Talking with Rohan Kallicharan


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 losing two good friends to suicide, she has embraced her project, Giggle On, which uses humor and yoga to loosen people up for talk about stress, mental health and suicide prevention. Aside from being a survivor of suicide loss, she spent time being suicidal herself as a young woman.

“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?


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.


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?


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


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.

Talking with Denise Kodi

In the coming days, Denise Kodi will mark 20 years since her suicide attempt. As difficult as the experience was, it became a turning point: “I had nothing left to lose, and I would try to live how I wanted to live.”

She went on to travel, teach, write and help others, even going back to the hospital where she had spent time after her attempt and volunteering. While researching a new memoir, she recently returned to her attempt and went exploring for what had changed in the mental health world since then.

Denise has noticed that the nervousness around speaking out largely continues, and she finds it wrong. “I think that’s the same, you know, as years ago when if a gay person says they’re gay, anyone they touch may be gay, too. Like there’s a vibe that someone can pick up,” she says. “I think that’s ignorance. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

OK. I’m a writer, I live in Denver, and I write mostly creative nonfiction because I find it more compelling than something I can make up. So. I’m sort of drawn to, you know, misfits, people who feel they don’t fit in, because I feel that way. I work with immigrants, refugees, teaching English, helping them navigate their way here in America. And I’m a sucker for rescue dogs, pathetic ones in the shelter who give you that look.

How did you come to be talking to me?

It’s been almost 20 years since my attempt. In May, it will be 20 years. And I know April and May are the actual months when suicide peaks, and I’ve lost some friends to suicide. And I’m really fascinated by the fact there’s such a stigma around it, and I came across your site and a couple others where people are sharing stories, and I think it’s so important. When I attempted, nobody was talking about it. I would venture to ask people, “Have you ever thought about it?” And people would say, “Oh, never!” And they would go into a big spiel about rainbows and God and create an extreme isolation where nobody talks about it.

Was it the anniversary that got you thinking about this?

I was working on a book. I wrote one memoir about growing up in this weird evangelical family with demons, curses, all that stuff. I was trying to do research for a second book about mental health and my experience. I was kind of doing research into the current situation and how things have changed.

What struck you about any changes?

Well, it’s good. On the one hand, there are more … When I was 25, you know, to gain access to resources, you would have had to go to the library and ask somebody, and now you can do research online privately. So there are more resources. At the same time, the numbers are still rising, and children as young as 10 are attempting suicide, and there’s still a huge stigma. While there’s been progress, there’s still a taboo, you know.

How do we go about changing that?

I think it’s similar to coming out, you know, more and more people coming out and talking about it, and talking about emotions. In our society, we label things as good or bad, you know. Certain emotions are OK to have, certain feelings are OK, and others are bad and we don’t want to talk about them. Also, there’s certain myths that are put forth. For example, you probably heard this about journalists: Writers are always gonna kill themselves. They always put the same people, Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, but they don’t talk about the others who managed to rebuild their lives and do OK. And also, we don’t talk about the people who thought about suicide and attempted and rebuilt their lives from there. They only put forward horror stories, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People think, “I must be alone, and this is the only way out.”

How have you rebuilt your life?

It was a hard road. Because the time that I attempted suicide, I was going through, I had some PTSD happening, and I didn’t really understand it. There were resources for therapy, but I didn’t have money for that. And so it was really hard, and I was not taking care of myself because I had grown up in a violent home and didn’t know how to take care of myself, in terms of who to let into my life. I was in a very unhealthy relationship but didn’t realize I had the choice and power to say, “No, I didn’t want this.” I thought I had to go with it, because that’s how I was raised.

I think I started, I had nothing to lose at that point because I was already at the lowest point in my life, and so I started kind of exercising my rights and realizing I didn’t have to put up with certain things and also to … I was always the crazy one in my family, and instead of living out that prophecy, I tried to live out what I wanted for myself. Does that make sense?

How did you figure out what you wanted?

Just little things. I had dropped out of college because I had felt like a failure. I had really wanted to finish, so I went back and fought all those feelings of failure and “I deserve to be punished.” I just stuck with it and gradually realized that I wasn’t. I kind of showed myself. And good friendships. Once I let go of the ones that were not best for me, I found some really good ones. But it was very hard.

Was there any treatment you found helpful?

