Talking with Mike Bush

“I changed from being a senior psychiatric social worker one day to being a mental health user the next day on the opposite side of the table. A very strange kind of bizarre experience.”

Mike Bush is one of the many people in mental health who’ve had their own experience with suicidal thinking and actions, though few speak out as openly as he has. I came across him while researching mainstream mental health groups in the UK, intrigued by their focus on campaigns for rights and social justice. Mike played an early role in organizing support for loss survivors after losing his father to suicide four decades ago. Years later, he became suicidal himself. Clinical depression, he found, was far harder than bereavement _ and he feels he still hasn’t adjusted to his father’s death.

Here, Mike talks about finding Christianity during his recovery, his latest campaign to help other caregivers protect themselves from stress and the tight bonds between the poor economy and despair: “You slash people’s services, benefits, the economic situation is in peril, it has a very detrimental effect on well-being. This is what’s happening.”

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I’m, well, I suppose I wear a lot of hats. I’ve been actively suicidal myself, and I’ve been bereaved through suicide. I lost my father over 40 years ago now. I worked 30 years as a mental health social worker. So I’ve been involved in lots of campaigning on suicide issues, particularly bereavement, a very important part of suicide prevention. If you don’t support those left behind, you’ll get further suicides, you know? Certainly in Britain, which has one suicide every 90 minutes, every suicide has six to eight people who are deeply affected, but many more than that are also affected. So yeah, it’s been a central issue for me ever since my father died. I’ve been involved with a group for 15 years, and I’m involved in setting up another group with better information and networking between agencies.

How much did losing your father affect your own experience? And how much time has passed?

Research shows that if you’re bereaved, you’re more likely to have mental health problems and an increased risk of suicide yourself. Obviously any great trauma, like losing someone through suicide, takes its toll. I don’t think I ever reached adjustment. I lost my mother from cancer when I was 15. It was over 40 years ago when this happened, but my father’s death was three years later and that feels sort of like it happened five or six years ago. More recent in memory. I think you don’t ever reach an adjustment through losing someone through suicide. At best, you reach an accommodation. I’ve adjusted to my mother’s loss, but my father’s feels like it happened far more recently. All bereavement is really hard, but with suicide you’re bereaved by that person’s hand, so that makes it uniquely difficult for those left behind. A whole kaleidoscope of emotions and feelings swirling through your mind constantly and “What if?” questions that people torture themselves with. There’s a book, “A Special Scar,” that says bereavement is like a personal holocaust. It really seriously messes up people’s lives. That’s why I’m passionate about people getting support and help. The best way is peer support. They better understand what it’s like.

You’ve been pushing for more support for this over the past 30 years?

Yeah! A long time

What was support like back then?

Well, we set up a group in the early ’90s. At that time, there was no support at all in the area. We had people coming from all Yorkshire, from all the way around. There was just nothing else around. The situation’s improved in the more recent years. There are quite a few branches around for survivors of bereavement suicide. I’m in the process of setting up a branch. They have a national helpline people can ring. I have a national campaign going on 38 Degrees calling for a national suicide bereavement service. It’s done really well in Australia. I think we need the same over here. In Britain, it really depends on where you live. Some have quite decent support, others none at all.

Where did you get support?

When my father took his life, it was just what my sister and I could provide to each other. Really tough. And so when I worked as a mental health social worker in Leeds, in the early 1990s, one day I saw a letter on the bulletin board about the idea of setting up a group for those bereaved. The words jumped off the page at me. A great idea. I contacted the mental health chaplain, he had lost his father through suicide. We set up the Leeds organization of survivors of suicide. We used to meet twice a month for a couple of hours. And we would see people individually, because groups are not for everyone. We’d like people to come to the group if possible. We learned an awful lot about suicide issues. We’d get so many different stories.

What surprised you?

It was not at all uncommon for us to be dealing with families with more than one suicide. If somebody close to you takes their life, it’s like the Rubicon’s been crossed, like it gives you permission to follow the same. When my father died, I sort of wanted to do it, to be with him. I’ve worked with a family where there have been three suicides. So this is why it’s so important that you try to provide the best support to people. To prevent this happening. We can’t bring people back to life again, but we can enter into that suffering and share with it. One of the first things people tend to ask the support group is, “Have you been bereaved by suicide?” We can say that. I’ll always remember a man who came in, he had been seen by a clinical psychologist for two years, but he said, “I’ve found it more helpful tonight than those two years. This has been indescribably helpful to me.” One thing we also found is, the majority of people who came were mothers, girlfriends, wives. We’d rarely see men. That doesn’t entirely surprise me. In Britain, two-thirds of suicides are male. Issues around masculinity, be strong, you can’t show feelings. A lot of men aren’t good with the emotional stuff.

How did you get into your work as a mental health social worker?

I got into it quite honestly because my mother was a very caring, supportive person. She helped a lot of people locally, and she set me a really good example. And I kind of got involved in volunteer work in school. I realized when I was 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a social worker. So it was before I lost my mother and father. But part of going into mental health social work is what happened to my father, yeah.

How have you protected yourself, with all of the work you do?

I lost my father when I was 18. I kind of buried myself in my work. It was my way of coping. I didn’t want to be emotionally close to people. I didn’t want to get too close to anyone because of the impact of the loss. So I kind of threw myself into social work. And you can work 24-7 in social work if you want to. It was my way of coping, rightly or wrongly.

Did you feel like you had to save people?

I just wanted to be involved in helping people across the board. Obviously, my personal experience informed my understanding. So yeah, it contributed to it in that sense.

Did you tell people about your experience?

Not in my professional role, no. But certainly in the work I did with the loss group.

(I mention how it might be helpful for clients to know the person they’re confiding in has had their own experience, but professional boundaries prevent that.)

On occasion, I have told. There are times when it’s appropriate to disclose, and I have done it. But there are other occasions when it doesn’t feel appropriate to do that. So you have to use your judgment about that.

How did your own suicidal experience come about? Your e-mail mentioned overwork.

This was many years later. I had far too much on my plate. I was doing two social work jobs, covering for someone else who was out for months. I was working in a tough area with the community health team. Also, I was on three or four different management committees, plus I was working a lot with people bereaved by suicide, straight after work or sometimes during my lunch break. Also, I was suffering with a bad sleep disorder and was tired all the time. I was a union rep. I was struggling but basically coping. My boss was very good. But unfortunately for me, our boss left and the boss from hell came along, who literally would scream and shout, throw things about. I had three colleagues who were so distressed they were crying on my shoulders. I would take up grievance procedures with management.

Long story short, stress builds up and up. Anxiety, not sleeping for days, and everything was spinning out of control. I just couldn’t cope, go on any longer. I got on very well with the manager of the community psychiatric nursing, we talked things through, and we both realized I needed help, to get away from it. She drove me to see my general practicioner, my GP, and I went in to see her and she said to me, “You know a lot more about mental health than I do. What do you want to do?” I said I’d assessed myself as needing to see a consultant psychiatrist.

I changed from being a senior psychiatric social worker one day to being a mental health user the next day on the opposite side of the table. A very strange kind of bizarre experience. I was so used to being in the helping role. And now finding I was useless and needing help myself. Very difficult. I can’t put into words how much I learned, what real mental distress was actually about. No academic learning can give you that. That lived experience. It was an education in many ways.

Any examples of what you learned that you had thought you knew?

It made me understand how useless and vulnerable you can feel, frightened, terrified out of your mind. You have no energy at all. Just walking across the room was like climbing Everest. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted a cup of tea or coffee, whether to turn left or right. These simple things seemed too much. Depression consumes every atom of your being. That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with. It changes your whole way of thinking. You lose all hope. You lose all … yeah. You just lose everything. Even my sense of taste. Everything used to taste like cardboard. It affects you in every sphere of your life. I’d have given everything I owned for five minutes of respite.

How does it compare with the sadness of losing someone? Is sadness sadness, or are the two different?

Completely. Grief bereavement is very hard. But clinical depression is far harder. It affects you in a far deeper way. Yeah.

How did you get out of it?

I was very lucky. Two things: I have an exceptionally good wife and an exceptionally good psychiatrist, who was very good at listening and understanding what I went through. Very therapeutic in the whole interaction. He was also very supportive to my wife. He really was excellent. I can’t say I felt the medication helped me, very strong antidepressants, tranquillisers and mood stabilizers. I’m not sure how much that helped or not. A lot of drugs didn’t seem to work. The best medication was how he was with me. I think it was the passage of time, thinking things through, that played a part. Wife, friends.

