all around us but silent?

I think the fact that it is most difficult for mental health professionals to disclose is incredibly sad, because it reflects the stigma and discrimination that exists within the system. I suppose the only thing that’s going to change that is more people disclosing, and actually requiring the system and attitudes and beliefs to change as a result of that.

Are you happy with where you’ve come to in life?

Yes, like anyone, I experience up and downs, but I’m quite comfortable with what I do and
how I do it and where I’m at.

What made your parents so stubborn and “not compliant” after hearing that you would have no more education or independence?

I’m not sure. Their belief in what I was, and capable of, never wavered. Even in my work
now, I spend a lot of time talking and writing about the concept of recovery, and when I look
at it now, the way my parents supported me was fully consistent with what a recovery
approach to mental illness is, without them even knowing it.

What does your family think about all of this?

I think they’re very proud of where I’ve got to. Obviously, they’re intimately aware of what I
needed to overcome to get to this place.

Finally, who else are you?

Well, a big part of my identity is as a mother of two boys. I have a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old son. And so a significant part of my life involves being a mother to them. And
another significant part of my life is as a wife. I’m also heavily involved in our community in
a variety of different organizations and associations. So life is pretty full. And that’s good.

Talking with Rohan Kallicharan

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We couldn’t resist this photo of Rohan Kallicharan with an example of his starring role in a mental health campaign displayed in the London transit system. How many public awareness messages have you seen with a real person identifying as someone who tried to take their own life?

Intrigued by this relative openness in the UK and the engaging nature of the large mental health charities there, we checked in with Rohan, who spends his time working as a recruiter, taking seriously long-distance runs and enjoying football of all kinds, including the NFL.

Here, he talks about why social media is hardly the solution to messaging, how pitiful crisis care in the UK has become and why speaking out on mental health issues is essential. “It’s so simple,” he says. “We all have a right to live a happy life, a right to not be judged, to not be scared to speak out, to be healthy mentally and physically, and yet so many people are afraid to exercise that right for fear of being stigmatized. “

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Rohan Kallicharan. I’m based in Birmingham in the UK. I turned 40 last month. Since I was in my late teens, I displayed symptoms of mental illness. I never got the diagnosis of bipolar until after I had taken two overdoses, the second of which was in 2006. So for a long time, I was mistreated, undiagnosed until I was 32. From there, it was a case of taking baby steps, rebuilding my life from scratch to where I’m now mentally and physically healthy, and very happy.

You’re now the face of a national campaign. How did you get into that?

As I said, I twice tried to take my own life. After my second attempt, there were two places I turned to for help. I was very lucky get some private counseling, one of my mum’s employee benefits, but the other very important source of help with was Mind, the mental health charity. It was their branch in Manchester who at the time gave me one-on-one and group support, which really allowed me to, for the first time in 15 years, realize I wasn’t a freak, this bad apple and really horrible person I had begun to believe that I was. I realized my only problem was that I had a really serious illness. I began through Mind to be able to speak to other people who had things in common. That was the biggest single step in my life in moving forward, accepting myself again. I had hated myself for so long. To find a group of people around whom I was accepted made me feel normal again, human. It was the most incredible thing. It gave me the strength to start rebuilding my life.

Mind played a huge part in rebuilding my life from where I was absolutely broken. Mind more than anyone helped me to rebuild. So when last year I’d become very overweight, about 19 stone (now I’m 12 stone, but that’s another story), I decided to start running so I could raise money for them. It’s all really gone from there. In the last 12 months, I’ve been involved in fundraising and, to this point, I’ve raised over five and a half thousand pounds, with another 3,000 guaranteed from the US-based chain of fitness clubs Anytime Fitness. I went from not being able to run a bath to running the London Marathon, which was the greatest experience and achievement in my life. Next step, New York … well, hopefully one day!

That’s how I got involved with Mind again, fundraising. However, because of things that I had written on my own blog, I also started doing some writing for Mind and Time to Change. Time to Change is a joint venture campaign aimed at reducing stigma. It’s National Lottery funded, run by Mind and Rethink, the two most significant mental health charities in the UK. Through that writing and fundraising, I applied to and was invited to take place in a photo shoot last October, through which I became a “Face of Mind.” It is an unbelievable honor. I was humbled by it.

When my face first appeared on a poster on the London Transport Network, friends kept on sending me pictures. I would receive photos saying, “I saw you this morning!” I was 100 miles away in Birmingham, but they were referring to the advertising poster for Mind. The first time I saw it, I was on a train in London. I was down there with work, and my friend tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Look up there.” I said, “Oh my God.”

It’s just really, really humbling to be able to give back to a charity responsible for me being alive today. I wouldn’t be here without them. After that second attempt, I remember lying there and I knew full well this couldn’t go on. I was playing Russian roulette with my life. If I wasn’t treated, there would have been a third or fourth attempt, but I had barely survived this one. Without Mind, I’m not alive today, it’s that simple. To be able to give back is just the most incredible thing, and I know they really appreciate it. However, they don’t realize the thanks are all from me. It’s a two-way thing, and it’s nothing to give back to the people who have given me my life.

How did you find them in the first place? What was your motivation to reach out?

It was actually my counselor. After I took that second overdose, for the first time I got a little bit of guidance from NHS. As you’re probably aware, there’s a lot of debate about crisis care in the UK at the moment, something being really highlighted by Mind’s manifesto. Crisis care is a real problem. After my first suicide attempt, I was released with no real aftercare, so it is no wonder I ended up back there again. After the second, I was really lucky that Manchester Royal Infirmary said, “You don’t leave here without going to a responsible adult.”

The only person was my mum, which meant that after being in denial for so long, I had no choice when I rang from the hospital and said, “Can you pick me up? I’m in the hospital, I took an overdose, I have a problem, I need help very badly.” It was the first time I had done that. I had been living with this since I was 17, I just thought I was a really bad piece of work, you know. I didn’t know it was a mental health problem.

By opening up, I was able to seek help. I had five sessions with a counselor, which were great. The first five were free. He then gave me a couple he didn’t charge for. After that, I remember turning around and saying, “How much does it cost to continue?” and he said, “You don’t need me anymore.” “How do you mean?” I responded. He said, “You’re working this all out, you don’t need me anymore.” I said, “Nah, no way.” He’d become my crutch. I think he sensed I’d done the hardest work already, getting in touch with my feelings, facing my demons in the eye, but he also knew I needed that something to lean on, so he signposted me to Mind.

Although Mind is a massive charity, mental health is something nobody wanted to talk about, so it still was not in my field of vision. I didn’t really know about them. Everybody knows Cancer Research, AIDS charities, Oxfam, the Red Cross, all  the big ones. But when it comes down to Mind and Rethink, you know they weren’t charities people spoke about, because they don’t talk about mental health. It was only through the counselor that I turned up at their door.

And they put you in a group with others?

Yes, and through that networking I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone. And you know what? When you live your whole adult life thinking you’re the only one doing these things, this is a massive relief. Bipolar is a horrible thing. You live life on a roller coaster, doing things out of fake confidence, feeling invincible, on this high wanting to party the whole time, then suddenly the things you do make you ashamed when you go down into the depressive period. It has an even higher rate of suicide than any other mental illness, and that’s because you cannot sustain this absolute roller coaster. I’d lived life from 17 to 32 being ashamed. There are no words that can describe how much I despised myself. I could see the hurt I was constantly causing others by my behavior. I just thought I was a really bad apple, that I was, excuse my French, messed up. I’d use slightly stronger language if I could, but I’m not going to.

You know, it was only after I realized, “Actually, no, I’ve got this serious illness, and there are other people with it as well,” that I had the peace of mind to know that I could overcome it, that I was gonna come through. From there, I got to that point at the beginning of last year where I was desperate to make a difference in the lives of others. I want to make a difference. I nearly lost my life because I sat in silence in a prison for 15 years of four walls and darkness. And because of that, I nearly lost my life. I don’t want anyone, ever, to feel scared of talking. I want to be a voice for those too scared to speak out.

What have been some of the more striking responses?

Ninety-nine point nine percent of people absolutely are totally supportive. If you read my Twitter feed, I sometimes have an aversion to what we call the I-word, “inspiration.” That’s one I’m constantly described as. However, I still look in the mirror and see what’s beneath, and I know I’m far from perfect. What stands out to me is knowing I have made even a small difference: Seeing a a couple of colleagues, friends, put their hands up and say, “I’ve got a problem.” It’s getting an email from a family friend a few weeks ago saying, “I had no idea, and I’m so proud of you.” It’s getting a message from a friend at university, our friendship had been destroyed by my behavior in the excesses of manic periods, saying, “I wish I had have known.” A complete stranger on Twitter saying, “You saved my life.” All of those things and more.

And you know, I’d love to lead a really private, quiet life. Because that’s who I am, quite shy, introverted, but the minute I chose to be a champion, I gave that right up because I’m committed to speaking, to putting myself out there, committed to ending stigma. Obviously, I’m not doing it alone. Look, the way I see it, we all have a sphere of influence as individuals, if we can all influence our networks, and then those of others around us as a knock-on effect, we can do this thing.

Mind saved my life, and I’m just committed to ensuring they continue to save others. It really is that simple. We live in such a cynical world that people are looking for an agenda, but there really is no agenda for me. It’s so simple. We all have a right to live a happy life, a right to not be judged, to not be scared to speak out, to be healthy mentally and physically, and yet so many people are afraid to exercise that right for fear of being stigmatized.

Have you ever felt pressured to censor yourself when talking about your attempts?

Very rarely. There are certain words that charities prefer you not to use. I don’t talk about “failed” suicide attempts and don’t perhaps go into detail about those attempts. You’ll notice I used the word “overdose,” and that’s as much as you need to know. I don’t talk in graphic detail, I think that’s the only thing for me.

Other than that, I feel I can be very open. But again, I’ve got a very thick skin. Look, at the end of the day, there’s posters on the London Overground saying I attempted suicide. I can’t hide from that. I was in a national paper in February telling people about my story, so there’s no hiding place for me. I have absolutely no fear in what I say. The charities are very good in terms of non-censorship, but they’re rightly very wary of the audience that reads them and absolutely avoid any triggering language. So obviously, I’m conscious of that, you don’t want to give ideas to someone suicidal about what they might do.

If/when suicidal thinking comes back, how do you deal with it? And as the “face” of a public campaign, do you feel any pressure to be “OK” all of the time?

I have not experienced suicidal thoughts for a long time, although I am still prone to severe depressive episodes. The difference is that where I once suffered in silence, I now tell people very openly that I am going through a difficult period. For so many people with mental illness and mood disorders, knowing that they can speak to someone makes the biggest difference. As a face of Mind, I am very open about when I am struggling. Mind and Time to Change are really trying to get the message across that it is OK not to feel OK, so I feel no pressure at all in that regard.

Is there any kind of suicide attempt survivor movement in the UK?

There are a lot of smaller groups. For example, Forward For Life, they’re based around suicide prevention training. So that’s huge. There’s also Dr. Alys Cole-King, doing a lot of work. A lot of what I see is on the social media sites, there’s a huge amount going on there. What we have to remember is that social media is the merest, smallest microcosm of life. It’s not useful in areas where people can’t get to the Internet. You have to make sure messages are getting out to people who really need them. That’s what I don’t know, I have to question whether we’re really doing that, although it’s not a question of lack of effort.

Take, for example, New York. I have family in Queens, where there’s a big Caribbean community. And in those Asian and black communities, there’s always been massive stigma around mental illness, and likewise here. In the States, there’s an even bigger melting pot when you consider Hispanic communities also. We’re talking about huge stigma. Time to Change is doing a lot of work around what we call BME, black and minority ethnic communities. It is a massive area we really need to engage.