Not at that time, no, unfortunately. And this is, like, during the ’90s, when the mental health system had a lot of things to work out. Because they … earlier, I had been misdiagnosed as bipolar, which I wasn’t, so they simply said, “Well, something’s wrong, you have a chemical imbalance.” I thought it was not accurate because I thought it was from things I had experienced in childhood. At the time, that was all just coming to a head then, you know, the childhood abuse and rape and so forth, and they were really focusing on medication. And I didn’t feel that was gonna work for me.

Also, I didn’t have the money. And that’s the other thing I think should change, and maybe it has: more affordable access to treatment. Though there were some support groups that had a minimal fee. I did find those helpful.

Did you tell people, and what were their reactions?

I did tell some people, and the reaction at that time was concern and fear, like they didn’t really want to hear about it. Even now, a lot of people don’t. They’re curious, I think, you know, because I think people struggle with their own feelings if they’re honest about it, but they don’t want to hear about it.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s the silence and taboo around it.

What made you decide to put your story out there?

I think people need to know they’re not alone. I had a writer friend who died by suicide about a year ago, and the reaction in the community was really varied. Some people were compassionate toward him, some were angry with him. And I think that was just ridiculous to be angry. We still treat it like a crime and they’re criminals, when they’re just people who are hurting. I think the more we acknowledge that, the better for everyone. I think some 30,000 people a year in America die by suicide, and if the stories can help prevent even one or two or thousands of those, we need to speak up.

Have you started speaking up elsewhere?

Yeah, it depends on the person. Some people acknowledge they thought or attempted. I have a friend who lost a brother to suicide, and she was very open to hearing about it. So it kind of varies. And I’ve written about it. I wrote a short kind of creative nonfiction piece. Actually, it won an award. And people, it did resonate with people, so that was really good to know.

Is it online?

It was published in The Progenitor, which I think is available through Arapahoe Community College. In their archives. It would be 2009, I think.

From a look at your website, you seem to have an unusual bio. How have you made your way through life? You were a corn-dog dipper, for example? Didn’t you have a pretty conservative upbringing?

Yeah. After my attempt, it was so scary because I was hallucinating from the pills for days, even after getting home from intensive care, and it was so terrifying. And that was when I realized that, like I said, I had nothing left to lose, and I would try to live how I wanted to live. I wanted to travel and teach, study and do all these things. So all that happened after that. It never would have happened if I had died. It all came as a result of facing that darkness. Does that make sense? But I don’t think I had … it’s a shame that it had to come to that extreme, you know? That’s what I think is sad about it.

Does any experience stand out, and what did you learn from it?

Yeah. I think meeting people from all walks of life, different cultures, and learning that we all have more in common than things that are different. And oh, and then the hospital where I was in the ICU, I went back to that hospital years later and volunteered to talk to other patients, for various reasons. And just finding out that life can be very hard, and everyone’s really a hero for what they go through. And just being able to see that other side. If someone’s in the hospital because that’s the only way to deal with what’s going on, just trying to get through life. Some stories are sad, some are heroic, you know? Everyone is just, we’re all, I think, brave soldiers, you know? It’s inspiring to hear other people’s stories.

Some people still think that telling our stories is not a good thing. Do you agree?

Why, because we might encourage people? No. I think that’s the same, you know, as years ago when if a gay person says they’re gay, anyone they touch may be gay, too. Like there’s a vibe that someone can pick up. I think that’s ignorance. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. The things that are kept in the dark just grow. If you push it in the ground, it will overtake you in the end.

What steps would you like to see to break down this silence?

What you’re doing is terrific. And I think just seeing more and more people come out. And I think the media, unfortunately, does more harm than good when it comes to this. They have the tendency to sensationalize and report the horror. They don’t go to the other side, don’t want to hear the success stories, to hear from people who might have some wisdom about their own experiences. We should open it up and allow people to come out about it. And I think a lot of times, the person is blamed as something wrong with them, and we need to look at what’s wrong with society, a particular culture contributing to this.

Maybe this is a completely separate topic, but do you have any point of view on “death with dignity,” assisted suicide?

I don’t know because … Freud died by assisted suicide, which I didn’t even know. I never knew that until recently, that he had been diagnosed with cancer, I forget what type, and 16 years later he had a doctor friend of his give him morphine. So that’s how he died. So I think there’s a whole stigma around death, too, because there’s this idea that anyone who dies somehow loses. “She lost a battle to cancer.” I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Our fear of death limits our perception of it, if that makes sense.

Where does religion come in, if at all?