Interestingly, I became a Christian. One day when I felt particularly suicidal, I felt myself turning to the local church. I’d always been a strong atheist, but a very good friend of mine had been a priest, a vicar, and he’s just a great guy, we were very close friends. He said one day, “Come in and join is, the water’s warm.” His smile would light up the room. That phrase was going round in my mind when I found myself walking to the local vicar’s house. Something was strongly saying to me, “Go see the vicar.” I did. He was in, very supportive. He talked to me about something called the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity. I basically became involved with that. Intellectually, I couldn’t take it, but I did pick up the love and concern that was around me. Particularly a woman who had suffered from depression, she gave me the hope that things would get better. What she said, but also how she said it. To me, it was my first conscious experience of the love of God, you know?

I started going to the church and people asked, “Can we pray for you?” I felt like that was something really important. It acted as validation. I wasn’t getting that from psychiatric services because of professional boundaries. It was something that mattered to me a great deal. We are three elements: mind, body and spirit. I feel there’s a spiritual dimension to depression. We are these three elements for optimum health. These three elements are interrelated. So that was an important part of my recovery, becoming a Christian. My faith is very important to me now.

How long did it take before you felt well?

I began to sort of pull out of my depression after about 12 months. You can imagine a big factory, like a big power plant, with the turbines and generators, and in my case it was like all of a sudden one of the generators came to life, started to move, then got faster, then others started to work. I felt life returning to me, coming back into me. A wonderful feeling. The darkness lifted, and I started to see life in colour. It was the most wonderful thing, and once it started to pick up, it picked up pretty quickly.

It became very important to me that I became involved in user and carer voluntary work. I threw myself into that heart and soul. It got me using my brain again, meeting with people. It wasn’t formally written into my care plan. I stumbled upon it myself and found it very helpful. It took me three years before I got back into working as a social worker. It kind of built up my confidence bit by bit. Initially I thought I would never work again, then maybe I’d work a lower-level job. Then I thought, “Why not get back into social work?” I’d always loved it, loved the people. It wasn’t that social work had made me ill, it was the really a bad bullying management experience, and too much on my plate. An important part of my recovery was to get back into social work. I did it for another five years.

How old are you now?

59.

How did you get into speaking out?

I feel I’ve always been a pretty outspoken person, perhaps even more so now. I realized the importance of being upfront and honest. And also the importance of using the experience to convey to other people insights and understandings. I read a very good article in the British Medical Journal by the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, called “Doctors as Patients,” about his own experiences of depression. I felt this was good, this guy was able to do that. And it kind of made me think, “I should write an article.” I wrote about my own experience and got it published in a counseling and psychotherapy journal. I also wrote about becoming a Christian. I found the writing very therapeutic. I was in floods of tears while writing it. Heart-wrenching, really, but also very healing. A very useful thing to do. I think others have found that as well. I also wanted to convey to other people the sense of hope as well. It’s one of the things you have to do when helping people in mental distress. Hope is one of the first casualties. I think the important thing in helping people is to hold hope for them. They can lose the capacity to hold hope.

What have been the reactions to your being open about this?

I think it’s been very positive. Fortunately, I’ve not had any negative responses. People have said they found it very moving. It’s helped them to understand. Yeah, it’s been positive.

It seems like more people are speaking openly, and there are more anti-stigma and awareness campaigns. But the suicide rate keeps going up. What needs to happen?

I can only talk about my country, Britain. Certainly over here, we’ve got a lot of problems. With mental health problems, there’s a macro thing and micro elements. Over here, we’ve got awful problems with a right-wing government slashing and burning our welfare state and trying to privatise our precious National Health Service. It seems hell-bent on privatizing whatever it can. A lot of services, as well as other health and care services, are being slashed. It’s hitting disabled people particularly hard, including people with mental health problems.

We’ve also got a terrible recession. A lot of poor and disabled people, and over a million young people, can’t get work. The people who are at work are worried about losing their jobs, being made redundant. They can’t afford mortgage payments. A lot turn to soup kitchens, food banks, as we call them here. Parents go without food so children can eat. It’s just dreadful. Obviously, mental health is affected by these social economic issues. It’s not rocket science to work out why. You slash people’s services, benefits, the economic situation is in peril, it has a very detrimental effect on well-being. This is what’s happening. A really bad scene.

How to make this a more comfortable topic?

Very difficult, isn’t it? I do think education is vitally important. I think we should be teaching children right from the early ages the importance of looking after themselves. I do a lot of work now, I teach on university courses, a lot of work on what I call looking after ourselves, strategies for protecting and promoting the mental health of people in caring professions. There’s so much pressure now in Britain, with less people to do more and more work. Demands are increasing. I think social work is bad at addressing this whole agenda of looking after ourselves. When I did my own course back then, there was nothing. I’ve been doing sessions on this seven years now.

I was astonished. I was talking with social workers in their third year of their degree course. I asked, “Prior to me, had you done anything on this at all?” “No, we haven’t looked at it.” It’s crazy, because you’re training people do one of the most stressful jobs. It seems ludicrous. It’s easy, if you’re committed and conscientious and in the stress of meeting other people’s needs, to forget about your own, and stress is very insidious. It takes over bit by bit. It becomes normal to you. Then all you need is a bit of extra pressure and stress, and you’re over the edge. If you don’t fill your tank, it runs on fumes and it stops. You know?

(I ask about the tension or misunderstanding at times between the bereaved and attempt survivors, sometimes after confusion over the term “suicide survivor.”)

I came within a breath of taking my life. Obviously as someone who was suicidal myself, I understand what depression is, what it does to people. If you haven’t had that experience, you can’t fully understand it. There are some experiences you have to have in life to fully understand. You know, some people, if they’ve lost someone, they feel a whole kaleidoscope of feelings. They also feel angry and resentful at the person leaving them with the wreckage of it all. So their level of understanding is very skewed, very limited. So that’s why you get that reaction from some people. They don’t understand, so they tend to get angry about it. I do agree with you very strongly, there’s a need for groups for people feeling suicidal to get support. I agree it’s a desperate need. A need also to provide support to their friends and relatives. I know that’s an area of the national suicide prevention strategy for England.

Your writing has mentioned Maytree and the Leeds crisis center. Do you know of others?

Those are the two main ones. We are desperately short of crisis houses, crisis centers. A real big need. We really should have one in every town and city. Because it gets away from the medical model, away from the psychiatric pharmacy approach to mental distress, and provides a wider, holistic approach. I think that’s something really important. It’s actually a lot cheaper than putting someone in a psychiatric hospital, and a lot less stigmatising. I think you’re talking about my blog on the Mind site. We have kind of  postcode lottery. Some areas, people get good care, some bad.

What else would you like to see changed?

I think the really important issue is education. The importance of understanding emotions and well-being, developing strategies to build emotional resilience. For everyone. To learn how to be mentally healthy. We get a lot of stuff about physical health. Not about mental health well-being. You go into the GP and there’s loads of stuff on the wall about physical health problems but often nothing at all about mental health. There’s a report called “No health without mental health.” Supposedly, there’s supposed to be equal parity between the two. How we feel mentally will affect us physically, and the other way around. I’m afraid when it comes to reality, it doesn’t measure up. Mental health services tend to be one of the first things that get slashed back.

(I ask for his impressions on mental health groups in the UK like Mind, which seem to put more importance on rights and social justice than the large mainstream groups in the U.S.)

I think Mind is very good. Also, there’s another organization called Rethink that deals with serious mental health issues, they do very good work as well. Also the Mental Health Foundation. We’re lucky, we’ve got some very good national mental health organizations. Another one is called the Depression Alliance. They all have a very strong campaigning arm to them. We are lucky in that respect.

You do automatically think of rights and social justice in terms of mental health in the UK?

Yes, we have what’s called a psychiatric survivor movement. As a result of experiences in the old what were called lunatic asylums, there was a feeling built up that it was so terribly wrong how people were treated. People formed associations for a more enlightened approach, and gradually through the years organizations like Mind were established. Another organization is called Papyrus, which specializes in supporting young people who are suicidal.

In everyday life, how will people react if someone talks openly about their experience?

I think it’s a mixed bag. Generally, it’s respected that users and carers are important people, that their stories should be heard. But in reality, it’s a mixed picture. In some areas, there’s some really genuine user involvement, taken seriously. There are other areas where it’s very tokenistic, not really embedded in practice. Very superficial.

Do you worry that the depression will come back, and how do you protect yourself?