How do you even start the conversation when some people would rather just walk away, avoid it?

You know what, sometimes you have to take a step back … I’m not being defeatist, but if someone is not ready to listen yet, there’s no point in forcing it, because it will push them further back. It’s all about being approachable and just planting the seed and saying, “OK, I understand you don’t want to talk, but if you want to at some point, this is where I am.” It’s about signposting and making them aware. They might not want to talk to you because you now know who they are, but they might want to speak to a stranger. Let them know that if they want to talk, there’s somewhere to go. I did a radio show in March for the BBC Asian Network. A lady phoned in, obviously in huge distress, very powerfully emotive. We didn’t want to let her off the line. In the end, the people in the studio were able to give her support numbers. To help someone, they have to want it. I always look back on my experiences. If you had tried to force help on me, I would have rejected it.

I had a really difficult week last week; one of my old friends from university, she suffered from depression for a long time, and I had lost contact with her for years before she found out what I was doing with Mind. She told me that when we were younger, she tried to take her own life. She got back in a difficult place last week, and even now she didn’t want to talk to anyone, just me. She trusted me. I spent two nights on the phone, being silent most of the time, just being on the other end so she wouldn’t do anything. And finally she said, “Thank you for listening, I’m going to go speak to someone.”

I found that a hugely traumatic and triggering experience. I can empathize, but actually my skills are in campaigning, fundraising, advocacy, not necessarily counseling, but I will always do my best for people. Does that make sense? … I was looking into training for the Samaritans, and a friend said, “It’s not for you.” After last week, I said, “My God, you’re so right.” Someone like you or me, we’re too tempted to draw on our own experience, but each person’s experience is totally different. We can empathize, but that’s actually as much as we can do. The key is knowing where and how to signpost. Every week without fail, I get calls and messages from friends saying, “I have a friend with a problem” … and I signpost them to relevant people. That’s the best advice I can give them.

What’s your take on peer support?

That’s a really tough question. I think peer support is massive, but shouldn’t ever be confused with crisis care. Peer support is listening, understanding, empathizing, but never crossing the line of trying to treat. That’s a skill in itself. It’s knowing, “Where do I stop?” So yeah, look, just as I was explaining, I’m constantly approached by people, which is why I’ve done what I have, to get people to speak up. It doesn’t make me happy when a friend calls to tell me about someone in severe crisis, but I’m relieved they approach me. It’s knowing where that place is to stop, and I’m getting pretty comfortable with that. The model Time to Change uses is the lived experience model. We’re using that in advocacy and championing, saying, “I’m an example that you can live through this.” Or, “I’m still here. I’m someone who really understands.” The same reality is however true even with that, it’s knowing where you stop and where someone who’s qualified to help takes over.

What is the Mind manifesto, for us outside the UK?

Next year is General Election in the UK, so Mind has produced a manifesto to lobby political parties. It’s on their website, saying, “Look, mental health has to be on the political agenda for these elections.” It has to be there. I’ve lobbied my own member of Parliament. Great. It’s not quite meeting with a senator for a coffee, but I’m meeting with an elected member of Parliament to talk about mental health. It is a small step in the bigger picture, but a massive one for me.

What would you most like to change?

Rip out the whole bloody lot and start again when it comes to crisis care. The system is just broken, Cara, I can’t begin to describe it. The system is failing people left, right and center. People are not getting admitted when they need crisis care. It starts with GPs who, unfortunately, cannot be expected to have specialist knowledge around mental health, they’re called General Practitioners for a reason, so all many of them want to do is prescribe everyone anti-depressants. That doesn’t work!

They’re reluctant to throw people into the crisis care system because it’s so understaffed, and even on occasions when they recommend people to counseling, there are waiting lists for forever and a day. It’s taking people to attempt suicide before they take notice, and even then they don’t take notice half of the time. The system is so broken. It’s absolutely scandalous. There aren’t enough beds or staff, not enough knowledge. People want a one-pill-fits-all solution. The system is a joke. And people are going to die if they don’t sort it out. And that’s why it’s got to come from the government. There’s got to be an edict on change. I’m sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute.

Look, I give the example. When I took my first overdose in 2003, I was kept in the hospital overnight for obvious reasons. They wouldn’t release me until I saw someone from the crisis team. But they were too busy. On the second day, they were still too busy. So I had a 10-minute meeting with a nurse. “Are you gonna do it again?'” “No.” “Off you go, then.” There are people being let back out who can be a danger not only to self but to others. And that’s where you get sensationalist headlines, and people get exactly the wrong idea of mental illness, and start stigmatizing. But the bottom line is, the system is failing people. We say it constantly, one in four people will live with mental illness at some point in life. If we as the National Health Service can’t deal with an illness that’s gonna effect one in four, we have a massive problem.

Where do you see hope?

I see hope because there are so many tragic stories, so for all the wrong reasons, in a way. However, I see that hope because people are beginning to understand how serious this thing is, because more and more are being affected, losing family members to suicide, seeing family members suffer from depression; that shouldn’t bring hope, it should bring despair, but it brings hope because people are standing up and saying this a real, real problem.

I see hope that a generation of teenagers in this country are now seeing friends suffer from self-harm and depression and see that nobody is listening, but these kids want a voice. They want to make a difference. If they can just be empowered to speak out, they will change future generations. I’m absolutely convinced of that. That’s why charities have got to engage with these youngsters who desperately want to speak out and want to be heard. They want people to know, “We’re struggling here, but because I’m a teen you think I don’t understand life. Well, I do. Listen to me.” They’re the ones who will create the future. They’re the ones who will eradicate stigma.

Any interest in running for office yourself?

Not for me. I’ll keep up my soapbox on the Internet and continue to campaign and fund-raise. Anything Mind asks of me, I will give them my life. They’ll never ask for my life, but I’ll give them every ounce of energy I have, because everything I have is because of them.

Is this work your career?

This is all in my spare time. I work very long hours every day as a recruiter. I work for a consultancy, so I place people into jobs mainly in procurement and purchasing.

Who else are you?

OK, I’m Rohan, a recruiter, Rohan, a massive NFL fan up all hours of the night and early morning despite the time difference in the States, a Redskins fan. A massive sports fan, which probably ties in with my running. I’m a season ticket holder at Liverpool Football Club (soccer to you guys!), and I’m a runner. And you know what? I’ve run out of hours of the day after that. I love my family and friends, I’m a devout Christian. As a Christian, I believe God gives us a calling. For me, my calling is speaking out about mental health. I’m very passionate about what I do.

Talking with Christa Scalies

Christa Scalies recently sent me a box of kazoos. After years of being suicidal as a young woman and after losing two good friends to suicide, she has embraced her project, Giggle On, that uses humor and yoga to loosen people up for talk about stress, mental health and suicide prevention.

“When nothing else works, when life gets nasty bad, laughter is often all we’ve got to help us feel like we’re in control of an otherwise out-of-control situation,” she says during a lively conversation spiced with her Italian, Philly background. “What else are you gonna do?”

Here, she talks about everything from consulting a medium and a shaman, to Darth Vader breath and “laughter selfies,” to the need for suicide prevention people to break away from the echo chamber and engage the world at large.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Oh, is it going to be like that, is it? (Laughs.) Well, my name is Christa, I was raised in the Philadelphia area, I’m one of five kids in a big Italian family. I’m pretty comfortable telling my story, but I’m concerned about getting into specifics or naming names within my own family. I want to be authentic while not making people uncomfortable. … I can safely say there’s a family history of mood disorders. … I currently live in Wilmington, Delaware. I’ve been here 14 years and am trying to escape. I tell people Delaware is like the mafia: “I keep trying to get out, but they pull me back in.” (Laughs.)

I’ve always been a serious person, so the fact that I have a website dedicated to laughter makes some people laugh. Without the laughter, my serious nature would take over completely, so I’m grateful for my ability to giggle. Ever since I was a little kid, I had imaginary friends, I read a lot, I was very “precocious,” as the adults would often say in my presence. Our family moved from the northern Philadelphia suburbs to the western Philadelphia suburbs when I was about 7 years old, and my life was turned upside down. In retrospect, the move, the change and the manifestations of issues at home started me on the road to being depressed as a young person, very young, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

I own another business that’s unrelated, receivables, and I used to be a chef in Philadelphia, so I can collect debt from people and make you an omelet. I found some old diaries yesterday, very interesting for me. I’ve blogged about my feelings and past, but I haven’t actually seen these diaries in years, and it was a little upsetting to read some of it. I spent a solid 20 years in and out of depression and contemplating ending my life. When I tell people that, they say to me, “I don’t understand how someone would want to take their life,” and I say I know what it feels like to not want to be on the planet, to melt away into nothingness. While looking at old journals last night, I was transported back in time, to over 10 years ago. It was hard seeing what I wrote. My level of pain was pretty off the charts. My entry about wanting to disappear brought up memories for sure. One entry from 12 or 13 years ago said something to the effect of wanting to hurt myself, just wanting to not be here anymore. This was a state of mind that was “normal” for me for a long time, and that’s very sad.

I often contemplated ways of how I could end it, and I abused drugs and alcohol as a way to escape reality. And I used to be a cutter. One thing I remember doing more than once was letting go of the steering wheel of my car while driving. I think the thing that stopped me from doing it and brought me back to my senses was the thought, “Don’t take anyone else out with you. Killing yourself is one thing, but don’t take another life, that’s REALLY a no-no.”

It was not until my friend Jim Thompson’s suicide in 2005 that I had a wake-up call. Three days prior to his suicide, I was looking at a building here: “If I jump, will I die on the way down? Do I die right away when I hit the ground? How does all this work?” I remember calling my psychiatrist at the time, and I said, “Doc, I’m thinking this is not the right train of thought.” I was on medication at the time, one or two anti-depressants, but I can’t even remember what they were now and stopped taking all medication that same year. Three days later, my friend died, shot himself in the head in the foyer of his Wilmington home. At that time, immediately after his suicide, my suicidal thinking got worse. The woulda-coulda-shoulda guilt complex took over. The guilt of his death and what I could have done to stop it paralyzed me. I remember having to call people in his black book and tell them he was dead, give away his possessions, meet his father, sister and speak at his funeral. This entire morbid process made me realize I couldn’t do this to my family. I didn’t have that insight right away, it took some time. I knew there was no way I could leave this hurt, this permanent emotional stain with my parents and brothers and sisters. Suicide is just the worst possible thing in the world. I’ve been to a lot of funerals, but losing someone to suicide is like no pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. There was the pain of depression, and the pain of losing him to suicide on top of it. It is fair to say this was the worst period in my life.

So I lose my friend to suicide and go on a personal quest to figure out why I’m on the planet, what I’m supposed to do here. I spent a lot of time in self-reflection. I talked to mediums, went back to church, did yoga, self-help this, that and everything, trying to find answers. In the process, I realized there’s no one person who can give you the answer, the only person who can truly figure out you is you. That’s scary and empowering at the same time. So I can’t say I’ve figured it all out yet, but I have figured out I am supposed to help others on this path.