Yeah, I sort of abandoned all that. But it did play a part, and I think it plays a part in a lot of people’s lives who were raised in a religious household. You get kind of a contradictory message that god loves the world so much that he gave his only son, but also that suicide will send you straight to hell. A loving god and a vengeful god, and then everyone’s born a sinner. So there’s all these very degrading beliefs in some religions, like you can’t win for losing, sometimes, in some of them. It can be very crushing. Also, you have the whole, in some fundamental Baptists, where I spent a good portion of my life, depression is from the devil. You’re supposed to, if you’re right with god, you’re just going to be happy and flipping cartwheels everywhere. The myth is put forward, and people who struggle and have depression and think it’s all coming from the devil, that’s just horrible.

Some people have mentioned Christian counseling. Was that ever available in your world?

When I was a teen, I had to see the pastor, and one of the biggest obstacles in that sort of mindset is, you’re not supposed to look back on anything that happened to you, because looking back was a sin. Lot’s wife turned to salt because she looked back. If something happens to you, you’re not supposed to look back or deal with it because it’s a sin. It creates lot of problems because if you don’t deal with it, it overtakes you.

Do you still have thoughts about this, and what do you do?

Yeah, I still from time to time struggle with depression. And taking care of myself, like exercise, helps. Writing. Talking. I have a great partner and good friends.

Are you able to talk to them about this, even?


What else would you like to put out there?

I don’t know, I think I’ve addressed it. The primary thing is talking about it. There’s a lot of blaming the person who has the thoughts and the feelings, instead of acknowledging this is something that affects nearly everybody. You know, the thoughts, anyway. I think it’s kind of like maybe Carl Jung’s theory on the shadow self, where all these repressed and unexpressed attitudes go and can grow big. I think once you can bring them into the light, healing can begin.

For people who say, “I don’t know what to say if someone is suicidal,” what do you suggest?

Listen. Ask questions. Maybe someone hasn’t thought about suicide, but I’m sure they’ve had moments when they were feeling really low and things were not going well in their lives and they have felt alone. If you have ever felt alone, you know how that person feels and can be a source of comfort. Just listen to them.

Who else are you?

Who else am I? Well, I actually, you now, a lot of what I wrote is funny. A lot of humor. Which is, I’m glad for. And I’m someone who loves to travel and meet other people. People tell me I have a wicked sense of humor, which is great, because I like making people laugh. I’m an animal lover, someone who enjoys adventures and challenges and being in the company of good friends.

Talking with Jack Park

Like a growing number of young attempt survivors, Jack Park came out on social media, amplified by Facebook. His response to a pair of suicides among his University of Pennsylvania classmates inspired him to talk openly about his own experience. His post, and students’ responses, quickly turned into national news.

Now he spends quite a bit of time meeting with other students, old and new friends, over coffee to talk about personal struggles. “I don’t even like coffee,” the South Korean-born Park says. “But when people talk, they usually talk over coffee in Western culture.” He makes it work.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

My name is Jack Park, and I’m from Seoul, Korea, but I came to the States for an undergraduate education. I applied to the University of Pennsylvania as an early decision applicant and, fortunately, I was one of the students who got in, and now it’s my third year in Philadelphia. I am majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Consumer Psychology, a mix of marketing and psychology. And, um, what else should I say about myself? Oh, I go to a campus church called GCC, Grace Covenant Church. I look forward to Sundays because going to church is fun and relaxing, and I learn a lot about life in church because, you know, they talk about the Bible. People usually look for answers when reading the Bible. I got a lot of my personal questions answered when I looked into the Bible intensively. That’s the spiritual side of me. I also like to nap, like, a lot.

I’m from Korea, and I think South Korea is equally, if not more than, depressed than America. There’s this river called the Han River, and there are lots of bridges that connect the south and the north of Seoul. One bridge is nicknamed the “Suicide Bridge.” Try Googling “suicide bridge Korea.” Now it’s being rebranded as a “Bridge of Life” to prevent suicides.

My country is mainly results-oriented, basically a strong “do or die” kind of mentality. Intense, highly motivated people. That’s good for some part, because Korea used to be in complete ashes after World War II. Our peninsula was, and still is, divided. The war destroyed everything in the nation. But in a couple decades, we were able to improve the economy with a hard-working, much-driven mentality producing Hyundai Elantras and Samsung Galaxies. The Korean society values success, like all societies. But success is closely defined as “hard-working, being stressed and busy.” It tells you you’re doing something.