I think what’s really important is, certainly, the mental health system over here isn’t always terribly good at helping people stay well. I think the important thing, obviously, is to help people stay well. I learned the hardest possible way the importance of mental health, how central it is to your whole life. I learned a valuable lesson myself, understanding myself, the trigger points, understanding the importance of being mentally healthy. Having meaning, purpose, friendship. Enjoying life, in other words. In my case, my faith as well is important. I’ve got to say I don’t worry. I feel very positive. I feel I’ve got my life very well on stream.

What a mental breakdown does is, it brings you sharp up against yourself, forces you to take stock of your entire life and to really work out what you need to do about that to change your life to a more positive sort of pattern. One of the most useful things I read was a brilliant book, called “Depressive Illness, The curse of the strong.” Very interesting, because it makes the point that often people who are very committed, very conscientious are often more prone to have stress and depression because those who aren’t so much won’t take things on so much, they will drop out of things. The others will carry on, soaking up stuff all the time. Those who aren’t don’t get so stressed or become depressed. It made a lot of sense. I’ve lent it out to a lot of other people. It was recommended to me by the Depression Alliance. It’s by a psychiatrist, but it takes a holistic approach. So I think books can be very helpful. I actually said to my psychiatrist, “You know, this is a book you might like to refer to patients. It’s not the question of getting them well, it’s helping them stay well.” Fortunately, I’ve been discharged from him for many years.

Who else are you?

I am very committed to my mental health work. It’s a very important part but, as you say, it’s not the sole part. And it would not be mentally healthy for it to be so. I’m teaching these sessions to social work students, and if I can’t realize the importance of looking after myself, I can’t teach others, yeah? So I have lots of other interests. My friends matter a great deal. I enjoy ecotherapy, the sort of walking with people in green areas, enjoying nature. To me, one of the best things in life is to go on a walk with friends. That is one of most therapeutic things you can do. Ecotherapy is at least as effective as antidepressants in mild to moderate depression. I’ve got an interest in Roman history. I’ve got an interest in astronomy. I like gardening. I’m into photography and computers. Yeah, I also like music a lot. So it’s very important, no matter how committed and conscientious about your work, very important to do things that have nothing to do with that work. So, rest and relaxation are really important. And you’ll work far more effectively as well.

Talking with Natalie De Stefano

This is a story about someone who worked for years in suicide prevention, knew and preached the coping skills and still ended up trying to kill herself. Natalie De Stefano wrote to me last month, and her story leapt off the page.

Imagine having a migraine, or living on the brink of one, for 20 years. And finding no medications that help. And being told, “Hang on ’til after menopause.” Natalie tried. As she counseled suicidal veterans as a case manager, she wore sunglasses and kept her pills nearby. She loves her work, And then last year, the pain got worse. She began having migraines every day, with nausea and vomiting. After her attempt, she was in a coma for more than a week. She woke up angry.

And pretty bewildered. Her psychiatrist told her he couldn’t see her for three months. “So I sat at home wondering what the heck was I supposed to do. Nobody could relate to me.” In her work, she wrote, “we made sure veterans had follow-up appointments, phone calls, letters, cards, support group meeting appointments, and they were always welcome to call me or drop by anytime. I look at what is happening to me and think, ‘Huh, this is rather strange.'” Finally, her boss at the VA hospital stepped in to take over her care.

Here, Natalie talks about the special challenges of comforting veterans, the national pilot project of veterans’ support groups for attempt survivors and, of course, her most recent lesson in suicide prevention.

I’m a nurse at a VA hospital. I was in the Navy seven years, and so I wanted to be there and serve fellow veterans. Being a nurse is something I decided to do later in life, but I really enjoy it. I really enjoy having vets to talk to. I have a good rapport and understand where they’re coming from because I’ve been exposed to, well, I’ve had depression a lot of my life. I had a lot of the same problems. I know when you’re a vet and you work at the VA, they feel they can trust you more. And if you experienced some of the same things, they feel more open to talk to you about things. So I like that part. I’ve worked in the in-patient psych unit, in suicide prevention. I love all aspects of mental health nursing. Anything about helping people. I just really took the job seriously. If someone called and was suicidal, I just did whatever I could to get them resources to get some help.

I have one son, he lives in Belgium. I had him while I was in the military, to a Italian citizen. We eventually divorced. My son was parentally abducted from me when he was 7, and I haven’t seen him since. He’s 25 now. I only talked to him on phone and Facebook and stuff since he was, like, 13. So that was a lot of depression right there that I eventually overcame, but it’s still there. Both of my parents are gone, no brothers and sisters, just me in the world. So I go to work and really put my, you know, it’s like my family.

I have a dog. My dog is like the thing I love so much. He’s a Boston terrier, his name is Adler. He has so much energy. He gets up on my bed, kisses me, keeps me going. I have a roommate who’s also a nurse at the VA. We keep each other going. She’s a psych nurse also. That’s basically who I am.

There must be something about dogs. So many people I speak with have them.

Yes, I when went to a conference in San Francisco, we had a woman speak about how effective they are as therapy. Really, I always tell vets, if you’re able to take care of yourselves, a dog is so beneficial.

I’m thinking over what you said in your e-mail. One part that really stood out was when you said that you had worked in suicide prevention and knew exactly what to do.

Obviously, I know all the coping skills. We have a group at our VA. If you’re at high risk for suicide, you’ve had a high-risk attempt, we have a group on Tuesdays at 1:30 and Thursdays at 6 for people who survived, because they have no one else to talk to. They just give each other encouragement.  Part of my job was to call people, make sure they were OK. I called them every week: “Hi, this is Natalie, how are you doing today? What’s going on? Any suicidal thoughts? Have you eaten today? Have you taken your meds? Do you need to talk?” Plus, we sent out cards and letters. I tell people they can stop by the hospital any time it’s convenient, just come into my office and I’ll make time to talk. So I knew, I know what people need when it’s over and they’re just left there. And I know what they feel when they’re getting ready, when they’re on the edge. So I know both sides of the coin.

So, after it was over and they told me I could go home, nobody made any appointments for me. I was at a regular hospital. I had been in a coma eight days and was not expected to live. I had a living will, but they didn’t honor it. Anyway, nobody helped me. My psychiatrist didn’t contact me, and when I tried to make an appointment, I was in shock, and he couldn’t give me an appointment until the middle of March. So I was like, “What am I supposed to do now? I don’t have my medicine.” It was like, “This is terrible.” I kept trying to call and page him.

I have really bad insomnia. While I was in a coma, I lost a lot of my short-term memory. I have no ability to sleep now. I will stay awake 24 hours a day. I’m literally awake if I don’t have something to help me. I was awake for days. I finally talked to the chief of mental health at the VA and she said, “Just let us handle your care.” She got me to a new psychiatrist who didn’t know me as a VA employee. So she was very nice to me, and on a day she wasn’t even working, she met me and talked to me, worked out a treatment plan. She understood I couldn’t sleep and made it available for me to get meds to sleep. Because if I don’t sleep, it brings on migraines, which was the number one reason for my attempt. So that was really important. That was good.

Also, normally, our psychiatrists at the VA are so busy, they only see you 15 minutes to do a med check. Also psychotherapy. So she’s really going over and above. Tomorrow, I have an hour’s appointment. I can talk about all that’s going on, what’s changed, what’s gotten better. She’s really more like a therapist and a psychiatrist all in one. Normally you just go into the psychiatrist and it’s, “How’s your medicine working? OK, see you in three months.” My chief of mental health helped me so much. She helped facilitate because I’m still on leave. They’re really just like a family. And I know a lot of people have one bad experience and think all of the VA sucks, so this is just to let them know it doesn’t.

How recent was this for you?

Jan. 11

You’re OK talking about it?

Yeah. It’s all right.

With all of your experience in suicide prevention, how could you still do it?

My number one thing was pain. And pain, as I found in working in that suicide prevention position, pain is a big, big factor for people. You don’t understand until it’s your own personal thing. I had migraines for over 20-something years. And for the last six months before my attempt, the migraines were worse and worse. I missed so much work. I went to doctor after doctor. They tried me on different medications, which made me sick to my stomach, made me uncomfortable, fatigued. They never, ever took the pain away. I went to one, supposedly this person in the civilian world who was a headache specialist. I’m 50 years old, and I can’t go on vacation, can’t go out at night, can’t make plans because I don’t know if I’ll have a headache. It had been that way for a long time. So I see this specialist, or his nurse practicioner. She doesn’t have much of anything new to tell me. She tells me that in time, it will get under control. Well, my time was up. I was tired of having a headache, and I’m sure people were tired of hearing me say I had a headache. The pain was just so excruciating.