Despite being a suicide prevention advocate and someone who is very happy she didn’t take her own life, I have several belief systems about suicide, and they are contradictory. A human being has a life of their own. If they want to end it, for whatever reason, it is their choice. Who am I to project my desires or perceived outcome about the trajectory of their life on them? Isn’t that my ego talking? Conversely, how many people are in their “right mind” making a decision to die by suicide? Despite the facts presented by suicide experts, none of us will ever really know what goes on inside the mind of each person who takes their life. Sure, we can figure out if they were depressed, if they were addicts, had a life-traumatizing experience based on what we see and observe, but we can never really 100 percent know what’s going on. Let me also add as a person of faith, and a cradle Catholic, I believe it is not up to us to make life-and-death decisions about our own mortality. God brought us in and he should be the one who makes the call about our exit. It is because of my faith and belief that people who take their own lives are not in their right mind, I feel very strongly we, as a society, need to preserve and protect lives, lives of the young, middle-aged and old. Each life is a gift, and despite our perceived or real fault lines, we all have something positive we can offer to ourselves and the world.

I’ve lost two friends to suicide. My one friend, Jim Thompson, I met when I came to Wilmington in the late ’90s. We became friends right away. He had struggled with depression, addiction, had a great sense of humor, and we were thick as thieves, which was wonderful. A week or two prior to his death, I was in his house, helping him clean. He had all this crap in his room. I was putting things into the bedside stand and saw a gun. “What the fuck is this?” I said. “Dude, what’s up with the gun?” He said it was for protection. He also said he woke up every day with a gun to his head wondering whether or not this would be the day he’d end it all. When he told me that at the time, I was in the same state of mind. I thought the best way to respond was, “Dude, that’s fucked up.” I know now, after my ASIST suicide prevention training, that’s not the right answer.

So, flash forward, a week or two later, I was back at his house. He had trouble with trusting women, but I knew I was a woman he trusted. I was back in his house, I go to his bedside stand and see the gun again. I had to make a decision: Do I take it? Unload it? What do I do? My previous boyfriend accidentally shot himself in the hand, so I didn’t want to be anywhere near a handgun, since I saw firsthand the damage it can do. But I knew, looking at this gun, that was it. I knew this gun would be the end of him, but I was frozen. At that moment, I think, I saw his life flash before my eyes. So I shut the door of the drawer, and three days later, he was dead. I remember speaking to an officer outside his home while waiting for the crime scene cleaners to show up. I said to the cop, “It’s all my fault,” and he said, “He would have eventually found a way if he really wanted to do it.”

I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve spoken to quote-unquote “him” via mediums. If he could have a do-over, he’d be on the earth. I tell people thinking about suicide, “Listen, are you sure?” People send me emails, and I give them the caveat that I’m not a therapist or shrink and give them resources for mental health professionals … But as a human being, formerly depressed and suicidal, I will say, “Listen, you can make that decision, but if you have anything left on your bucket list, you won’t be able to do it.” Suicide may take away your physical pain or emotional pain, but it also erases the opportunity to ever do anything fun again. I also share my experiences with people and let them know I KNOW in my heart of hearts my friend Jim Thompson regrets what he’s done. He doesn’t want me to blame myself, but I will carry that burden to the day I die. I miss him terribly, but at the same time, had he not done what he had done, I probably would be dead as well. In his death, I found the gift of my own life. I know this may sound cheesy to some, but it’s my truth.

And one more point about the afterlife. It is my belief we take our emotional baggage with us to the next plane when we go. So, if you have emotional stuff to work out, do it on Earth, because you will take it with you to the other side. At some point you will have to face yourself, your soul, and do the healing work for yourself. Our thoughts are energy, and we’ve all been taught along the way energy cannot be created or destroyed. If these two things are true, then you can bet you’re taking your drama to heaven with you. Personally, I’d rather work out my crap while on Earth so when I get to heaven I can get my wings, chill out and catch up on a lifetime of reading. (Laughs.)

Several weeks after Jim Thompson died, I reached out to a friend in Wilmington who speaks to spirits, or so a mutual friend had claimed. I thought it was crazy nonsense talk, but I was desperate. I said, “Do me a favor. I need to come over and need your help but can’t tell you any details now.” So I went to her home, and she starts doing her thing with a pendulum. Within about a minute, she started to describe my friend physically, and the hair on my arm started to stand up. My friend came through and said to me, “You are fighting yourself, Christa. Don’t do it. It’s not a jail. Let it go. You are what you are, and it is OK. Don’t be afraid, just live, enjoy it for someone who can’t, I copped out.”

Had my friend not come through the medium and told me he made a mistake, I’d be dead. Those are my experiences, I don’t care what anybody tells me or if they believe me or not. That’s what happened in October 2005, and that “session” saved my life.

Flash forward. I went on a grief retreat in Arizona six months after he died and visited a shaman lady named Annie. The trip was transformative for me.

In my experience with grief and depression, I had what yogis call a “monkey mind.” I could not seem to get out of a negative train of thought. My brain was like a hamster stuck in a wheel. Everything was a churning black mess, and I was searching for glimmers of hope.

While at the retreat, Annie said, “I have homework for you, and I’ll be back in two hours.” She took a piece of paper and drew a big circle on it and told me to write down everything I wanted in my life inside the circle. “On the outside,” she said, “I want you to write everything you don’t want, things that no longer serve you.” I looked at her like she was out of her mind, and I am sure I rolled my eyes.

So I thought, “You paid this lady! Do the homework!” So time passes, and I had no idea what to put inside the circle and struggled with the question, “What do you want?” It was like no one ever asked me that question before. Writing down what I didn’t want was a lot easier. On the outside of the circle, I started to write: self-mutilation, depression, suicidal thoughts, sadness, lethargy, confusion, self-hate, extra weight, all these negative things. After I got that out of my system, I thought, “What the hell DO you want? Identify that.” Once everything inside the circle was written down, Annie the shaman and I did this little ceremony and burned the “negative stuff” to energetically release it to the universe. It seemed very weird to me at the time, but I played along thinking to myself, “Do what you need to do to move on.”

Annie’s little circle exercise, simple yet powerful, became the basis for what I call my Big Bold Beautiful life. When I came back to Wilmington, I made a few vision boards of all the positives inside the circle. I hung them in a prominent position in my home and bombarded myself with positive messages. I started looking for pictures of myself in happier times, framing them, to remind myself I did have the capacity to have fun, be happy and enjoy life. I had been giving myself shit talk for so long, what if I turned it on its head? Did the opposite? What if I played the “fake it until you make it” game? So I used myself as an experiment. I took the original circle exercise paper, placed it in a drawer and forgot about it. A year and a half later, I pulled out the paper, and I’m not bullshitting, everything in that circle had manifested. It wasn’t magic fairy dust, I didn’t click my heels together three times and make wishes. Once I figured out what I wanted, that gave me the opportunity to create a plan to get it. You want to be healthier? You don’t need a brain surgeon to help you. Eat well, sleep, exercise. I signed up for yoga training in my late 30s. I was in class with a bunch of thin and young bendy people and thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” (Laughs.) But I did it, got my certification, started to teach. So basically, the circle exercise shaman helped me reframe things. It provided me an opportunity to create a more positive life for myself. Is everything lollipops and candy canes now? No. Do I still struggle? Yes, but things are a lot better than they were 10 years ago!

So, a year and a half after Jim Thompson’s suicide, I met another guy named Jim, Jim Sims to  be exact, and he was from Austin, Texas. We met over Myspace, remember Myspace? We start chatting, long-distance dating. I went back and forth to Austin, had fun, we connected a lot. On the phone one night long distance, he said, “I’m going out with buddies to get my giggle on.” I was like, “What are you talking about? No judgement, but I’m really confused.” He was like, “No, I’m not gay. That’s what we say in Texas when you go out with friends to have fun.” I’m like, “That’s awesome.” He called me his muse, encouraged me to be creative. I started Giggle On, blogging about my feelings, therapists, medication, losing Jim Thompson to suicide and how positivity, laughter, healthy practices and helping others actually helped me.

I know my site repulsed some people, especially my family. I think they weren’t thrilled that I was sharing personal details on a website. Every once in a while you wonder if you should do it anonymously, especially when you’re talking about intimate feelings, especially related to anything with the “S” word or depression. Do you want people to know you’re depressed, on drugs, that you spent a good portion of your life in a suicidal mindset? Because people won’t knock on your door to freaking hire you. But I did it. Do I sometimes regret opening up and outing myself? Yes, I do.

I dedicated my site to Jim Thompson. Giggle On gave me the opportunity to put together resources for survivors of suicide loss. I wanted people to know they’re not alone in this path of pain and healing is something they can do. I finished yoga teacher training, took a laughter yoga certification course while running another business and blogging. It was fun, yes, but I was juggling a lot, pushed myself hard. I eventually connected with the Mental Health Association of Delaware, I’ve been a supporter of theirs for years. In 2009, I organized a big team, and with the help of dozens of people we raised a lot of money for the E-Racing the Blues campaign. I was flying high as an advocate and felt like I was truly making a positive impact.

A couple days after the walk, I got a nine-page note suicide from Jim Sims’ email account. His sister was instructed to send it out after he had done it. He went by way of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage and left a young son. And I’m still pissed. When I met the second Jim, he was also 35 years old and died in October. So I was thinking I was a suicide magnet for guys named Jim. Who wouldn’t? And now when I talk about them, it’s often as Jim #1 and Jim #2. How tragic and absurd?

So, as far as advocacy, I told Jim # 2 everything about losing my first friend, the ramifications of suicide, what happens to the family. When I found out he did it, I was furious, Italian furious, with enough cursing to make a dockworker blush. I remember standing in the living room, looking at ceiling: “You son of a bitch. I fucking told you. What have you done? You left friends asking, ‘What the hell just happened?'” He was extremely intelligent, creative, emotional to the point where, I don’t know a lot of guys with that level of emotional capacity. He also had a problem with alcohol. So now he’s dead. So here you are, thinking you’re doing great stuff in the world, and you’re not able to help this other guy. So let’s just say it was not a good time. It kind of set me off. I can’t say it made me suicidal, but it rocked me to my core, again, and sent me back packing into a depressed mindset.

Am I interested in getting into a relationship with a guy? I’m scared that if I do, they’ll kill themselves. The truth is. I’m still pissed. I’ve kind of forgiven Jim #1, but I’m still pissed at Jim #2. His nine-page suicide note was like some Hemingway poetic something or other. It was like he was trying to state the case why dying made sense, but it really didn’t. Suicide is stupid, and it sucks every which way from Wednesday. But yeah, Jim Sims is gone too, so now the site’s dedicated to two men, the two Jims. I set my site and mission aside after Jim #2 death. I thought to myself, “I can’t do this anymore. It’s too hard. Too painful. And let’s face it, what good am I really doing anyway?”

Something, whether it’s God or whatever, keeps bringing me back to this topic. I continue to beat the drum right now, to raise awareness. It is exhausting as a one-woman show sometimes, but I think I am finally starting to make real progress. Do I wake up in the morning singing, “I want to be a poster child for suicide prevention?” No, I don’t. The stigma about mental illness doesn’t make this topic tea-time worthy, but I think in time we can change that. Look how people can easily talk about cancer now, where 20-plus years ago it was only a whisper.

I incorporate the laughter stuff, call it laughter therapy, laughter yoga or what have you, to help people blow off steam and give them the OK to talk about their feelings, hurts and dreams. Laughter opens people up, so does humor if used correctly, and it gives people the permission to share themselves. I don’t use laughter to cover up the bad, I use it to help people, including myself, transcend it.

If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, great, but I don’t want to come back again. I want to do whatever God needs me to do while on this funky blue planet. Lead me, show me, I’ll do the work. I just hope by the time they put me in the ground or burn me to ashes I will have earned the right to sit on a cloud and drink beer for millennia. (Laughs.)

