Talking About Suicide

Because it's not a taboo

The time bomb

If the survivor of a suicide attempt does speak out about the experience, how do they avoid others seeing them as some kind of time bomb?

I put the question to David Webb, an attempt survivor from Australia who is now a suicidologist and the most outspoken, thoughtful person out there on the topic of suicide from a firsthand perspective. You can get an idea of his overall thinking here and here.

The question came to me at the American Association of Suicidology national conference this month as I browsed what’s called the poster session _ an event where academics display the findings of recent research and chat with passers-by.

One young man had researched suicide notes for expressions of “thwarted belonging and perceived burdensomeness” and had not found many. I joined a small group around him and asked whether the notes had instead been far more practical than philosophical: “Feed the cat,” and so on. Yes, he said. (A person’s thinking has often narrowed by that point to the work ahead.)

I responded that I was familiar with suicide notes, having written more than one in the past. I thought mentioning my experience could be helpful, since the hundreds of people at the conference included only a half-dozen “out” attempt survivors.

The group looked at me for a moment, then turned back to the man and asked him another question. Nothing. Not even a casual, “Oh really?” After a short while, I smiled, did a mental shrug and walked away.

Were they used to speaking with attempt survivors in their work and unimpressed at meeting another? Or were they speechless because, despite their work on suicide, they still didn’t know what to say?

One concern for me about speaking out has been the degree to which people, worried about “setting me off,” might be measuring their responses. Do they feel it would be risky to argue or be angry, even if they disagree? Is the conversation then still not open?

Another concern is the extent to which a person who has attempted suicide is forever marked by those who know it. Clearly, many people move on from an attempt and never try again, but from the hush around the topic you’d think that all of us are likely to go off at a moment’s notice. I received kind words and support at the conference, and I was happy that no one walked out during my presentation, but one comment afterward struck me as curious. After hearing that I’d been accepted to law school, one person said, “That’s a brave law school!” I wondered, “Why?” for a split second and then, “What can an attempt survivor do to truly put people at ease?”

Here is David’s response to my original question:

“I suspect it’s very hard, sometimes impossible, to break the perception that we’re some sort of time bomb,” he wrote in an e-mail. “For two reasons. First, that perception is mostly about that person’s prejudices and fears about suicide. It’s another example of the typical panic response to anything to do with suicide. So the first challenge is to _ calmly and slowly _ try to help people see that their perception comes from their prejudices, which is always hard to do. But the second reason, which complicates this, is that some of us ARE time bombs _ i.e., suicide does remain a viable option for some of us who have gone a certain distance down the suicidal path, even if we are not ‘actively’ suicidal at the moment. Which brings to the surface the important issue _ which many people try to play down and/or deny _ that suicide IS dangerous territory to think and talk about. We all know this, of course, because sometimes, regardless of everyone’s best efforts, some suicidal people DO DIE. There’s never any guarantee or certainty about anything to do with suicide. So let’s face up to this and not deny it. It’s part of the conversation _ even if it doesn’t get mentioned, it’s present in the ether whenever we talk about suicide.”

Later, he added, “And I’m very familiar with the different reactions you get from people and yes, ‘freaked out’ and ‘unimpressed’ are both common. I think you can add to this threatened, defensive, embarrassed, horrified, offended, etc., etc. … all the usual reactions you’ll get when people’s prejudices are exposed and challenged.”

There’s a huge open space for discussion on suicide. We can let it remain a nervous void, or we can at least start to fill it with admittedly nervous conversation. That’s how you break the ice sometimes.

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