I had an outside therapist and kept telling her this pain was really starting to get to me. And I knew what the coping skills are. But to me, in my mind, it was best not to have the pain at all. I just didn’t want the pain anymore. I’ve heard all the arguments about that. You know, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Well, this temporary problem was going on for over 20 years. It was a problem every single day. It had become who I was, and if you knew me, that’s what you associated me with, having a headache. And it wasn’t just me. My mother had had these, and I just saw how she was. And I didn’t want to be some debilitated person. I just wanted to go out my way. That’s it. I really had no intention of ever being alive again. I thought I had planned it pretty good. But someone had another plan for me.

But yeah, I had been going to more frequent counseling. I journal, I crochet, I do tons of different stuff. I have my dog, I read, I do a bunch of stuff on the Internet. I do a lot of coping skills, you know. And I know the coping skills for pain and have told them to people. “Why not have a nice hot shower?” I’m in so much pain that only if I got a gun and shot my head, and you’re telling me to take a hot shower? I don’t think so. For a time I was on narcotic pain medicine, but that just took it away for that moment and then it was back again, a blinding insane pain.

How is it now? How are you?

On Friday, I went to my VA primary care doctor to get medication that you can take every day to cut down on the frequency and intensity of headaches, but nobody wanted to let me take it because suicidal thoughts are one side effect. Well, that’s one side effect of almost every medication. I was getting frustrated, crying, couldn’t take it anymore. So I’ve been taking it since Friday, not really time to build up, still having some headaches. But if I take the medicine immediately. And I know what all my migraine triggers are. Last night, the guy next door, teenagers, started playing their garage band outside, so that one I had no control over. I just had to deal with it. I’m hoping that will cut down on things for me. And I’ve got about six appointments. Before, all they wanted to do was MRI and CT. Now they’re doing vascular studies for circulation to my brain, some really in-depth tests to figure out what’s going on. This much was not done until it got serious.

How much longer are you on leave?

I don’t know, that’s up to the psychiatrist.

What have been the reactions?

Most people that I helped knew I was a veteran. Of course, I didn’t cross the therapeutic boundary and share my personal life. I think some knew I’d had headaches. I had the meds on my desk, had sunglasses on, things like that. The majority of them don’t know, but the ones I’ve seen have been OK with it. They treated me like another veteran. I think the employees have been a little more uncomfortable, not the ones I work with directly, but some others have been more uncomfortable with me than the veterans themselves.

Why?

I think because a lot of the veterans I worked with in suicide prevention, I also had worked with them in the residential substance abuse unit, so I guess they could empathize.

Like you empathized with them in the first place.

Exactly. You don’t have to really know what someone’s reason was. You just have to know it was something they couldn’t deal with anymore. You don’t have to know that much about it to know it was something extremely disturbing to them to do that. It really has to be your very last resort. And I’m not saying it was easy to do. It was something I had resigned myself to. I just got up and, I don’t really remember much about that day even. I just had read a whole lot and wanted to make sure that I didn’t throw up, drank milk between handfuls of pills. I remember lying down on the bed, but that’s not where they found me.

They took you to a non-VA hospital. Once you woke up, how were you treated?

While I was in ICU, they were very nice. I had a one-to-one sitter. At first, I didn’t realize that was going on. That’s the right protocol. The nurses were nice. I couldn’t eat anything or drink anything after they removed the tube from my throat. They gave me some ice chips. I was so thirsty. They got a little impatient with me then. But you know, nurses have a lot to do. I understand it.

How did you wake up?

I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea. I just remember, I guess it was one morning, and I opened my eyes, and when I opened them I thought, “Oh shit, this is not good.” I saw my roommate and my boyfriend and I was just like, “Oh my God.” The chief of mental health came and was saying, “I’ll take care of everything for you, Natalie. Don’t worry about missing work, just call us and let us know what’s going on.” Of course, lots of things were going through my head. I was angry, really angry.

How do you get over that?

Well, I think you just have to …  I think I’m still angry. I don’t think you can get over it that fast. I just try to push it to the back of my mind. I think the only time I think of it is when I get a headache: “I never would have had to deal with this if I had died.”

When had your migraines started?

They started in the military. The day I got out of boot camp, me and two other girls in the same command, we rented a car. We were in Florida and were going to a girl’s home in Alabama for an Auburn football game. We had three days’ leave. She was driving really fast in the country. I was sitting in the front seat: “Please slow down, you’re scaring me.” “Oh, I know the road like back of my hand.”

I just remember the car just rolling, and then I woke up and went through the windshield and woke up in a bush. I don’t know. I lost my shoes. All these trucks had pulled over, and all these people were praying over me. And the girl in the back broke her neck. So, the start of really bad headaches.

How will this recent experience change what you do in your work? Will it?

Well, yeah. I think the three of us, when we worked together in the office, we went to so many educational seminars. I read so much, just trying to get as much information about suicide as we possibly could. I think that we heard so many people say that, you know, suicide is preventable. And I think you can help some people to not do it. But I think in my mind, maybe I just thought that if you reached anybody in time, you can stop them. Now I know that you may be able to reach 99 percent, but pain is the one driving force that people can’t live with. And a lot of suicides I saw, or attempted suicides, were over relationship problems, “My wife left me, my girlfriend left me.” Even the completions were about relationship things. The people who ended up, most of the ones completing, though, were pain things. And at the end of my time in that job, the KASPER reports were coming out, and people were cracking down on not giving out pain medication, and more people were calling the hotline saying they would kill themselves because their doctor stopped the pain medication. People really have legitimate pain, and they all get lumped into the same category of drug-seeking, and you leave out people truly with pain issues, and that’s where these things can happen.

Now you work in a different section of the VA.

I have people who say they had a suicide attempt and were addicted to, say, crack, and so they left the inpatient unit of psych and came to my unit. They’re still dealing with what they did. So I think that’s more insight when talking to people, and understanding.

You mentioned not crossing the boundary of therapy and telling too much about yourself. But it seems it would be helpful if a person knew that the therapist really understood their situation. How do you balance that?

Some things you can do. But you have to be really selective about with whom, and what information, you share. If I was talking one-to-one with somebody who, say, lost a child or had a child taken away to foster care or such, and they’re angry and upset and having suicidal thoughts, “No one understands about not having my child,” I might share something about that. Because a lot of times when you’re in a really dark spot, you feel no one understands where you’re coming from. So, knowing that the person you’re talking to has experienced something in that area, that can develop good rapport. You don’t have to tell your whole life story, because you’re not there to be their friends. Because then they’re confused. You’re there to support, but you want them to know you’re a person and not immune. A lot of times people think, “You’re hospital employees, you have no problems,” but that’s not the case at all. You just have to draw that line.

Can you imagine sharing your recent experience?

I can. Yeah, I can.

How?

It would depend on the person. Maybe if they were still in that angry state. It’s hard for people to actually get clean. So, doing the work of getting clean and just having a suicide attempt, that’s two things to work with. And if you’re angry you’re still alive and you’re trying to get clean, and you feel nobody else understands because “I don’t even want to be alive, but I’m trying go get off crack” or whatever, at times I think a powerful something like that can be helpful to somebody. I don’t think it would be something I would share every day.

I’m always surprised to hear about stigma among colleagues in the mental health profession. That they wouldn’t mention their past. These are just the kinds of issues you’ve trained for.

Sometimes at work, people just freak out, even though they work in that area. They don’t expect to see that from you if you’re working there. They’re at a loss. To me, I think I would be able to make that transition to, “This is someone who needs help,” but I guess some people can’t. It’s too scary for some people. It’s still suicide. And there are still people who don’t want to talk about it. We constantly did education on how to handle a suicidal phone caller. And there were people who were like, “I can’t talk to someone who is suicidal.” Licensed social workers of 20 years! People get nervous and anxious and feel like they might say the wrong thing and don’t know what to say. We do the training to explain it to them, but I think it just obviously takes a special person to work in that area.

And it’s stressful, I’m not gonna lie. There’s so much PTSD, and there’s so much self-medication, and there’s so much suicidal thoughts that even people in the retail store of the VA or other areas like MRI, CT, X-ray, they still have to have those communication skills. Therapeutic communication skills are a must at the VA. You can’t be the VA of the 1960s anymore, where people were yelling at you and ignoring you and pretending your problems were not there. This is where everyone’s trained on how to talk to you if you’re freaking out, having a flashback. If it’s happening in the lobby and a greeter is there, in the pharmacy, they should know to handle it.