Because I fortunately got accepted into an “East Coast elite institution,” I set some standards for myself unconsciously. Basically, the University of Pennsylvania is a group of very competitive, intellectual young people, like many other institutions. It doesn’t mean that Penn kids are a bunch of assholes, some are, but definitely not all students. They have high standards for themselves. They have to get certain “prestigious” internships, or want a 4.0 GPA to get into that law school, med school, dental school, grad school, onwards. I’m easily influenced by my surroundings, and everybody seemed like they knew what they were doing with their lives.

I, on the other hand, wandered around clueless for a long time. The early 20s is a confusing time for anybody, right? I didn’t even know what major I was going to declare, what to do during summer, I hadn’t found a job yet either. Lots of confusion. Then on the side, on the media there was lots of horrible news every day: rape and murder, planes crashing, shootings, you name it, all kinds of evil. I tried to think it through myself: I’m in this safe university bubble, protected from these dangers of other parts of society, but what did I do to deserve it, why do others have to suffer while I stay in my college life?

The University of Pennsylvania is located right next to a low-income neighborhood called West Philadelphia. The gentrification process is sometimes called “Penntrification.” I see homelessness, a side of structural poverty, every day while walking to class. That just didn’t seem fair at all. So these thoughts were happening every moment, as a growing train of thoughts, “Why is the world so unfair? And why do I and others have to be stressed all the time?” Then winter break happened, my freshman year, and I
went back to Korea to see my family. And I thought things were going to be a little better because I was off school.

But when I got back to Korea, the same things were happening in Korea as well. There always has been human greed and folly everywhere: rape, murder, suicide, poverty, corruption, homelessness, everything. The same damn thing. It got me thinking, “The world sucks. Why am I even contributing to this world?” Say I bought, like, a pair of UNIQLO jeans. To make that, a child laborer from a third world nation probably had to work unhealthy hours to make it for a cheap price. I’m ignorant enough of those global issues so I just buy the pants off the shelves. That was my sense of negativity all the time, for like a couple of months. Then I went back to Penn. Slowly, I didn’t want to contribute to this world anymore.

I saw absolutely no purpose in living. “What if I make a lot of money when I graduate? I’m just taking someone else’s money and profiting off another’s loss and misery in this zero-sum economy.”

I started to feel lonely all the time because of a depressive disorder, and even if I was with a group of friends, I felt as if no one was really, truly understanding me. And I started to eat by myself, then I started to not meet any people, then I started not to go to classes, because I thought everyone was judging me all the time. I couldn’t even pick clothes out of the closet because I thought people would look at me funny.

Suicidal thoughts slowly triggered, and they wouldn’t leave. All sorts of very dangerous thoughts occurred. Eventually, over time they took over me, and the suicidal side of me told me what to do. I started to try out some of the thoughts. I honestly think I was going to die that one day, but a true miracle happened for me. I started to resuscitate again all of a sudden. I started to live again. If not for that, I wouldn’t be talking to you on this interview.

Recently, a school television station interviewed me talking about how I was able to recover from depression slowly and start to love again. Please give it a viewing if you want to see me talking about my story here.

My depressive episode seemed as if it was never going to end, but it started to fade out after about three months. I can never thank my parents, friends, family and God enough. I started to go outside, eat outside, meet my friends, started to go to a bar. And then I’m pretty sure I had a manic episode after that. I’m pretty sure I also had bipolar tendencies. I was doing insane, abnormal stuff for a good two months. I was fitting into every single characteristic of a manic episode defined by the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I was spending lots of money, feeling extra sexual arousal, meeting many women, drinking and smoking like crazy, wanting to start businesses all the time, risk-seeking, talking fast, thinking fast, being mean to my friends, saying arrogant stuff. My personality, essentially, changed.

Over time, I started to say to myself, “Wow, I’m going crazy again, but the other way. Maybe I should do something about this.” I started researching on the computer, and I talked to my therapist. She gave me some mood stabilizers. I tried to talk at a normal pace and calm my life down. Then after some weeks the therapist said, “I think you can go back to school now. You’re OK.” I said, “Jesus, thank you.”

I’ve been doing normal college student things since my return: going to some classes, skipping some classes, handing in assignments, doing some extracurricular activities. Then in Penn, as many know, this past winter was a very depressing winter. Three known cases of student suicides were reported at Penn.

