Talking About Suicide

Because it's not a taboo

Portraits of attempt survivors, and a film

After coming across photographer Douglas Ljungkvist, who was quoted in the previous post, I e-mailed him. He says his series of portraits of attempt survivors began after a friend’s suicide. Intense research into the subject followed. “Having reached out to numerous NGOs, government agencies, the media and medical community, without getting anywhere, I came across a group therapy program in Toronto for survivors of multiple suicide attempts,” he wrote. Very few such groups exist, and this one helped him find his subjects. “They are so brave!” he wrote. “I have learned that one of the challenges is that people generally have very low sympathy for suicide attempt survivors unless they have been down that road themselves.”

It turns out there’s also a separate half-hour documentary on the Toronto therapy group, “Drawing From Life.” You can watch it here on the website of the National Film Board of Canada. The official description says, “‘Drawing from Life’ follows a group therapy workshop for people who have attempted suicide more than once. … This candid portrayal of twelve people who together, for 20 weeks, take on their fears, their behaviours and their ghosts to move towards life and away from suicide. It’s a surprisingly uplifting and universal story about what it means to be alive.”

Yvonne Bergmans, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, runs the Toronto group. Here’s a story about three attempt survivors that mentions Bergmans’ work. And here’s one description of her therapy program, offered by a project in Ireland that is modeled after her work.

Ljungkvist plans to continue the project next month in Toronto with more portraits and interviews. Here is a sample of his work that includes audio from one interview. And here is his own description of the project. He’d like to hear from others who’d like to participate:

In 2009 I was deeply affected by the suicide of
a friend and coworker. This by a young man who
was successful in his career, had a wife and two
children, and a zest for the good life. Max took
his own life by hanging. After his death I began
extensive research about suicide and decided
that my best opportunity to help increase public
awareness would be through my photography. My
project will not sensationalize or glorify the act
of suicide. Rather it’s a celebration of life
over death, featuring people that have managed to
recover to where they are happy to be alive today.

My project combines portraits of suicide attempt
survivors with powerful audio interviews. The
objective is to humanize suicide by adding faces
to the statistics and voices to the faces. These
are extremely brave people that have decided to
stand up and be counted, in the hope that it will
help others, regardless of people’s judgment. If
there is one thing I have learned from this project
already, it’s that unless people have been down
that road themselves sympathy tends to run low,
to induce anger and accusations of selfishness.
I grouped them together as victims, similar to
victims of rape, disease, incest, etc. But since
it is self inflicted it’s judged very differently.
My goal is to play the audio interviews during
exhibitions while viewing the portraits and to
include them as part of a book. Regardless of
how people view suicide attempt survivors we have
a lot to learn from their stories and in finding
solutions to decrease deaths by suicide.

Suicide is a global social problem that more
people die from annually than war and violence
combined. In the US approximately 35,000 die
by suicide every year. That’s more than all
traffic accident fatalities in 2010. This despite
only 10% of suicide attempts resulting in death.

90% of all people that attempt suicide have one
or more treatable mental health or substance
abuse disorder. Women attempt more often but
men’s attempts are deadlier. There is a strong
statistical relationship between low density
populated states and suicide with Alaska topping
the list. Firearm is the most commonly used method
for suicide in the US.

Though the US has multiple government agencies
involved with suicide prevention and bereavement
few outside the medical establishment seem to know
what they do. This might partly be attributed to
fears of lawsuits, copycat suicides, or suicide
pandemics. Except for a handful of copycat
suicides in Japan none of these have really
materialized. I’m of the conviction that suicide
is a social, not medical problem, which needs to be
addressed from multiple angles. The project will
pursue suicide demographically and environmentally
where it translates to higher than average suicide
statistics, too, including Native American’s, Gay
and Lesbian’s, teenagers, prisons, and the armed

Politically it’s sensitive, too, as we have
millions of American’s without medical insurance or
policies that cover mental health.

The media does not discuss suicide either except
for straight news reporting in the case of high
profile or celebrity suicides. It’s not sexy and
won’t sell ads for the morning shows.

Because of some of these reasons I had to take my
project to Canada to get started. It’s a less
litigious society where citizens have access to
mental health options and affordable medication.

Long-term I want to continue the project in the US
too, especially in Alaska which has the highest
suicide rate in the country, twice the national
average. I also hope to visit Russia, or one of
the former Soviet Union states where suicide among
middle age men is about three times higher what the
WHO has deemed a critical level.

Suicide is too important to be left to the medical
community and media alone!

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