Do they?

Yes, that’s part of the suicide prevention policy. I’ve been training all over the hospital. And when something happens, nine out of 10, it’s because somebody didn’t know how to verbally de-escalate the person who was upset. You know, people don’t have a lot of patience. PTSD, people with depression, they don’t want to get out of the house, much less go to the pharmacy and wait two hours. So they raise their voice. So the response is not to raise your voice even higher or to treat them like a child: “Listen here!” That’s not the correct response. The correct response is to lower your voice and ask, “How can I help you right now? Can you explain the situation to me, please, so I can try and help you better?”

I don’t think I’ve asked, where are you?

I’m in Louisville, Kentucky.

How would you change the system, based on your experience?

I still think there’s a lot of stigma as far as active-duty people. You can tell. When I do trainings in different places, it’s just not something … It’s still, “Suck it up and go on.” A lot of times, it’s mostly in the Army and Marine Corps. I think the Air Force and Navy are pushing to not hold it against you when you have suicidal thoughts and get help.

The speakers who would get up and talk, you could tell there was still somewhat of a stigma. And the survivors of the men _ I say boys _ who committed suicide were so angry because had written letters to commanding officers and nothing got done.
And you know, for me, the pain was my number one thing, but for them, it was what they’ve seen that was the number one thing. As much as my pain was an everyday source of stress to me, these young men, what they’ve seen is so completely horrific that it invades their thoughts every single day, and it gets to the point where they can’t deal with it.

We really have to be more aware of what’s going on around us. I would go do a training and ask, “OK, what are the signs that someone might be depressed?” And then, “When they get worse, what are some signs?” Some people might know, but if they’re in the military, the thoughts get kind of pushed aside in the immediate day-to-day things they have to do.

But now what they’re here, the spouses have to be more aware. I have a lady who does my hair, and her husband just got back. I told her if he needs anything to come see me. I’ve asked her, “How are things going?” “Well, he’s having problems adjusting.” “Is he angry?” “Yes.” “Is he violent?” “Not with me and the kids.” And last time, she said he had been drinking more than he usually did.

I think people don’t want to believe it’s something that could happen. And the soldiers don’t want to tell their wives these things. Or they’re self-medicating. They’ve got kids to take care of. The wives just really have to know. The families have to know. The friends have to know. And if you’re not mental health professionals and not involved with their care, you think, “Oh, he’s just going through a hard time, he’ll be all right.” That’s a 50-50 chance you’re taking.

I just talked to my stepmother for the first time last night since I got out of the hospital. She said she had asked my roommate, “Do you think she did that on purpose?” My roommate said, “Of course.” My stepmother told her she had had no idea I was having those kinds of thoughts, but she had heard me every day say what kind of pain I was in.

I’m not arguing here, but saying you’re in pain is not the same as saying, “I’m in so much pain, I’m going to end it.”

You know, to me, if somebody’s talking to me on the phone every day a lot, and they were talking to me about how much pain they were in, crying, how they had no life because they had nothing but pain, I would immediately be talking to their family. I would. Anything that is invading somebody’s thoughts every day to the point where it’s consuming their life definitely is something to be concerned about, and if they’re not talking about it, but maybe something has changed, they’re not talking about it at all, they’re isolating, you know, I would be bringing that to somebody’s attention. It’s not always going to be the textbook signs and symptoms.

When I go out to, you know, I’d go to the mall _ well, not the mall, because I hate the mall _ but I could tell, I could see people’s depression. If I saw someone was crying, sometimes I’d go up to someone I didn’t know and talk to them. I’d be at Costco or whatever and see someone having a hard time and just talk to them.

It’s a lot of work, and lot of times it’s easier for people to think, “She’ll be all right.” And once you bring up that thing and you ask somebody, “Are you having suicidal thoughts? Are you thinking about killing yourself?” you’re kind of in the driver’s seat. To talk to them. You know, that’s why we have the QPR training. It takes time to have those conversations. People, a lot of times, are just involved in their own thing.

You see so many people at these conventions, 900 or 1,000 people at these conventions, all trying to get information on how to help people. Think about that. Only 1,000, then all the people who are suffering, maybe be having suicidal thoughts. And these people are trying to increase awareness.

You know, if you Google “survivors of suicide,” that’s for the people who are like the wives, the husbands, the parents. They’re not for the people who have survived their own attempts.

You said you have a support group at the VA. I’m impressed.

Yeah, but I don’t go to that one. It would be crossing the boundary a bit. I want to go where I can feel free, open up about myself a bit without making people feel uncomfortable. We have people who have come to our support group since day one, almost three years. They all relate to each other, provide support. There’s not something like that in the community. There’s just not. And it’s a shame. And there’s a bit of an insurance thing about that. “You can’t get a bunch of suicidal people in the same room talking about suicide.” It’s like the, “Don’t mention suicide because they’ll kill themselves.” Or like, “Don’t talk about contraception because they’ll go have sex.” Myths.

I’m curious, does every VA hospital have a support group?

No it’s a pilot program that started at ours. Now Dr. Jobes is using his model, helping them with a grant to show that it helps. I really can’t speak to how that’s going, but I know our groups had something to do with that. And people didn’t initially want to go: “I’m not going to sit around with a bunch of people talking about killing ourselves!” But we urged people to go to four groups, and for the most part, people who came to the four groups were glad they did it. Some stayed for months. Some never left. It’s what they needed. And everyone’s free to come back.

Otherwise, you’re just left to deal with it on your own. Really, there’s nothing. You can journal. I journal a lot.

Life and art, part three: Talking with Konii Burns

The exhibition was so unexpected that artist Konii Burns came to the gallery three times during its three-month run, sat alone in the space and cried. “Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly,” she says.

This is the last of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the groundbreaking Australian exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.) The conversations with artist Mic Eales and psychologist Erminia Colucci were posted just before this one.

Konii speaks here about how her art and her young daughter help keep her open to the world. Being shy, she preferred to be interviewed vie e-mail. She was thrilled to see the encouraging response to the exhibition, including the media response, since the subject of suicide is so often quickly judged. “I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales,” she says.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am Konii C. Burns, a 39-year-old sole parent, a contemporary visual artist and trained yoga teacher, although I do not teach at present. I have suffered clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorders for 25 years. I am Australian, located in a small town an hour out of Melbourne, Victoria.

How did you come to be participating in an exhibition related to surviving suicide attempts and suicidal thinking? What is your personal experience?

Organizers of the exhibition “Inspired Lives” put out a call three years ago for art to be submitted that had a relationship with suicide and suicide survival and bereavement. I have been a practicing artist for 20 years. When I saw this call, I knew I had to be involved. I submitted my 20-meter charcoal drawing entitled “Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” and, thankfully, it was accepted as part of the exhibition.

How did your experience become a part of your art even before this exhibition came about? And why did you want to explore it in this way?

“Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” was produced at a time in my life when a particular round of depression hit differently than other episodes I had experienced. I weighed less than 30 kilograms and was suffering extreme depression and anorexia, with several overdosing suicide attempts, and I had to leave a violent relationship with a
man who suffered bipolar disorder. It was a deadly relationship. One day, after a night of
abuse, I lay down and knew I was going to die. This time, I was starving myself to death. To me, it seemed more understandable from another’s perspective, especially my daughter. Easier to understand that mum got sick and had a heart attack than find me dead through violent ways.

The very next morning I took my child and ran away. I guess that’s how you would explain it. I left everything I owned, packed very quickly, as much of my girl’s belongings
as I could, as not to be caught by the man, and I landed on the doorstep of my parents’ place in rural New South Wales. My parents provided a large amount of child care and support, although they were at a loss to understand. They still loved me and provided my daughter enough cushioning from my reality that now, so many years later, my daughter barely remembers this time. Except for the pony at her 5th birthday party.

There was an endless round of doctors’ visits, weigh-ins, psychiatrists and dietician visits to my home, as I refused to go to a psych ward. I had tried six different antidepressants over the prior 14 years and none of them worked, including eight years on Prozac. I found they numbed my mind, and for an artist, that caused me more depression and is debilitating. I do not advocate antidepressants at all, so I gave this traditional, poor, Western vision of health care away. Much to the dismay and concern of my father, who is of the era that what the doctor says is right. I challenge that furiously. I found
them all too intrusive, expectant and infuriating. These services were apparently meant to heal me, yet all they did was make me more conscious of myself and my demons. I became worse within their care. So I did not attend any more appointments.