But it’s still a challenge, back and forth these last couple of years. I wonder, but I am continuing to trek along as best as I can. I’ve thought about getting additional education, perhaps a master’s or certification to help others, but I’m not sure I can be in a position where I’m listening to people unload the depths of their inner baggage eight to 10 hours a day. I think I’d either need to go back on meds to cope or get a permanent caffeine IV drip. Probably both. When someone tells me problems, I have the tendency to take them on. Sucks being an empathy sometimes. It can emotionally drain me if I am not careful. I am always looking for ways to safely help people without depleting myself and making a mess of my own life. I need to be able to get up in the morning, floss my teeth AND my brain and function as a human being in a busy and demanding world.

So that’s the shortest possible way I can explain myself to you. And sorry for talking so quickly, that’s the East Coast Italian in me.

How would you describe Giggle On in brief terms?

I use laughter as a wellness tool to help improve people’s mood.

What do you do offline with this?

One-on-one coaching occurs. I think because of my approach and my sense of humor, I’m the kind of person people tell stuff to. I can create a trusting bond pretty quickly. In a group situation, what happens is, I’ve learned it’s easier to talk stress and chronic stress instead of mental illness. Talking about suicide prevention makes people run away. I use stress, chronic stress as a segue. A couple years ago, I did an event for attorneys about stress. That opened up an area for me to talk about my story, and about mental health stuff. I said, “Listen, you guys are in a very high-risk category for depression and suicide.” Because I’m not a therapist, I have to be mindful of what I say, but I can be open about my story, give people facts and figures, and then use a yoga approach.

Breathing, all breathing. If you can get a person to oxygenate fully, you’re hitting a home run in the wellness category. Controlled deep breathing, mindfulness and the playfulness of laughter improve people’s moods and positively impact their physical body and spirit. We can down dog and warrior pose all day long, no offense to my yoga peeps, but … The beauty of laughter yoga is this. One, you don’t need to engage the cognitive mind. You don’t speak in laughter yoga, you follow the leader and fake it until you make it. What happens is, when you’re laughing, you’re turning off the stress response. You can’t be stressed and be in monkey mind if you’re laughing. So what I’m doing is helping them turn off left brain and go into creative brain, getting them to play. We’re “Ho-ho-hahaha!” So basically, we have all kinds of breath work we do, granola-head-yoga stuff, I like to say. I teach them three-part, seven-part breath, humming meditation, Darth Vader breath (which is also called Ujjai pranayama or Victorious breath in yoga), and the “Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha” part is essentially modified. Most people don’t give a crap about the Sanskrit names. People in the corporate world, homeless people or AIDS patients or parents of pediatric oncology patients are not concerned with the vocabulary of the breath work. They all want to feel better. That’s what they want. Bottom line is this: if I can get people to inhale deeply and exhale fully for about 20-30 minutes, they will reap benefits. I create a safe and fun environment where people are free to let go and play. Once I give them permission, they are off and running. Once the laughter component starts, the “Ho Ho Ha Ha Ha”s and the unconditional laughter exercises, the increase of endorphins to the brain begins. It’s like magic without the black capes or bunnies out of a hat.

Plus oxygen. Increasing oxygen rich-air not only helps the lungs and brain, but it benefits the heart and muscles. I tell people, “You can go weeks without food, quite a while without water, but not long without oxygen. Just try for a couple minutes and get back to me and let me know how you feel without it.” Most people do not breathe fully anyway. Normally, people are using 25 percent lung capacity, or we call them chest breathers. I work to get people to fill 100 percent of their lungs with oxygen. Your brain works a lot better if it has oxygen, right? That’s the kind of approach I take.

The other cool thing about laughter as an exercise is, anyone can do it. You don’t need special clothes, equipment or experience. All you need is the ability to breathe and a willingness to try to laugh. Granted, if you have stomach staples, a hernia or just had open-heart surgery, hearty belly laughter isn’t for you. Laughter yoga is cardiovascular exercise, and you will get your heart pumping, and many will work up a healthy sweat. It’s good stuff.

Listen, I could talk all day about what happens in a session, but you gotta just do it and see how it feels for you. During sessions I ask people, “Where are you in your life? What would you like to release?” Once they identify, I ask them to just set that baggage down, set down your problems and worries. You can pick it up later if you want. All I want people to do is create happy energy right now. Just play and stay with me.

All I need to do is give them permission and create space, and they’re good to go. It’s not difficult stuff, right? But it’s amazing how powerful it is for people. They have “aha” moments, get into play. By the end of the session, I ask people how they feel. Invariably I get, “That ache and pain is gone.” Problems are not as big. Laughter is a pain reliever. People say PMS or knee pain is gone. My message is, “Listen, I don’t care if you do this again. It won’t offend me personally, but the point is, or ‘point being,’ as Jim #1 used to say, you feel great because you were in play mode, your system is oxygenated, you released stress, set sail in uncharted waters, and look at how you feel.” I love seeing the “aha”s and helping them create positive energy to take away, take back home and hopefully take action to manifest whatever it is they identified on the inside of their circle. Like they tell you in AA, though I’ve never been, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one. Similarly, if you want a better life, you need to figure out what the hell you actually want. Some people think they know but aren’t really sure. Part of my job is to lovingly and playfully help them extract what they want for themselves. Imagine wanting to go on vacation but not knowing where. How will you get there if you don’t have a destination in mind? Do you want to go to the beach or do you want snow? Relax or have some high-energy activity? It doesn’t matter what it is as long as the person makes a choice and sets sail. We don’t grow or learn inside our comfort zones. We have to break out, try new things and risk failure in order to tap the happy.

I get them jacked out on endorphin juice and leave them relaxed and energized. And depending on the type of group, I’m able to interject or create exercises specifically to whatever problem is going on. Basically, the lesson for everyone is, you can’t change life’s circumstances. I can’t go back in time and make my friend not be dead. I can change how to go forward. You can change your reaction, coping mechanism. Laughter is one way to cope with stress and being overwhelmed. You don’t have to use any drugs, put anything into your body. Holistic. Just try it. It’s so simple, it works really well. I tell people if the pharma companies find out about me, they’ll put a hit out on me. (Laughs.)

I love when  people have “aha” moments and write to me, “That was great!” I tell them, I didn’t do this, YOU did it. You created how great you feel. I want them to leave empowered. As Einstein said, play is the highest form of research. Play and laughter are great releases and healthy activities for the brain. Don’t believe me? Visit my site and look under “resources,” or just do a simple Google search on the benefits of laughter and play. I want to encourage people to let the bad shit go. We’ve gotta set our crap down to allow the good stuff in.

I have two young ladies helping me in the office. I said, “Listen, I’ve been reading positive psychology for like 10 years now. My life experience and lessons are mine, and what I’ve done to help myself is not gonna work for everybody. However, if just 10 percent of people in sessions have an ‘aha’ moment to change their life, then it’s all worth it. If I have helped ONE person, or one person moved on to help someone else live and live a better life, it’s all worth it.”

When I did a stress reduction and laughter session with college kids at the University of Delaware in May, I gave them all the 800-273-TALK crisis line number. I said, “Listen, I’m here because I lost a couple friends to suicide, I was depressed, and I want you to be alive and healthy.” And I asked them to pull out their phones and put in 800-273-TALK right now. They did. They were having so much fun laughing and playing they were open to my suggestion. It was a powerful moment for me. I told them they might have roommates hurting themselves or talking about suicide, and they might not know what to do. You’re not a psychologist, but you can be a caring individual, and you can ask another human being if they are okay. You can listen. Making that step, a call or asking a question, can save someone’s life. I tell them they can be eyes and ears to help keep classmates alive. Then I have them do laughter selfies. (Laughs.) I want the students to remember how great they feel after laughing. No, no drugs, no alcohol, just holistic laughter. I want students to know they are not alone in this process called college. If you have a problem, it’s absolutely OK to ask for help.

I remember being at my 30th birthday party with my parents, crying. I never thought I would make it to 30! I was sure I would be dead. So the fact that I’m still here, I tell them, “Listen guys, I can tell you from my experience. I had my own zip code and lived in the land of ‘I suck.’ I was the Queen there. But you, you don’t have to go it alone.”

So much has changed since I was their age. They have their whole life ahead of them, you know? And they’re in a very high-risk category. It breaks my heart that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students. Obviously, a lot of people who attempt don’t succeed. Survivors. There’s a lot of people who attempt. Drugs, other behaviors putting in harm’s way. They think they’re worthless, it breaks my heart.

If the thoughts come back, what do you do?

I say one residual thing I still do, I don’t know why, I used to cut in high school, I don’t cut, but I still rip off my toenails until they bleed. And I tried to stop. I don’t know what it is. I don’t have feelings of I want to end my life anymore, thank God, but I do get feelings very much of being overwhelmed, and how to tackle this mountain of what I’m trying to accomplish on this planet? I’m not sure what to do next. So that makes it hard. It’s difficult for me to admit even now because I’ve come so far, but it’s true. Sometimes I say, “Christa, it’s been two days, you have to shower. You can’t single-handedly save the world.”

My best friend lives next to me. He’s good because he’s kind of like a good positive echo for me to have. That’s part of the reason he still lives next door. We used to be in a relationship. Basically, I live next door to my ex. People ask, “Why not move away?” I’m concerned because he’s my emotional rock. I’m concerned if I get overwhelmed and there’s no sounding board nearby. I’m not saying I would do anything, but it’s like not wanting to get rid of the emotional training wheels. I think that goes for a lot of other people. We need to be around people who are supporting, supporting to us. If not, life challenges are more difficult. I am much more resilient now than I used to be, but people like me need to be vigilant about our brain health. It is a constant effort but something worth doing, because my life is worth it.

That’s what I try to do with other people. I try in my own way to be there as a listener or support system, whether a text or Facebook or Twitter. There are many people I support worldwide, and I’ve never met them. I don’t want to go into detail for their privacy, but let’s just say I know now my life has value because I’ve helped them stay alive.

It’s great the world we live in, with all this communication. Here’s my personal opinion: A lot of people are way too medicated and need less drugs and more hugs. We need more quality human interaction, more face time. When I got depressed or get overwhelmed, I just withdraw. It’s easy to say, “Reach out.” Well, it’s not that easy to say, “I’m going to call some 800 number and talk to someone I don’t know. And who knows if they’ll send cops to my house.”

But at the same time, not doing anything, not providing that number, is not good. You have to do that. You have to do something, Take some positive action. I want people to know, listen, like, I was in a really bad way for decades. There’s a positive way, there’s light. I promise you there’s light. I promise you. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. And it’s very easy to say those words, and for people who haven’t gone through it, it’s easy to say, but.

You get it, I know you get it.

What can be done to make suicide more discuss-able?

Great question. When some of these groups bring me in, for stress stuff, it’s what they like. One wanted me to hit on mental health and suicide prevention, and I did. The girls were very receptive, and I was shocked. It’s very difficult to stand up in front of the room and tell your story, it’s not easy to do.

For example, I was recently in my hometown of Philadelphia for the I Will Listen event, sponsored by NAMI New York and others. It brought so many mental health professionals together. It was in a park, so it was great, all these tables set up, mental health tables, passers-by. And having real conversations with people about mental health and wellness was wonderful. I think it’s those kinds of events, it’s what we as advocates for life need to help educate and reduce stigma. And to be honest, not to toot my own horn, but to engage more people about this difficult topic, we need to create more open atmospheres for people of all walks of the suicidology spectrum to join the conversation, people like you, me, Des from Live Through This, you know, the people who don’t have the mental health degrees but people who have been in the trenches and know how it feels to be depressed for a long time, be suicidal and have attempted to take their own lives.