I saw the clear problem and wanted to so something about it. I know how horrible that struggle is, and I didn’t want anyone to go through the same stuff. I started to pray, because I pray for answers as a Christian: “What should I do, God?” I prayed for around two weeks. Then something just kind of felt like I should share my story with other people. I saw the TED Talk, too, the guy from New York who jumped off the bridge and lived. I’m looking at it: “Oh my gosh, so powerful. That’s awesome. Should I try doing the same? No, that’s too much for me.” And then, after that moment, the TED video moment, I kind of, well, read the Bible.

In Mark 5:19, it’s basically about a person with a “demon” who goes to Jesus, and Jesus cures that person. I thought that was like me, with the demon being mental illnesses. He tried to follow Jesus around, but Jesus told him, “No, go back, tell your family and friends what I did to you.” It’s telling Christians to share their testimonies, share the love, you know. So I was like, hmm, the Bible may be … telling me to share my story.

Nobody knew this. My parents knew, but my own little brother in high school didn’t, my dear girlfriend didn’t. How could I tell this to anyone? Like in a dinner conversation, “Oh, by the way, two years ago I tried to kill myself.” What? Beside my parents and my therapy counselor, nobody knew. It was like a dark chapter of my past, and I was trying to forget about it.

But now my path was chosen. I’ll share this story in an impactful way. How should I do this? I thought writing it down would be a good start. I drafted a blog post for three days. I tried to make it as least suicidal and most emotion- and thought-provoking as possible. And I had some good writer friends thankfully edit it for me. Some friends wanted to post it on a mental health Tumblr blog, and I was like, “Please do!”

The blog was up, and then I started to share it a lot on Facebook, because almost all college students Facebook. There are around 10,000 undergrads, and I estimated approximately people have around 100 friends on Facebook. So I thought if I asked around 100 friends to share it on their Facebook wall, then the information will start to spread like wildfire. So the Penn undergraduate body will be exposed to my darkest secret, and they will know that sharing personal weakness is actually somewhat acceptable.

And they will, like, talk it out, talk about mental health with each other, you know. For around five hours, I Facebooked religiously, responding to every notification as they appeared. Around 100 friends thankfully shared on their wall.

After that, there was a lot of school media and then USA Today, and then The Huffington Post. And then Philadelphia magazine. There’s also this magazine called the Ivy League Christian Observer, and they wanted to share my story because it’s very hopeful and spiritual. So I shared my story with them as well. Meanwhile, I’m meeting, like, a lot of old and new friends over coffee about personal struggles. I don’t even like coffee. But when people talk, they usually talk over coffee in Western culture. So I chose the theme of coffee. Yeah.

Lots of people have been sharing their stories to me: “Oh. I’m depressed, too.” “Oh, you’re bipolar? Oh, me too!” I realized it’s a relatively common condition. Nowadays I’m trying to catch up on my schoolwork. I’m very behind, like, a lot.

Have all the reactions been good?

I think so? No one has directly said bad things to my face. But I heard some rumors. There will always be haters, whatever you do. By chance, I became somewhat of a public figure on campus. A few people recognize me in campus buildings and stuff. Some people got jealous. They would say something like, “Oh did you make all this up to become famous?” No, why the hell would I make this up. Some stuff like that, but that’s a real minority of responses. The majority responses were like, “Thank you for what you’re doing. Maybe we should have coffee together. I tried to harm myself a few years ago, too, but now I’m doing better.”

Do you think it’s easier for younger people to come out?

I’m not sure, because I’m not a very representative sample with a small sample size of one. I think it’s hard for anybody, college students, working professionals, or anybody really. This is not a common topic to talk about anywhere, but these days it’s been a hot topic in Penn because it’s been very visible. It appeared in the newspaper. But unfortunately, I think the buzz will die out over time. The Penn community might even forget about Madison, Elvis and Alice slowly.

What should the school do to stop the stress?

They should be a little bit more serious about allocating resources to mental health issues. Penn has a lot of money. The amount of money is not a big problem here, allocation is. They are not really doing enough to support the students in regards to mental health. These three students unfortunately passed away. There’s something Penn can do. There’s something students can do. Something parents and professors can do. It’s not just Penn’s fault, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a not important issue to address more directly.

What do your parents think about all of this?

Oh my God. I told my parents and they were like, “Are you sure about this?” In Korea, I have to serve in the military sometime, because all able-bodied Korean males must. If you have a past history of mental disorders, you get placed in a “specialized unit” and they pay extra attention to you. It’s horrible.