I began this drawing as one initial piece. I had no intention of it being so big. I completed one piece and felt an obligation to myself, to my environment, to keep going with the drawings. It was initiated by the dead and dying trees along a mammoth river here, the Murray River. At the time, Australia was also in severe drought. Ten years into it, and this country of mine seemed to be dying around me. The trees along the river were fallen and dry, and the farmers of this rural sector were suiciding at alarming rates. Over a 12-month period, I would take large panels of paper and lay them over the fallen trees, each chosen for their textures and hidden stories, I would wet the paper and use a very dense
charcoal and begin to make chaotic, spasmodic rubbings of the tree’s texture. I could hear the tree’s struggle for survival. I felt I was telling its story through the rubbings, which in return helped to tell my own tale of survival. Doing this work helped me survive, gave me a purpose to my being when all else, including being a parent, had failed to give me any self-worth. This work got me out of bed and, more importantly, helped to keep me breathing and alive.

Due to its size and overwhelming nature, I see it differently each time, and it evokes different emotions with each different installation. There are faces, skeletal forms, landscapes, mindscapes. The visuals are endless depending on lighting,
installation and where my mind is at in that particular moment.

What was it like working with other artists who have explored this topic openly? Is suicide usually an easy topic to discuss in the art world?

To exhibit with the Dax Centre and the other artists was a fantastic experience. I had not known there was a gallery specifically related to mental health issues, and as a suicide survivor it’s not something I generally talk about, due to the judgements and taboo and the fear I may lose my daughter. However, this environment created a kind of normality about the subject. It is deeply raw, truthful emotion that some people survive, and, unfortunately or fortunately, some succeed in their departure from the pain of their lives. I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales.

All my art, not only this piece, is emotionally based on how the depression and mental illness creates havoc within my realm. Outside of this gallery, I find the word “suicide” can be a deterrent for gaining exhibition places, yet I then think if it’s too confronting for that particular gallery, there will be another that will embrace it.

I do not make any money from my art. The “Inspired Lives” exhibition was all volunteered, and with my other own exhibitions there is rarely monetary gain. Art is my nemesis and my saviour.

What surprised you about the process of putting the exhibition together and carrying it out? What did you learn about the way people respond to the subject of suicide?

I can’t say anything surprised me, as I have exhibited this work for this topic four times prior. I was also pretty removed from the exhibition once it was installed, which I do personally. I suffer anxiety and cannot speak at openings, nor do artist talks. I was pleased at the opportunity for university students to study the work, and I was very grateful to Mic Eales and the staff of the Dax Centre, who presented the artist talks for the exhibition. I have to remove myself from the work once it’s up, otherwise it can drag me through a huge emotional roller coaster. And being a depression sufferer, I am always on the
cusp of balance and decline.

What did you think of the public’s reaction to the exhibit? What comments stood out for you, and why?

I have been really happy with the exposure the topic and my work received. I was lucky enough to have peers in my local region recognize my work and identify it with mental illness awareness. I was included on the ABC website with a video of my work, and also many local newspaper interviews. I have also had some fantastic, heart-opening conversations with people who have opened up to me through social media and to me personally, where they haven’t spoken to anyone about their own struggle with suicidal thoughts and perhaps actions. For me, having one person not suicide and find
strength in my work to empower them to live is the best outcome I could hope for. Monetary gain, industry recognition, it is all secondary to the value in affecting another’s personal struggle.

What about the works by the other artists? Which ones affected you most strongly, and why?

The paper scroll that Mic Eales installed really rang out for me. The paper was made from the pulp of a futon mattress that his deceased brother owned. It was an incredibly delicate piece, huge in installation and, I imagine, a very emotional process to go through for Mic, as a bereaved brother, to make. I envisage a mountain of tears is entwined in the work. I visited the exhibition three times in the three months it was up. I sat alone in the space and cried each time. Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly. Mic’s video work also stood out for me. I watched that three times. His advocacy work and study of this subject is very admirable. His art
is incredibly heartfelt and beautiful. I feel very privileged to be exhibiting alongside Mic’s work. Part of me doesn’t feel worthy. That’s the depression speaking.

What happens now? How do you build on the conversation that the exhibition might have started?

For me, now, this exhibition is over, and my work, “Atrabilious,” is packed away under the bed awaiting the next exhibition. There have been suggestions of touring this exhibition nationally, yet I have nothing confirmed. I will continue bringing awareness to mental health through exhibition of my other works.

Is it somehow easier to be open about your personal experience as an artist? What do you think is needed to help the average person talk more comfortably about their experience, whether publicly or with the people they know?

It is easier for me to express myself visually as opposed to verbally. Words escape me often. Emotions run so high within me that conversations about this subject usually turn to incoherent blubbering and tears. To convey emotions through a 2-D art format is the easiest way for me to communicate.

I think what is needed for people to speak of their experiences is not so much organisations or medical help, it’s having someone just to listen to you, to have someone you can cry wholeheartedly with, someone who just lets you experience the emotions and thoughts, without judgement, consequences or expectations. Whether that’s a friend, a counselor, a kind stranger on a help line. Society can be so very harsh and selfish. There also needs to be understanding on our side. The sufferers’ side, that there is no magic pill, no one can make you better, there needs to be a whole lot of self-initiated work, and that takes strength and belief in yourself. That in itself is the biggest hurdle for so many of us, for the base of our ill is our self-worth.

If you could change anything about the existing messaging about suicide prevention and mental health, how would you change it? What would you say or do instead?

Sometimes I feel the mainstream society doesn’t take it seriously enough. There is still a stigma of suicide, that “These people are weak and wanting attention.” This is just not the case. It’s sadly a case of “The illness cannot be seen, so therefore it doesn’t exist.” It does exist and is a silent killer. People need kindness and understanding, not stigma and alienation from family and friends. I have lost so many friends due to my depressive episodes. Family relationships become strained by these episodes, relationships are almost impossible to maintain and holding employment is a constant battleground. Depression and mental illness is so very isolating in so many ways, suicide
can sometimes feel as if it’s your only friend. Society is very quick to place judgement. It can make seeking help an embarrassing experience.

How are you doing? Is this something that seems to be firmly in your past, or do you think it will always be with you?

Right now, I am doing well. It has taken me six years to regain my health, including accepting the weight gain and self-image that comes with that. I am medication free. I continue to study yoga texts and practice yoga every day, as well as exercise regularly. I eat a predominately raw vegan diet and have stopped all caffeine, alcohol and stimulants. This is not to say I am cured. There are still days that I am debilitated by sadness, contemplate suicide and feel worthless. These days hit me physically. They are painful, and I can barely walk. The only way I know I will not hurt myself and survive is
to sleep. I have times where bed and darkness is the only safe place for me . I try not to fight it anymore and have faith that it will pass.

When it really is too dark, I have one friend that I know I can call at any time, who has lived with me through severe episodes, and his support, direction of thoughts and just the kindness in his voice has provided me with the strength to get up. Get up physically and mentally. I am so very grateful to him. As I have mentioned, friendships and relationships are very hard to maintain. Right now, I have very little friends, but that’s OK. I have my daughter, who is my best friend. She has seen far more than an 11-year-old should, although this has made her a very understanding, kind and considerate
person. She is amazing, and her pure being in many ways has also saved my life.

Depression is part of my makeup, a part of my art and a part of my life experience. Accepting it and not letting the demons win will always be a day-to-day fight, although I am pleased that now I feel far more in control than I ever have.

I like to ask this question last, since this experience isn’t the only one that defines you: Who else are you? What else should we know about you and the things you love?

I am a parent, of one beautiful girl. I have just begun to volunteer for an organisation called LifeLine, which is an emergency counseling hotline for people to call in time of severe distress. Producing art is what I spend the majority of my time on. It’s my life. My daughter and I are very close, and we create together in the studio. I dabble in my garden. We have a crazy dog and four guinea pigs. Like I mentioned, I study yoga, enjoy exercising and find it so very important for recovery.

I dream to be a successful artist, to get off the welfare roundabout and be able to self-support my daughter and myself through my art. I would love to be able to afford to travel internationally and explore my art options overseas. Australia is very limited in its opportunities and resources and respect of the arts. I would love to secure an artist residency in Spain and be sipping sangria in Barcelona for my 40th birthday in November.

Your help: A national portrait project

If we want to get the faces and voices of attempt survivors out there and show that it’s possible to move on from the experience, here is a beautiful way to do it.