That said, no one wants to do things that are always depressing. They just don’t. The good thing about the laughter part is, it opens people up: “OK, let’s get real with each other.” I think the community would be well-served where there are more light-hearted events that help bring outsiders to meet insiders. To really reach out and get boots on the ground, get out to the people-people, meet the real people where they are at, outside the psychiatrist’s office and on the streets, so to speak. Everybody can be preaching to themselves all day long, the community can be like an echo chamber. I mean, how much more do you need to know about suicide prevention?

One lady came up to me at my table at I Will Listen, her name was Roslyn. She was shy, hanging out around us for a while, and I started chatting with her. I said, “How do you get your giggle on?” She said, “I’m not good at smiling.” Within two minutes, I had her smiling, playing the kazoo, posing for a photo, and we texted her the photo so she could remind herself that she can smile and looks damn awesome doing it! For me, connecting with a human being with a smile or eye contact or a laugh means this: I see you. I hear what you’re saying. I care about you. A lot of people don’t know this, but I’m basically praying for them when they’re in my presence, so maybe, just maybe, they’ll walk away maybe lighter somehow in their heart and leave feeling better. We need to create an environment where it’s not just, “Let’s talk about suicide and suicide prevention.” … It’s important, don’t get me wrong, but find ways to engage people and, dare I say, have some fun! You’re still giving the seriousness that the subject matter is due, I’m not saying make light of it. But we must try to get out into the public sphere more.

One thing that’s important to many, or at least garners a lot of attention with people, is Hollywood. I’m not a huge fan overall, since a lot of the stuff that comes from Tinseltown is violent and crappy. Hollywood has an enormous role and a lot of power. With that comes responsibility to provide information to the public and make the world a better place. I think there’s a way to get Hollywood types to start addressing this issue in particular. Yeah, bullying, we need to talk about it, but let’s move beyond that and go deeper. If we’re going to get our hands dirty, let’s go all the way! Twenty years ago, nobody talked about cancer. How do we get brain health, suicide, suicide attempt survivor stories and survivors of suicide loss stories into the conversation, on a sitcom, on a reality show? Right? I think, my personal opinion is, when Hollywood gets involved, people start taking notice and the culture shifts, either positively or negatively. Open up the conversation and try to get people thinking a little bit more and hopefully taking positive action. That’s my answer. I’d like to buy a vowel now. (Laughs.)

Who else are you?

Oh my God, with these questions! (Laughs.) I’m a 7-year-old boy trapped in a 45-year-old woman’s body. I went out bike riding today, like a Pee-Wee Herman bike, and I fell off the bike and laughed my ass off, so funny how I fell. I’m kind of a person trying to find the light in very uncomfortable situations. Life is funny, and it’s very serious. Like a bike ride, we all are best served to find a healthy balance of the light and dark.

I’d like to close by saying I’m single, here’s my phone number. If anyone’s interested, but your name can’t be Jim. Just sayin’… (Laughs.)  I’m a person doing this all for a higher power. Because there’s more to life and to me than just bones wrapped in a flesh suit. Who else am I? A very serious person, to be honest with you, trying to get people engaged through light-hearted laughter. But laughter is as important to them as it is to me because without it, I would not be here. I guarantee. When nothing else works, when life gets nasty bad, laughter is often all we’ve got to help us feel like we’re in control of an otherwise out-of-control situation. What else are you gonna do? That’s why I say, when stuff gets out of control, don’t give up, you get your giggle on.

Talking with Shane Niemeyer

“I wanted to change everything in my life, and I had the opportunity to do just that. And in prison, you have all the time in the world.”

Shane Niemeyer has publicity support from the well-known publisher of his new book, but this interview came from his own initiative. He went looking for ways to reach the people who understand where he’s been. He started by Googling “suicide blogs” and came up here.

Here, he talks about how he came, at what he thought was his last moment, to see how he and friends in high school had been “ignorant and callous little pricks” for thinking a young classmate who killed herself was weak. He also talks about how he reshaped his life after his attempt years later. As a top Ironman athlete, he has quite a bit to say about goals and determination.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Who I am now is, I do a lot of coaching for people who are traveling, a lot of working professionals, so I will write their workouts. I coach athletes and currently triathletes as well. I spend a lot of time doing exercise-related activity and work.

And how did you come be talking to me?

I’ve been given this opportunity to write a book, and my story got some press. Where I came from, the reason why people are interested, is because I guess it appeals to people as it’s kind of a redemption story. There was a time in my life where I felt I was in a state of desperation. And I tried to, had been in and out of jail, in and out of institutions as an adolescent, psych units. I didn’t think I could pull myself together or regain control over the direction of my life. I was really hopeless and tried to hang myself in prison, and the cord snapped, and I broke at least one of my feet and separated a couple of vertebrae. I was put on suicide watch of the jail, in Idaho.

The reason why I reached out to you is because, when I go around speaking a lot, that moment in time, that crisis imprinted me in a way that every time I read a story of someone who commits suicide or attempts or is in a state of crisis, I strongly identify with that person to this day. It’s been 10 years. It’s such an emotional experience that I don’t know if I can do anything to help anyone, but I can try.

How did you start to get back on your feet?

I think certainly it was a very unique set of circumstances. There was, one, I am very, very fortunate and grateful I came through intact. It’s one a lot of people don’t come through. If people do come through that, it changes them somehow. It changed me in the most fundamental way. The kinds of moments turned into minutes, turned into hours, what before was a crisis situation where I didn’t see any other way, no way for me to regain control of life or be able to turn around, after I jumped and found myself still alive, feelings of despair slowly were replaced with feelings of gratitude and hope. I was in jail, the beginning of what was to be a 14-month prison sentence.

I think having gone through that, I was able to change my perspective and see there was only an upside. Having nothing and having no hope was a place to have only an upside and nothing to lose instead. It was a shift in perspective. I kind of had this sense, this desperation, I wanted to change everything in my life, and I had the opportunity to do just that. And in prison, you have all the time in the world.

I embarked on this process of changing myself, trying to heal myself emotionally. Part of that for me was to heal myself and build myself up physically as well. I would take care of my body much better than I had before. All of that emerged out of that crisis.

How did the people around you respond?

The act, it stigmatized me in the beginning. I think some people’s knee-jerk reaction is negative, right? And, by the way, I remember when I was in high school, and this story would embody the reaction I got from some inmates. When I was in high school, there was a student, Mary Beth, who hung herself. Me and my friends, we were ignorant and callous little pricks, really. We said things that were so ignorant. That she was weak and should have been stronger, that it was a form of natural selection and only the strong can hack it. I didn’t think about that incident until the moment before I jumped off that ledge, and I thought how wrong we were, that in fact she had a misplaced high degree of resolve, that she was sad like me and didn’t see a way out.

I think a lot of initial response from inmates was the response that I was weak. Or crazy. And so, over time I kind of, as days turned into weeks and I started implementing this process where I spent each day sitting on my bunk, journaling, and I read almost a book a day so I could add new ideas and thought into this closed system, to add to my frame of reference. I began to have quiet moments, meditating, but not overtly, right, in the lotus position. I just made sure I had quiet moments, paid attention to my emotional state.

One thing that definitely resonated with the inmates was that I worked out. As weeks turned into months, I was working out a few hours a day. Eventually, other inmates who wanted something different for themselves started to gravitate to me and start working out, picking up the books I read. Elaine Hatfield at the University of Hawaii talked about that, “emotional contagion.” In the beginning, people were skeptical, cynical of my suicide attempt. Later they would come around, ask what I was doing, why did I read so much, how do you work out, why I spent so much time journaling. This kind of shift over time, the way they viewed me, you know what I mean? Because prison is an environment that is negative, right, you’re surrounded by the highest density of societal rejects in one spot, and they’re often cynical and negative and often kind of victims. A lot of times they view themselves as victims of society and circumstance. So it’s kind of a tough environment to plot a course. It was an interesting time for sure, but for me at the time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

How were you able to maintain that focus once you came out?

When I got released, I was terrified. I had been a failure for so long. Probably a lot of people who end up dying by suicide, a lot of them have substance abuse issues or what we term mental health issues. That’s all I had known the better part of my adult life, until I was almost 30. I was very scared I would fall back into these old patterns of behavior. Also, I took comfort in the fact I had spent 14 months cultivating these habits I could rely on. I was very fit, I had been journaling and reading every day for over a year. So I knew I would have a good chance if I could continue that process. Also, I was out on parole, and there was oversight. My time was occupied by meetings with the parole officer, AA and NA meetings, 90 in 90 days, something like that. I couldn’t drive legally, so I had to ride this bike everywhere.

And I had this plan, which took 14 months to develop. My plan was, I was going to be humble, I was going to do whatever it took to bootstrap myself. With a college degree, I began washing dishes, with three jobs, but I knew it was temporary. My old defense attorney, Brett Fox, let me sleep on his couch until I got back on my feet.

I knew I needed to be in an occupation where in some way I was in servitude for other people. I became a personal trainer, and now I’m a strength and conditioning coach. I washed dishes, then was waiting tables, and all the time I was harassing this gym I wanted to be part of. Eventually, since I was broke, they traded custodial work for a membership, Then I became a trainer, then the top-producing trainer in eight gyms in the area. I advanced my education and became an expert in the field of strength and conditioning.

I moved toward this sense of ideal for myself. Even talking about it now feels sort of surreal. It was about, for me, having humble beginnings and realistic expectations and also being very persistent toward a vision for myself. I was just very lucky. At one point of my life, I was just surrounded by junkies and rejects and people going nowhere. Then after prison, I was surrounded by people who were mentors, pillars of the community, and I received a leg up and helping hand almost at every turn. My experience is not what a lot of inmates had: “You’ll ever get a job, people will look down on you.” That was never my experience because it was never my attitude. But at the beginning, I was terrified.

How did the book, the national exposure, happen?

So part of my story was really wanting to swing the pendulum the other way. On the continuum of addiction and compulsiveness, I was at the extreme end. I was homeless, using needles multiple times a day, drinking a fifth of alcohol, smoking as many cigarettes as I could afford. I was a train wreck. It occurred to me that if I could kind of transform that energy or redirect it, I could swing the pendulum the other way.

I found this article about Ironman, an ultradistance triathlon. When I read it in prison, I was very impressionable in that medical unit. I embarked on this. Part of my process was, I wanted to achieve something great for myself. I began training for the Ironman. For me, the training kind of stuck. I ground it out, became a pretty good athlete.

One of my clients wrote a letter to NBC. I had qualified for the Ironman world championships; they took the top 2 percent. My first year out there, I got a call from NBC and did an interview, and it actually aired. And then AP followed with an article, then a few agents contacted me and asked me to write a book. And here I sit today, all these years later, in a very unique position. I’m very fortunate.

With that platform comes the responsibility to kind of, I don’t know, testify to the fact that life is what we make of it. It works both ways. It can be miserable. Largely my misery was of my own devising. I was also able to swing that the other way. And now I’m in a situation in my life where, in a very real and tangible way, I am very grateful. It’s hard for me to fathom that my life is almost exactly the way I would want it. So that’s kind of how my story gained some traction, this kind of coincidence. It kind of took a life of its own.

So, for other people, we live in a country where there’s a sea of discontent. There are millions on anti-depressants, and many are overweight or obese. Dozens of people a day commit suicide. And so there’s a lot of discontent out there. And I think probably from my observation, if I had to pull the lens back and examine, a lot of times we would find there’s a lack of sense of fulfillment. A lot of times, that lack can be the result of … At times, people are in a position where they don’t, can’t imagine, or don’t have a concept, they’re so focused on discontent instead of focusing on what an ideal, what a personal ideal would look life. In prison, for instance, it would be hard for me to get at a fellow inmate, to get them to articulate, “If you could do anything, if you could draw a line in the sand right now and, within reason, create a life you’d want, what would it look like?” And I think lot of people have a tough time answering that question. I believe we perform better when we have objectives.