And firms don’t usually hire people with mental disorder backgrounds. My real name is not Jack Park; it’s my small attempt to avoid getting called out in Korea for the official records. The point is, they were very doubtful at first. Then I explained to them what I was going to do, that I prayed a lot about this, and I think God is telling me to do this, the Bible says share your testimony. My parents are Christian, too. So if that’s God’s will, we’ll support you, they said.

What if a fourth student suicide occurs at Penn this year, despite your efforts?

I’m trying my best, but at the end, we can’t really completely change everybody’s lives. We are humans with limitations. Did you watch the Disney movie “Frozen”? There’s that song “Let it Go.” I let go of my insecurities and unrealistic expectations for myself. I just do my best, and at the end it’s up to a higher being, I believe. I learned to become much more humble in my approach. I’m not a savior like Jesus Christ. I’m not going to actually change lives, I’m just here to share my story of hope and love and what I’ve been experiencing.

Is there anything about society’s response to suicidal thinking that you would most like to change, and how?

When people hear that someone had suicidal thoughts, one of the common natural responses is to avoid that person altogether, since they don’t want to be involved in the situation. It may be explained by the bystander effect combined with the diffusion of responsibility: Somebody should be doing something for them, but not me. My faculty advisor and professors at the University of Pennsylvania were all concerned about my condition back few years ago, but none of them really actively reached out to me personally. It is not because they are cold-hearted or apathetic, but because they thought they were not certified or qualified enough to deal with depression without a degree or a license.

That should change. I don’t have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but that does not mean that I can’t stop by and listen to my friends about their hardships, spend quality time with them, and pray for them.

Nobody is ready for suicide prevention. There are some prevention experts, but they absolutely cannot do the job alone. We all have friends and colleagues who might be depressed at this very moment, or at least be having a bad day. Around one in 10 Americans is depressed, so if you have more than 10 friends, you likely have somebody who you can reach out to check on. And they will appreciate it. It might, not to sound too dramatic,  even save some lives if we start to spread more love around every day. Please, please don’t ignore people who seem down or suicidal, they need your attention most at the moment.

As you said, you can’t really bring up this topic at a dinner party. But what can be done to make suicidal thinking something we can talk about more openly?

I don’t think people should always bring depression, mental illnesses, or suicides into dinner conversations. It might even cause increased thoughts of suicides. That would be almost similar to bringing up other grim topics of society, such as rape or murder, at a dinner party. What we could do better is to destigmatize mental health issues, since many people don’t really believe it’s a real condition.

People may tell you to simply “man up” or to “try harder” or to “be happy” when you tell them that you are depressed. For my darkest times, I did not have any capability to just “man up,” since my mind went through some sudden changes that disabled me to think positively at all for more than three months.

And depressive disorders are, tragically, too common. Around 120 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression. I believe that is a vulnerable population worth investing our efforts into. When we get a cold, we don’t hesitate to visit a CVS to grab some medicine for fever. When we get chronically depressed, however, we hesitate and even feel ashamed admitting that we might be depressed and don’t seek for help. This negative stigma against mental health is not helpful at all. When there is an issue, we need to address it directly, and hiding it under fake smiles will only grow the problem further. For reasons I can’t still fully understand, I had a long depressive episode in my early college days that nearly ruined and perhaps even ended my life.

The struggle is real. Please believe me.

It’s not an easy disease to defeat, since it’s a plague of the mind, and the brain is one incredibly complicated system to deal with. Fortunately I had my loving parents, friends, and God taking care of me and seeking help for me.

Talk about this. Get support about this. Don’t ever give up about this. Pray about this. To add to the conversation, I share my email account to listen to your story _ yes, you reading this _ and tell you mine if you want to hear my case of recovery. We can perhaps be friends too after a few emails back and forth. I’m not that awkward in real life, I promise. You can find me at: jackpark778 (at) gmail.

Who else are you?

I’m working as an intern in a social impact consulting firm. I like studying marketing because I think it could be an easy fix for many problems. I used to intern for a cool Philadelphia laundry company.

I like Korean food (in Korea, it’s just called food), and I like traveling. I love seeing new cultures. I like to sing, I don’t know, this feels like filling out a dating site biography. And I think church can do a lot of good stuff for people, because you know, church and the Bible are often misunderstood. If you look beyond the misunderstandings, I think the Bible can do even more good than now.