New York-based photographer Dese’rae Stage has been taking portraits of suicide attempt survivors just moments after they tell her their story, and now she’s taking the project national. She has a list of U.S. cities and people to visit, and she’s raising money for the journey.

See some of the portraits and learn more about her project here. And you can donate here.

Life and art, part two: Talking with Erminia Colucci

“I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.”

Erminia Colucci was going about her work in academia when an unusual e-mail arrived from a stranger. Australian artist Mic Eales had come across her work on spirituality and suicide and took a chance, telling her about the pieces he’d created in trying to understand his suicidal thinking. He assumed he’d hear nothing, but Erminia was intrigued.

Their collaboration led to a groundbreaking art exhibition on suicide last year in Australia. This is the second of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.)

Suicide shouldn’t be mistaken as being always tied to mental illness, Erminia says, echoing Mic and some others interviewed here. She thinks of China and India, for example: “Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females,” she says. “Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me. … We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act.”

She would love to bring the exhibition to other countries and continue the conversation with local artists, and the United States is in her sights.

Who are you?

I’m still trying to work it out! Officially, I am a psychologist by background, but I’ve always been interested particularly around suicide. I did my honors thesis and PhD on suicide, youth suicide. Because of this interest, when I was working as a clinical psychologist I went back to academia and for my PhD did a cross-cultural study on youth suicide in Italy, India and Australia. I wanted to understand what it actually meant, the cultural meanings of suicide. I work at the University of Melbourne, though I just came back. I was in the UK for the last year, doing a master’s in visual anthropology. At the moment, I’m doing a documentary on mental illness and human rights. I’ve been filming people who are working around protecting the rights of people with mental illness in Indonesia.

Who am I? I’m in academia, but I’m really interested in giving a voice to people who are not usually heard, like suicide survivors, the mentally ill, people whose rights are violated. That’s kind of in a nutshell who I am. My interests are not always really mainstream. With suicide, I’m looking at the culture, and I’m also looking at arts as a way of understanding and communicating. I’ve been using theater, and now I’m using film and photography. That’s how all of this came about, through my contact with Mic Eales and this interest in arts and in spirituality, which some in mental health feel uncomfortable dealing with. So I like to sit in those spots where academic people and others usually don’t like to sit.

How did you come across Mic, and how did that lead to the exhibition?

It’s a long story and a lovely journey. It’s been very important to knowing who I am, actually. Mic was doing his honor thesis on suicide, and he was finding it hard in engaging people in this kind of work. He wrote me an e-mail about spirituality and his work, “I do this and that.” He expected to not, you know, find much interest. But for me, I went like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And we started working together. We did some seminars and workshops at the University of Melbourne about art and suicide. Quite a few people attended, and some of them had themselves dealt with suicide. Some knew someone who had attempted suicide. We wanted to work with people to share their experiences using a more creative way, and share as much as they wanted to share.

For me, it’s always been important that we as advocates, policy makers, academics and services have to have more space for people with lived experience, to have their voices, and in the way they want to express their voice. For some, it’s in a more creative way. We can’t expect everyone to be writing academic papers, you know what I mean? So the exhibition came about. We did a workshop at the university, and all the seats were taken. So people wanted to talk about it.

Mic and I take a non-medical approach. We don’t see it from a diagnosis and mental illness framework. Some people think in that way, but not everybody. For some, suicide is a much more existential problem, how they see life. It’s a much more personal way of looking at suicide. At the same time, it’s cultural. It’s not about imposing a way of looking at suicide. And so, when I saw there was a great response of people about the way we wanted to talk about suicide, in a creative and nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way, for us it meant we were on the right path.

Basically, shortly after, I contacted the Dax Centre. They run some very nice initiatives. I spoke to the director: “Look, I have this idea, around suicide attempts, a creative approach.” They were interested, but it was so new, it wasn’t immediately accepted. But I persisted. Mic and I decided to go ahead. And Jessica. We put out a kind of call to get people together who used artistic means to express their feelings. More than 30 people contacted us in one month, so again, we had quite a big response. We were lucky, we got on board Amy as curator, and she went to work at the Dax Centre. And that’s how it came about. So it’s been an interesting experience, and challenging.

There were fears about having a damaging effect, that people would go and jump off a bridge. That feeling was extremely strong. It is a very simplistic and widespread way of thinking about an issue. If you talk about it, what if people say, “I’m not the only one”? If they know they can get out of that, that others have come out at the other end, they can learn to cope with that, so what about talking about it? And using an artistic, creative way?

I read that the exhibition was rejected by other galleries.

Honestly, it’s been a journey. I want us to write a book about this, how society reacts to the issue. I wanted it to be something for the public. A lot of projects like this target, how should I say, the converted. We wanted to reach out to the general public. I wanted to be in a mainstream gallery, not a small place in the middle of nowhere. These guys are very skilled artists, and their work is at the same level  with any other artist featured in these galleries. But people were really concerned. They thought the public would not be interested. They were concerned about having the word “suicide” there, about potentially increasing the risk of suicide. I’m not going to say the name, but one of the main organizations in Australia looking after depression, when we started the conversation, they said it was a good idea, but it needed to fit their agenda, something fitting with depression. But the artists, they don’t want to identify as people who are suicidal because they’re depressed. That’s not their experience of it, so why should we fit inside this box because it fits the funder? Why fit inside a model that we feel doesn’t really represent the issue? So we said “No,” so no funding.

The Dax Centre hosted us. When we had kind of a panel about this, they said this was the first time they had done something like this, but they decided to go ahead. I’m very honored. We knew it was going to be good. From the point of view of people like Mic and Jessica and Konii, the work could inspire others. From my part, it was how to get academics, policy makers and others to listen, those who make decisions, you know? So it was very tricky.

This project also represents how society reacts to suicide. In Australia, suicide is seen as a very individual problem, about the person, but our project is about society as well. The way people responded is that there’s much fear, that the problem is also with them. I honestly think people don’t want to talk about suicide because it’s too uncomfortable, that somebody they love, or too many people in society, are thinking about it. And so we need to have a project of this kind. Artistically, it was a beautiful project curated beautifully. I think we need to have more of this initiative, make a statement about “This is who I am, and this is what it is for me. And listen to me.”

What were the reactions?

I was there a few times, and it was always very hard to see what people were thinking. I think they had a fourfold increase of viewers over past exhibitions. So there was a big response. And it’s very, very important. There are fears, but there are people in society who want to go and know what it’s about. People came to the panel, and quite a few of them were suicide survivors, so we know there were people themselves dealing with the same issues.

I don’t know, I guess the feeling when we went to see this exhibition was … people thought it was a challenging issue. Some of the comments were, “It was quite confronting.” It really got you, a strong emotional impact. But it was not, like, overwhelming. It was not to make you feel sad or frightened. There was something very positive about it. The show was called “Inspired Lives.” It was not about people feeling dark or, like, being overwhelmed. Actually, it was about these people who in the end have chosen to live. Like Jessica, who just had her second baby two weeks ago. Mic continues his career. So they’ve chosen to live. And that can be inspiring. So the comments were very positive.

Were there any questions asked that surprised you?

Not really, no. I’ve been in this field quite a bit, so nothing surprises me. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how open people are about sharing their experiences. One man who came to the panel was a PhD student. I knew him, but he actually had never said that he himself had tried to take his life. Then, in this public discussion, he said it. I was really touched. I didn’t know. I felt it was a positive experience for him to share with the people he knew would understand him. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.

Did you run into the thinking that, “Well, they’re artists, it’s OK for them to talk about that experience.”

At the workshop, of the people who came there, none were artists. Some of them had never done anything creative. I think in general it might be a bit easier for artists to present intimate experiences, sexual or whatever. It’s seen as more acceptable, but I don’t think it’s all about that. It’s more about using arts as an idiom for people to express and share. I think we haven’t used that enough to explain people’s experiences. As a researcher, that’s where I want to go. I find Australia’s not easy to do that, using more creative ways. The academic structure, like everywhere in the world, is like a business, a way to bring in money. As soon as you get out of what everyone else is already thinking, how to survive? These things I do out of my passion. It’s very sad to have no funding for such things. It’s about getting those kinds of voices out there and learning from them.

What did you learn from this experience?

I’m still learning from it. From the e-mail Mic sent me, he does know: Mic, how thankful I am to you. I’ve read so much and go to conferences, but this has been a different perspective.