There’s a gap between who I was and who I wanted to be. But seeing that for what it was gave me, there was ways I could close that gap and pay attention to my thoughts. Our thoughts manifest themselves as behavior. And there are patterns to our thoughts. The average human being has thousands of thoughts a day. What’s the quality of those thoughts? You can change them. I think reading a good book, or examining your own thoughts through journaling and seeing them for what they are, which allows you to mold or shape your thoughts, and paying attention to your emotional or spiritual side, whether seeing a therapist or medicating. Often this is really corrupted in people for whatever reason, whether they suffered from abuse or found themselves in circumstances that were not desirable.

For me particularly, who we are as thinking beings and feeling beings, we are embodied in this biological organism, right? A physical body. I really believe, and a lot of research proves it out, our mental state is parallel to our physical state. If you’re overweight, I believe, whether or not you’re aware of it, you can’t really be happy or can’t function at an optimal level unless you’re getting some movement.

For me, exercise became very important because it was a constructive outlet for all the anxiety, the shame, the guilt I had acquired over the years. It was a way to process them in a hands-on way. It became very therapeutic for me. The production of all these hormones, enzymes, you hear about dopamine, serotonin, all these agents that produce well-being. At the end of exercise, no matter what it is, at the beginning you didn’t have anything, but after those exercises you had something, And for me, that was critical in getting moving in the right direction in my life.

If you’re close with your family, what do they think of all this?

My family has supported me wholeheartedly since prison, and before, though they needed to cut me loose when things got really bad. The whole book thing created some turmoil in my family, but we will get past that. Obviously, they are relieved that I have arrived at this point in my life where I seem to be thriving.

How long has it been again?

I got out of prison in late 2004. And so it’s really been, I tried to commit suicide in late 2003, I suppose it was. It’s been a while now. And as time goes on, it seems so far away. But I will always be able to recall that event in a way that it still feels very close to me in some ways. You know what I mean?

Do the feelings ever come back, and what do you do?

My feelings, or urges, they’re only feelings I have come back when I speak about it or when I hear about it, right? I read the number of veterans who commit suicide each day, and it infuriates me, it makes me very sad. Because I can identify with how they are, how they feel. It makes me sad because I wasn’t there in some way. I couldn’t impart to them that if you can make it through these moments, things can be so great, life can be so great in a way they can’t imagine in that moment, right? I wish I had a stick that I could tap them on the shoulder, inject them with what I have now.

Certainly I don’t have urges because my life is fucking good right now, and it has been for a long time. But it’s not always that way. That’s how I feel, I guess, I just feel so bad when I hear about that because I can identify with that crisis in a real way.

The other side is, I wish I could have some impact somehow.

Don’t you, by telling your story?

I hope so, I hope so. I hope so. It’s my hope and now my responsibility. And I don’t know, maybe it sounds lame, it sounds lame coming out of my mouth. But yeah, it’s my responsibility. It has been my experience.

How do you change the general population’s thinking and conversation around this issue?

What needs to change, and I think it is changing, is … is the sense, obviously, of educating people. The easy, knee-jerk reaction, people who respond that way are ignorant, they truly are. There are, there just exists stupid assholes in the world. And then there are just people who are ignorant. For any variety of reasons, people place judgment on one another.

But I think with the kind of prevalence of depression in this country, which I equate to just kind of unhappiness. With Irving Kirsch’s research out of Harvard, where for mild to moderate cases of depression, a placebo was as effective as medication. Psych meds help people, right, certainly there’s a place for them, but a lot of times I think they’re overused.

There’s this discontent that probably lends itself to more people being empathetic. So many people are unhappy in this country, and they’re examining sources of that discontent, how people become so unhappy or desperate that they see no other option, they don’t think they can regain control over the course of their lives. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think sometimes that a lot of people have experienced at least a severe bout of unhappiness or what we call depression, but there are a lot of ignorant people who will say callous or idiotic things because they don’t know or don’t have understanding. But I think that’s a small … My gut feeling is, that’s a pretty small percentage of people.

I think more and more people understand it, could at least see how someone could end up in such a bad spot, that it’s not too far a stretch from their own experiences. That’s my personal belief. And the rest is just lack of education and empathy. I guess that wasn’t a very useful comment.

The last question I like to ask is, who else are you?

I guess people should know that I’m a coach, an athlete, that I like to read, and that I really am surrounded by people that I adore in every way. That I have been a lucky person, become a very lucky person, but in a lot of ways created that luck. There’s times I had to step back and pat myself on the back. That life is good now, I suppose. That, yeah. I’m athlete. I’m a coach, a friend. Maybe in some ways I’ve been able to become a mentor to people in positions of influence themselves. Yeah, I’m a lot of things.

But mostly, yeah, I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out. I guess I remain a dreamer, right, and remain a person always reaching for something. For me, that has been one of the most important things, reaching and developing and trying to evolve as a person, I guess.

What is the next something you’re reaching for?

Well, I guess a TED talk or a big talk would be one thing. And obviously, potentially one day, another book. And athletically, to crack the top 50 at the world championships would be a good goal. And eventually to become a good father and husband.

Talking with Louise Byrne

Louise Byrne, as far as anyone knows, is the world’s first full-time lived experience academic in mental health. It’s her official role at an Australian university, and she came to my attention when her recent thesis popped up on a Lived Experience Research Network listserv. Her introduction, conclusion and particularly chapters four and five are a good read.

“Anything to do with the mental health sector must have lived experience leadership,” she says. “Any organization that currently has lived experience or consumer participation needs to look at a major upgrade.” She explains, in her thesis and our talk, how to make that happen.

In our conversation, she also briskly but thoughtfully addresses tokenism, the co-opting of recovery, the “clinicians’ delusion” and plain old misunderstanding. “Like the gay rights movement, unless we stand up and are unashamed of our experiences, nothing will change,” she says.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name’s Louise Byrne. I work from my lived experience of mental health challenges and using mental health services and on the importance of recovery. I’m 36. I live in Rockhampton, a fairly small, semi-rural community.

How did you come to be talking with me?

Well, I used mental health services for probably 15 years. I was first hospitalized in my mid-teens. Specifically speaking with you, I did seriously attempt to commit suicide a number of times in my teens when I was very unhappy. I was OK for a while, then had rough times in my mid-20s. I was deeply disenfranchised with life again at this point, but being older and more connected with my family, I didn’t attempt suicide, but I had no connection with life, either. But a couple of years later, I found the idea of peer work, working from lived experience, and it made a lot of sense to me. It was the beginning of a different journey.

I worked in government services, and I trained in intentional peer support. Currently, I’m a lived experience academic in mental health. It was the second lived experience academic role in Australia and the first full-time position of its kind in the world that we know of.

I have a lot of autonomy and control. For the first time, people are really listening to me. In my other roles, it’s been a matter of being there but relying on the interest of others around me, being reliant on whether they decide to engage with me. Here, I have control. The recovery approach in mental health must be taught from the lived experience perspective now. I have complete control over course content and the way it’s run. I had 480 students last year, and 320 in undergrad and 20 in post-grad this year. Central Queensland University hired another lived experience academic.

I just finished my Ph.D. on lived experience roles across the sector. Because of my diverse experiences, sometimes it’s very tokenistic, other times accepted. It’s not policy but the personalities of the people around me. Here at the university, there’s the acknowledgement of my role as a leader in this space. That was sort of what drove that approach. So, yeah.

You mentioned tokenism …

Well, that’s about being there on paper but not really being there in any meaningful way to effect change. In my research, and anecdotally, I found it most common in government services. And then in my experience in academia, it’s the only place I really felt my role is as accepted as any other role.

With tokenism, if I can talk more broadly, people are not having adequate access to resources, not being remunerated enough, not being included in meetings, experiencing professional defensiveness from colleagues, a range of experiences that stops people from being able to meaningfully do their work. It’s common over here. I think it stems from our roles not being accepted yet as legitimate by a large part of the workforce. It’s allowed to happen because in policy, and where we sit in organizations, we aren’t able to force change. It doesn’t allow us to get in a position to make sure those things happen.

How to get into these positions?

The really important first step was having a powerful ally. Professor Brenda Happell initiated the first consumer academic role in Melbourne many years ago. Here we have schools, institutes, centers. As the director of a center, you can employ someone and no one really says anything about that. She was committed on a personal level to lived experience input and leadership. She brought on a woman who started in this position, Cath Roper. Years later, Brenda happened to move up here, where I was working in a mentors program, a national program. We started talking. She asked if I was interested in doing university work, and I was. I started writing for the mental health program, with an emphasis on the recovery course, in 2009. And then in 2010, there was a scholarship for a Ph.D., and she asked if I was interested. I had put in for a Ph.D. scholarship on a similar topic about six years earlier and not gotten it, so we put in for that. That definitely helped. The scholarship allowed me to focus. She was able to sort of beg and plead and bully her way into a one-day-a-week position for me, teaching in the recovery program.

A lot of early stuff was about powerful allies. At that stage, there was still a mental health nurse in control of the course, and I was feeding into it. With the help of that ally, she was able to argue that lived experience should lead recovery, that it came from us, belongs to us and was unjustly taken away from us. People don’t understand recovery because it’s not taught by people with lived experience.

Then, I was still one day a week. Then the next year, the course was doing well. I was doing the work, and she was leaving me to it. And the response from students was really strong. We were starting to get bigger student numbers. With the strong response from students and other staff and some research Brenda led, we were able to argue for recovery as a core unit of the program. We were able to then argue for my role becoming full-time in order to do that.

Part of that was being lucky in some ways. I think again it was about group consensus. There were enough people in the school who were like, “Yeah, great idea, brilliant.” There are a lot of people who have children with significant mental health issues, and they love my role. They get hope for themselves. They see a lot of sense in it. Really useful. They’re backing it and are happy to see it progress. The academic environment is all about constant change, the next big thing, whereas government services are very resistant to change. That’s part of the reason why we were able to make enormous bounds in three or four years. The decision makers are more open.

Has it also led to a change in disclosure among students or colleagues?

Certainly to me. But I always have that experience. When I tell people what I do for a job, it’s a very common experience. Within the school itself, I don’t know it shifted in terms of culture, people talking about their own stuff more broadly with each other. It’s a fairly sort of special group of people anyway, very supportive. People are aware of what’s going on for each other. I don’t think I can claim credit.

What’s needed to have these lived experience positions spread elsewhere?

First, you need to create targeted positions. Without lived experience in positions of authority, you’re unable to see meaningful change happen. Colleagues never respect what they’re saying as long as they’re low on the social ladder. Just relying on the kindness of strangers certainly has not got us where we need to be at. Targeted positions in senior places in a range of positions and organizations. Anything to do with mental health reform should be clearly led by lived experience people in positions of authority.

I think we need a lot more research. The first thing we need as a movement is to define our own theory, what underpins us. Things like intentional peer support has done that beautifully. But as a wider movement, we need to define what makes us us. So we can say, this is what defines us, the perspective from which we speak. We need to get in there before others get in there, mental health officials, before us. There’s training here that’s not necessarily lived experience-led but directed at our group. Research, unified statements, where we’re coming from and where we’re headed. Like the recovery movement, we’re at risk of being co-opted.

It’s been co-opted?

Yes, to a large degree. All you have to do is Google search academic articles, and there’s not a single person with lived experience in sight in a lot of these articles. There’s a strong use of clinical terminology. The thing we hear a lot is, clinicians are not clear about what recovery is. I think the concept has very much been co-opted. There’s frustration on both sides. Clinicians are just saying, “What is this? It’s just words.” People with lived experience are saying, “This is not what we’re talking about.”

When you mentioned targeted positions in organizations, what kind of groups do you mean?

Anything to do with the mental health sector must have lived experience leadership. Any organization that currently has lived experience or consumer participation needs to look at a major upgrade. One issue we’re having is people talking about consumer participation in the mental health sector but not really doing it. Here we have the Mental Health Council of Australia, you’ve got district-wide mental health services, community-wide, your departments of health and aging, any organization that directly is involved with policy and delivery of mental health services is mandated to have consumer participation, but it might be a few hours a year, one day a week. There are a lot of complaints: “The consumers we get, they don’t do enough,” or whatever. “Their input is not valuable enough.”

If you want to have the best people in the job, create a substantial full-time position and coerce people who are already in good positions. Make sure the jobs are attractive enough.

How has the response been when you say this?

Well it’s early days yet. These are also the recommendations of my Ph.D., which was just released. The good news is, people are reading it. We have a mental health commission here, looking at a range of issues, how fairly things are delivered, change that needs to happen. I know senior people in Queensland are reading it or have read it, so that’s good. I think Health Workforce Australia, which does planning and training for a range of people, including peer workers, people there at least have received it. I think it’s probably too early.

When I speak about it, the initial reaction is always, “Yes, of course, makes sense.” From people who are already on board. For those who are not, there’s normally a bit of conversation afterward. So far, there have been no conversations where people walk away saying, “I see no sense in this.” People agree in principle, but whether that will translate into actual change, I’m dubious. I see this as the very first step in officially stating these things, putting them in the public arena with empirical research that people can use to argue in their own organizations: “In Byrne, it says this and this.” A tool for people to advocate in a range of spaces.

How much of a movement is this?

I’m certainly not the only lived experience academic out there. People have been plugging away longer than I have. I’m following on and taking further research before me. I’m a member of an international service users in academia association. Part of our intention is to make sure research is happening. We’re creating a powerful voice by being unified. We’re only a few years old, but we’re growing.beyond the academic context.

The lived experience movement is quite broad. In Australia, lived experience roles have increased exponentially in the past 10 years, but the majority of people in those roles are not necessarily aware of our collective history or of our power or that we’re a civil rights movement. I don’t know if it’s clear to a lot of people who end up in lived experience roles. It’s one thing we need to make clear.

What’s your impression of the situation in the U.S.?

I’ve had very little exposure. New Zealand is quite advanced, or was. I’m probably more aware of what happens in America from the intentional peer support perspective. In terms of the broader movement, not so much. I get literature from Canada and the UK.

Surprisingly, I must say, since the civil rights movement was so massive in America in earlier decades, I would have assumed it was the language people are using. It’s powerful language. When this work is related to it, it starts to make more sense to people.

How did you make the decision to be open about your experience?

It just made complete sense to me as soon as I heard about that concept. I’d been in youth work since I was 18, working from my lived experience of homelessness and drug use, and in a way it made official the perspective that I thought was valuable.

Like the gay rights movement, unless we stand up and are unashamed of our experiences, nothing will change. As many people coming out as possible. I guess I see it as a social responsibility.

How did people react?

I think people are pretty positive. My family’s pretty proud of me. It’s a small town, and I’m in the newspaper a little bit, talking about this stuff, and my family is certainly proud of me. There’s not the sense of, “Oh god, we wish Louise would shut up about this.” I’m surrounded by people who believe that veil of silence about mental health issues does more harm than good.

What else is needed to take away that silence?

I think it will be a case of small changes to create the larger change. We need to get people respected in our communities, and well-known people, to be out about their experience. Now the problem is, most people, including in the mental health field, believe that mental health issues are chronic and unremitting. That in itself is an enormous barrier for us. We need more education, more people understanding that recovery is possible and even likely. More people standing up and saying, “Here I am, running for Senate or running a successful feed business, and I have significant mental health problems.”

We need to give room for those conversations. People need to be willing to sit with their own discomfort and just go there. It’s a whole of society kind of thing. Small shifts in different areas. Prominent people coming out will encourage that the idea of recovery is possible. Ultimately, what we need is less emphasis on treatment and services and more on community responsibility. Each of us needs to take responsibility for mental health, whether listening to a friend, speaking about your own stuff or what have you.

How do you address the mental health professionals who hold on to stigma?

The best way is to have many, many conversations. The lived experience practitioners, that’s where they really shine. We need to build relationships. It’s more about morning tea conversations, lunch conversations, over time, slowly influencing how they view things.

I think what we call the “clinicians’ delusion” plays into it. Most see people when they’re acutely unwell, and they don’t have the people popping back and saying, “Hey, I’m doing well, back at work.” Their reality is people are unwell, because that’s what they see. They need to do rotations in community-based spaces where people are doing better. They need to be exposed to people who are engaged in their recovery.

Is that happening anywhere?

I don’t think so, not yet. I think some are advocating for it in their own services. I think that’s feasible. The links in Australia between government and non-government are stronger all the time. Recovery is not going away, whether they accept it as rhetoric or not.

Going back to your experience, do your earlier feelings still come back, or are you “cured”?

No, I don’t believe in being recovered. There are certainly times when my mental health slides like an avalanche. I like a life of self-control. It’s not about managing my symptoms. I don’t believe in mental illness. I think of it as stress and distress. I live a life that’s good for me. I eat very clean food. I don’t use stimulants, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke. I go to bed early. I focus on my wellness.

(I mention what others have told me about being identified as “the exception.”)

What I’ve heard a lot is, “You’re not like our consumers,” which I find deeply offensive. It disregards the 15-year journey I’ve been on to this point. Now if it returns to me, I can get on top of it in a few days. But for many years, I didn’t. Mine is a bad story, it was a living hell. By anyone’s standards, it was a shocker.

I understand where it’s coming from. They see me with my nice dress-up clothes on, where I’m speaking from. But yeah, it denies a lot of things they’ll never understand.

What else would you like to say?

Be brave, take risks. Trust that person. Trust that there’s a person in there. No matter what they look like to you, there’s someone in there who can take control. It’s their mental health, don’t take their reins off them.

What are the next goals you’ve set for yourself?

My big thing is, I want to start conversations. Thousands and thousands. I want to somehow contribute to a situation where a person can walk next door and ask for a cup of flour and ask how the person dealt with anxiety three years ago. I want us to talk about these things. Everything else is Band-Aid measures. In order to truly reverse and change the situation, the terrible situation, where mental health issues are epidemic, we need to stop it from becoming a big issue. We need to reconnect people to others early on, allow them to find support organically, in existing support networks.

Can there be a community among people who’ve been suicidal, or in that case is it not helpful? There’s still the idea out there that putting “those people” together can be dangerous.

No, it’s incredibly helpful! Anyone who has shared unique experiences certainly should come together, because no one else can understand that experience. There’s a lot of that old, paternalistic, in the end not trusting the person who’s experience it is.

What you’re describing is the root of why mental health services on the whole do more harm than good. Mental health services fundamentally do not get us, and they work in opposition to what we need. It’s exactly what you just described. It’s that fundamental idea that we cannot be trusted. And in fact, we can. We just need supports to allow us to work through our trauma, our pain. And who more appropriate than others who’ve been there? And to discourage those people from having those relationships is the opposite of what we need. They’re disempowering us when we need to be empowered.

Can people find your thesis online?

There are a couple of places that put it up. I’ll look into it. I argue for the end of the DSM, so I’m not pulling any punches.

Finally, since you’re more than this experience. who else are you?

I’m a mom of two maltese terriers and two rescue birds. I’m a member of a big extended, loving family. Yeah, that’s who I am.

Talking with Megghun Redmon

A conversation with Megghun Redmon is a startling reminder of how little training many mental health professionals get in working with suicidal people. She once had a therapist and psychiatrist who not only were uncomfortable with suicidal thinking but told her, “I don’t know anyone who is.”

She then studied social work at a school where there was no teaching on how to deal with suicidal people. “It’s kind of funny, but not really,” she says.

But Megghun finally came across a Chicago-area organization that’s one of a few in the country to create and run a support group for suicide attempt survivors. She “came out” to the group while observing it as an intern and now works with the organization. One of their latest ideas is taking the support group into local hospitals to create a bridge to further care once people are released.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

OK, my name is Megghun, I’m 23. I work for SPS. I just graduated with a master’s degree last May as a licensed social worker. I don’t know what else. I have two brothers. My parents are still together. I live on my own. I have my two cats, I love my boys. Yeah, I don’t know, I’m really devoted to working on suicide prevention and attempt survivors. I co-lead the SOSA (Survivors of Suicide Attempts) group at SPS. I don’t know what else.

How did you come to talk to me?

Well, Stephanie suggested I join the AAS attempt survivors group. And I think I reached out to you before that, because I saw your blog and was super-interested and sent that to the SOSA people. And I said yeah, I would tell you my story.

How did all this come about?

Well, at first it was really by accident. I always wanted to be a helping professional. And so, like, before I even get into my story: I always help my friends, I’m always the person they listen to. As part of my social work training, I had to do an internship and I was like, “You know what? I dealt with suicide in the past and with people who’ve been suicidal.” So I interviewed at SPS and had to observe a support group. I had already observed a suicide loss support group, so I asked Stephanie if I could observe the lived experience support group. At the time, she asked if I was an attempt survivor, if I had experience. At that time, I was not quote-unquote out, but during the meeting I did disclose to the group. And I have come to, from that it kind of developed. I made it my mission to combat the stereotype of adolescent attempt survivors because of the reaction at that meeting and the reaction I always get from people: “What’s so bad during adolescence that you tried to kill yourself?”

That was a real long tangent to say that I got inspired from Stephanie, from her loss and all she’s done because of it. I wanted to do that same thing because of my attempt.

Stephanie asked you if you were an attempt survivor, but you disclosed in the group. Why?

I felt so comfortable, even though it was the first time I had attended that group that … I came from a family where you don’t talk about feelings, and what happens behind closed doors. So when Stephanie asked me, I was so good at saying, “I’m fine,” but then during the group I felt that warm, welcoming atmosphere that I wanted to participate. I wanted to be an active member.

What were the reactions?

They thanked me for being honest. They congratulated me on my courage to actually talk about it. And I did, a couple of the people did say, “You were so young, what was going on in your life?” Yeah. Age has always been, no matter what part of my story you tell, “You’re so young” or “You’re so mature for your age.” Age has always been a big factor to my story, no matter what part of my story I tell.

This was in opposition to my parents’ reactions when I had the chance to disclose anything to them. Their reaction was always threatening to take away privileges or telling me to “Knock that shit off.” This is probably why I was hesitant at first to disclose to the group.

And what do you say when you do disclose?

It depends on the audience. If I have the time, and if I think it’s appropriate, I tell them I had a childhood for which I wasn’t an adolescent. I had many responsibilities that adults or teens who are in high school have. So I was making adult decisions with an adolescent brain. You know, and if they ask me further, I will tell them exactly what that means. I’m an open book now. It’s helped that I’ve moved out of my house. It let me become more comfortable, telling all sides of the story. I do feel that my parents weren’t supportive of my mental health. Without going into all the detail, my parents continued to tell me the “problems” I was having were “just a phase” and it was “normal.”

But if I don’t think the audience is appropriate, I make the general statement that you don’t know what people go through behind closed doors. Not everyone’s experience is the same. Yeah, that’s how I kind of refine my answer.

Does it still come up, and how do you handle it?

I battle with my down points from time to time. So, I attempted in middle school but didn’t actually get help until my freshman year of college. So I’m still on my recovery journey. I had to suppress a lot of things for a long time. I haven’t got to the point where I actually thought about attempting, but I do get in low points. I learned to put more positive people in my life, and can actually rely on, instead of people relying on me. And my cats, I’m not going to lie, they keep me going.

About disclosing, was that an issue in school for social work?

No, unfortunately, for me it was still an issue I don’t disclose. I watch the audiences I disclose to. Me even talking to you is a big deal. Because I give your blog as a reference to my clients, for the parents of my clients. I tend to get younger clients, because it’s easier for adolescents to connect. And so, that’s something I’m working on because I’m always thinking about who’s in the audience.

I work at SPS, thank goodness, and they’re very open, you know. That’s not an issue, me being open. But I always think about, “Is my future boss in the audience? Is that gonna affect my ability to get a job if I ever have to leave SPS?” As far as social work school, I didn’t talk about it. It just wasn’t … I had bad experiences with teachers, well, first about how you handle suicide, but also bad experiences with other professionals in my own therapy sessions, that I just didn’t talk about it in school because I didn’t want that negative energy directed at me because I was open with people.

The professionals in therapy sessions, was that part of the social work training?

That was one time. They said they weren’t comfortable talking about suicide and didn’t know any professionals who were comfortable talking about suicide. Stephanie labeled them as jumpy. I’m very open talking about my feelings, my story. Everyone at SPS is. Her [the therapist] and I didn’t mix because she had a totally different ideology. I then projected her ideology onto all the other professionals I was going to school with.

Other students don’t really disclose?

No, they don’t. You tend to know which classmates have gone through therapy because of their knowledge when they speak. Sometimes people did disclose, but the reactions from professors, other students weren’t always positive, weren’t always as open and affirming as a future social worker should be. So it stopped after … I learned to speak in generalities.

Doesn’t that seem strange?

Yeah. That’s kind of society, isn’t it?

Were they even teaching the right responses?

They were. I feel I’m giving totally negative impressions. The school I went to was good and had heavy emphasis on empathy. It was more, the teachers had never taught before. Many were adjunct professors. A lot of them were the first time teaching, so the teaching role didn’t always happen for them. They either were way too professional, treating us like clients, or way too lax.

Do they specifically teach how to deal with suicidal people?

No, unfortunately not. It’s kind of funny, but not really. They don’t teach you how to deal with a suicidal person in school. At least, not at mine. You ask them, do they have the means? You do a small risk assessment and send them to another professional, pretty much a hospital. They teach you you don’t want that client in your office if they’re suicidal. Stephanie and I pretty much are working with that school now. She teaches a class on suicide prevention intervention. I come into that class and speak about how I feel. We’re trying to educate the students. And I’ll be open, that I didn’t learn the necessary skills until I interned at SPS.

How do the students respond?

Very positively, very positively. There’s now two classes, on crisis intervention. Progress is being made at the school, and I can greatly appreciate that.

How did you find SPS, and had you ever known support groups existed?

No, I didn’t know groups existed like that. I didn’t know SPS existed until I was looking for an internship. Honestly, I saw them on my internship list and, as I said, I always have a soft spot in my heart for suicide prevention, that I was drawn to it. I decided that I was going to intern there, I interviewed and was accepted on the spot.

What were your assumptions, impressions, surprises about the support group?

My assumptions before going in, I was shocked that it existed. I was always taught that you don’t put a bunch of suicidal people together because they’re gonna share methods. So going into the group, I tried to put that aside because the group existed and had been going on three or four years before I got there. That wasn’t what was happening. So I was trying to go in with an open mind. I’m glad I did. You may talk about your methods, what the future methods may be, but people don’t adapt your methods, say, “Oh, that sounds like a really good idea!” No, you try to talk about that method and say why and go past the fact that they’re suicidal and talk about the environment they’re living in.

It’s not like the people are in crisis all the time, on the edge?

Oh no, because nothing would ever be accomplished, we would always be in intervention mode. Members will come in and say they’re having a real hard time, and we focus on them for a period of time until we feel they’re in a place to be in the group, then we’re able to focus on other members as well.

What’s the mood of the group, and what are the topics of conversation?

The mood of the group is typically welcoming. It’s very … friendly in that our group is/was very small. We called each other or emailed each other in between if one of us was having a hard time. And so, you know, we could have a group of people crying, but in 10 minutes we could be joking with each other a little. Suicide became a topic we discussed and brought everyone together, but that wasn’t the only topic discussed. It was what led them to suicide, what’s going on in current time that makes them think about it again. How your family is reacting to you, how it’s affecting you now. I picture suicide in the middle of a circle, then all these arms that go out like a tree. Sometimes we didn’t even talk about the actual topic of suicide at a meeting, but we know that’s what brought us together.

As the facilitator _ right? _ what’s the most challenging and most rewarding?

I did facilitate it. Right when I joined, the other facilitator who was both a clinician and an attempt survivor left. So I kind of stepped into that role. Once I was “out” with the group, it took a couple meetings for me to take that role. And I still battle with not over-sharing in trying to stay in the facilitator role and staying, not the rock of the group, but the person who helps if someone is having a hard time. I battle with staying together with myself within the group so I’m available with other members if they’re having a hard time. I don’t want to over-participate, but it’s so welcoming that I don’t want to under-participate, either. I don’t want to put anyone on a pedestal. It’s a challenge sometimes, but it’s so worth it for me. If I know I’m having a hard time, I can call up that person at 3 in the morning. They know I’m also a survivor. So that’s been a very big benefit for me.

They can turn around and help you?

Correct!

How long does the group last?

Well, this is the first time we’ve gone on sabbatical since the group was started. It was going on for six years, I think. There was the main core of people, like three or four individuals who come in and out of the group. There were always at least five or six members attending with, like, besides myself and Stephanie, with three core people. It would be OK if someone did not attend every month. We could call that person if we know they’re struggling. But it was a very, though closed group, a flowing group. People came in and out of the group.

Why take a sabbatical?

We say everyone’s cured, but that’s not … Everyone got to a good place. It became a group that the topic got so far from lived experience that we felt that we needed to get some new people. And taking a sabbatical would be the best bet to revamp it. To try to figure out how to get more people to participate.

How?

We’re reaching out to one of the main hospitals in the area, to try and partner with them. We’ve always been part of the outpatient plan for people after they attempt. We want to offer the group at the hospital, so if people are in partial hospitalization, we want to offer the group as part of the program. Eventually, we want to offer it as inpatient as well. So when they go out of inpatient they feel they haven’t lost that inpatient environment. So our ideas are really big, but we don’t think they’re huge. We feel partnering with a hospital will help us get the group out there, to more of the public knowledge.

Can others out there do this, or does creating a support really depend on a really passionate individual?

Yes, others out there can do this, and are doing this, thank goodness. I learned about some new groups out there, but it does take educated people, people willing to be open and combat stigma to get the group started. Our group would not have been started without two lived experience people. It does take that motivation.

What will it take to make it easier to combat stigma and come out?

I don’t know. I think it’s gonna, well, I feel the society is changing to a point when talking about suicide, it’s a long, long journey that needs to be had. Just mental illness in general is a very long journey, for society to be able to accept that people live with mental illness, that it doesn’t make them a worse or better member of society. So I think it’s gonna take some work on both people who live with mental illness and people who don’t, working together.

Do you see any changes in society?

Oh, yeah. I mean, AAS is a huge step. The fact that people are now able to label themselves as a lived experience member, or almost to that point. And … I think that’s a large step. I know people are able to talk more about their struggles, talk more about “Oh yeah, I went through a very dark time.” I think the news is actually … Suicide is becoming a little more accepted. Yeah. Schools are actually reaching out instead of pushing the topic to the back burner.

How about the reactions of your friends and family to all of this?

Well, as far as my family goes, I actually just told my parents probably six months ago. And so they took it really hard. My friends, they’re, yeah, they accept it. Many of them struggled, and so they’re just accepting. Many of them had seen what I had gone through and so were like, “Finally, you’re talking about it.” Because I wouldn’t talk about it, so they’re like, “Finally!” So, yeah! That’s pretty much the reaction. Either shock or open acceptance.

It it easier to ask for help if you’re open?

You’re asking the wrong person. In my experience, it was extremely hard to get help, and I was at a young age. When I was open about what I was feeling, I was told, “Knock that shit off.” And so I figured, I see others when they’re open getting help, but for me it was not easy. It was a very long journey.

In the sense of being “out” about having had a suicidal experience, does that make it easier to seek help or support?

Yes, but people become a little hyper-vigilant. In my experience, I know I become a little hyper-vigilant when I have a client who comes out to me. As a person with lived experience and who works with people with lived experience, I always have it going through the back of my head. Which is not a bad thing. It’s always there.

You see that person and think you always have to be more aware?

Correct.

Does it take more attention and energy to feel that way?

Yes.

On a different topic, I’ve heard from people who speak publicly more often that they feel pressure to show that they’re “better” and never have those thoughts again. What do you think?

I don’t think I have yet, but I haven’t been doing super-public presentations. Most have been in the local area. I haven’t felt that way yet, I know. But I can see where someone would. You put yourself on a pedestal.

What has been your most helpful treatment, and the absolute least helpful?

I can tell you straight off, absolutely not was having a therapist and psychiatrist who have not been comfortable, visibly and verbally comfortable talking about suicidal ideation and thoughts. Actually saying to me, “I don’t know anyone who is.” Being that I interned at a place where everyone was comfortable, that was not helpful for me.

What’s been comfortable for me is knowing places like SPS where people are comfortable talking about past and current experiences. When I was younger in treatment, making it more known that you can have counseling without parents’ permission, but also within the school. I think we need to make it a little more acceptable and legal for school counselors to see students on a regular basis. Currently, they’re not supposed to if they don’t have an individual education plan.

Do you mean in high school, college, every level?

In K-12, that’s what I mean. And I don’t know if it’s just for Illinois or across the nation. For me, I would not be here if not for counselors and social workers who broke that rule. So that really helped me, that people were caring about me.

And not necessarily caring about the rules?

Yeah. … Even to see a private clinician in Illinois, you can only see them six times without parents’ permission.

Going back to what you mentioned about the therapist and psychiatrist not being comfortable with suicidal people, aren’t all of them supposed to get that training?

I feel like I’m bashing my profession. The training is very minimal unless you seek it out. I know some private practices around here have a “no tolerance for suicide” for liability purposes. And I know schools, too. A school district around me, if a student talks about suicidal ideation or plan, the counselor is instructed to call 911. So training is very minimal, in my experience.

What else would you like to put out there?

I feel like I should stress the importance of not judging a person by their age. And I want to put out there, it kind of sounds hokey, but not to give up when your family pushes you away. There are people out there who will listen. It’s really … Yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.

Who else are you?

I am … See, that’s like the hardest question to ask me, who else am I, because I am, have become so devoted to suicide prevention that I’m a woman still searching for her path. I may be on the path, like a version of my path, but I still think there’s so much for me to learn, so much not visible to me yet, that I don’t know fully who I am. I’m gonna contradict myself, but I know I’m still young and have places yet to go.

So I’m a woman in transition.

With no hobbies?

Oh no, I have a hobby! I’m an avid knitter. I am actually learning to garden as well.