Also, this experience made me reflect about “Where do I sit? When thinking about it, who do I want to work with? Do I sit with the people who make decisions? Or do I sit with the people we’re talking about, the ones we make decisions for?” I want to be with the people. That’s my place. I try to use whatever I can to help others to have this voice. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. It’s something I want to pursue further.

Now Mic and I are thinking about where we can take the exhibition. There’s been a very good response in Australia, very good media coverage. We want to inspire others to do similar work. I’m very keen to go to the U.S., to New York, to go to other countries. The way in which Mic and I work, it’s about collaborations with other artists. We see the exhibitions with a selection of the pieces but traveling to other places and then, in collaboration with local artists, putting a show together. It’s building up a kind of conversation, instead of being something static. It’s what I want to see happening. My next dream is bigger, and I know we need support.

I’m interested in people’s experiences, the so-called consumers. Sitting on panels, in working groups, what is that really doing, other than making you feel good about it? What about doing something like this? I have really stepped back. I wanted this to be their show. We have tried to make this their show. It should be where we are sitting in the corner and they have something out about them. It’s not easy, especially in academia, where a lot of big egos are involved.

There’s always some exposure when talking about a hot topic. But I want to take this kind of risk in some way, talk about what really matters. Sometimes the decision makers walk away from things that really matter because it’s something that’s too difficult to deal with. Like spirituality. I think the only way to make sure that things that really matter are on the agenda is having the people affected as part of the agenda, being really involved. I think to have the things that really matter “in” is really important to people with lived experience. In whatever means they choose, which can be the arts.

Do you have a favorite piece or pieces from the exhibition?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t think about it! It’s like having kids, which one is your favorite kid? I’m very proud of what the guys have done. So it’s difficult for me to say. One piece is a documentary that Mic put together about some of the work done together. And there was one piece, the white lotus.

The one with the umbrella?

Yes. It started when Mic and I were at a conference two years ago, at an IASP conference. I must acknowledge that Lanny Berman and Mort Silverman have been very supportive of our work. They supported us to organize a workshop in China. One of my interests is domestic violence and women’s rights. Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females. Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me.

Mic and I had conversations about the topic. He’s amazing, he came up with the concept, the symbolism of the lotus in China. So I feel very close to the piece, which is also a memory of Mic and I in China and our adventure together. I really care about the issue of domestic violence against women and suicide, so it was touching to see it visually represented by Mic. Also, Konii’s piece was powerful. Being in the space was a very strong response, and I’ve seen people reacting to it. I don’t know if Konii realized the powerful impact of her work. I hope she does.

How would you describe the piece?

The panels are all around the wall, a room with panels of charcoal, from the bush fire. You needed to walk in, and once in the space you are surrounded by these panels. It’s the cover of the catalog, a panel from Konii’s work.

Can you think of other countries that would welcome this exhibition?

I think of countries like America, with the means to support this kind of work, and using it as a way to continue the conversation. New York is a great place, a great place to talk to people from all over the world, and I expect a country like America to take this project on board, to continue this conversation with local artists. But I’d also like to go to countries like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, where actually it is difficult, where we need to make a lot of changes and need to respond to this. I mean “we” as a global “we.” We started in China, and China has the highest rate of suicide among women. So many lives every single second. Or India, where I’ve done a majority of my work. Suicide among women is increasing. There’s a lot to be done.

We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act. So this exhibition, to me, is part of my being an activist, using the scholarly ability to be an activist. We need to get together and make some important social changes.

Who else are you?

This kind of work, for me, is who I am. It is who I am. I am also an ethnographic documentary filmmaker and photographer. I love the outdoors. Like this morning, I went very early on the beach for a run and a swim. Though I’m a very bad runner. But I love the outdoors. Encounters with nature really make me feel good. And I love animals. And I love sports. And I love food. A very typical Italian. Food and good wine and cheese. And I love my niece. I was thinking about the things I love, and she came to me.

Life and art, part one: Talking with Mic Eales

For the next three posts we’ll be hearing from Australia, where a collection of artists with lived experience came together last year for a groundbreaking exhibition on suicide. “Inspired Lives” was hosted by the Dax Centre, one of the world’s top art galleries related to mental health. Officials there took some convincing, but the exhibition became the first that had not come from the Dax’s own collection. (You can see the brochure here, at the final link.)

For that, the artists thank Dax development director and exhibition co-curator Amy Middleton, who pushed for the project. “Many of my assumptions and understanding of the phenomenon have changed,” she says. “I no longer associate suicide with depression or mental illness. I consider suicide to be a human condition _ a complex phenomenon that affects everyone, in different ways and to varying depths.” The media, she adds, was quite supportive in promoting the exhibition, “which was a welcome surprise.”

We speak first with artist Mic Eales, who talks about his reaction to losing his brother to suicide, why he makes an effort to make his works on suicide life-affirming and what his wife thinks of it all.

Who are you?

I’m old. I just turned 60. Who am I? I don’t know. I guess, you know, first and foremost, an artist. A sculptor, an installation artist, a printmaker, a ceramist. And I guess I’ve been working in making artwork about suicide since my brother took his own life in 2002 and just wanted to try and understand my own sense of suicidality. I became suicidal after Bryan died. So that’s how my artworks came into being, just trying to understand that. I’ve had lots of different jobs. I’ve been a potter, many years ago, and an adventure-based therapist. I worked in the States in drug and alcohol rehab in Montana, taking the lads into the wilderness for 21 days at a time. They got to the third step of the AA program, then we took them into the wilderness so they could do the fourth step. Then they’d go back to the ranch and do family counseling, then go to halfway houses. But I’d been working with street kids, the long-term unemployed, drug addicts, offenders for 12 to 15 years. Eventually, I just burned out.

One day, my doctor said to me, “Why not go to art school? It’s what you love!” We used to have long, intense conversations about art because he was a frustrated artist himself. So that’s what I did. I loved sculpture. My daughter was doing her honors in printmaking. The first day of university, she took me by the hand, went with me to classes. At the end of the week, she told me, “OK, Dad, you’re on your own now.” We’d meet for coffee, discuss art-type stuff. But I love sculpture. So that’s what got me into doing installation pieces, I guess. They are very abstract works, very conceptual, using lots of different materials (media). Though I do love bronze. I have a real passion for bronze. I don’t have a great deal of call for it. A lot of my pieces are created by using whatever materials will tell a particular story. I have two kids, two grandchildren, my wife and I have been married 39 years, and we live on a farm.

What should I ask next? About the exhibition? Or about your brother and how you got into this?

It doesn’t bother me anymore, talking about it. He took his own on May 18, 2002, but his partner didn’t tell me until the end of September of that year. For what reason, I have no idea, but when I received that phone call, as soon as I heard her voice, I knew he was dead. And as soon as she said he’d taken his own life, my immediate reaction was, “The bastard! He succeeded, and I failed.” When I was a teen, I twice tried, when I was 15 and 18, I think, and I’d suffered from suicidal ideation most of my life. I’d been through a couple more suicidal crises. And once I’d sort of gotten over it (the phone call), my wife’s reaction was, “Why did Margaret take four months to inform us of his death?” There was a six-year difference between us as well. I’d always looked up to him. I always thought he’d been the shining light in the family. All my teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” So all kinds of issues were going on.

And then, probably not until the next year, I started to spiral into a big black hole. I started making plans to take my own life. Then suddenly, we got a call out of the blue that our daughter was quite ill and suicidal herself. We brought her home, and her depression was so bad that she had to be carried at times, she couldn’t physically walk. So for the next few months, my wife and I nursed her back to health, and my plans were put on hold. Finally she was better, and we got her back to her sister in Melbourne. I started making plans again. For some reason, I rang a friend whose husband had taken his own life. I started talking, telling her what my plans were. She said, “Go ahead, I’m jealous.” For her, the death of her husband had taken away her opportunity (to take her own life). She saw the difficulty in their children in dealing with their father’s death, and she was jealous that I had that possibility of taking my own life. It was a strange reaction, but it made me think about her daughter and my daughter. Several years prior, this particular woman contacted me and said her daughter was really struggling with her father’s death and was blaming herself. I didn’t think much about it, although I was concerned for her. Then about three days later, I was sleeping and woke bolt upright. A voice said I have to write to this girl from her father’s perspective. I went downstairs and wrote to her. I sent it to her mother and said, “I don’t care what you do with it, give it to your daughter or not, do what you think.”  So she did, she gave it to her daughter. She read it, and it had a huge impact on her. She and I ended up going bushwalking a couple times. We had a good relationship. She’s now happily married with a bunch of kids. But I lost touch with that after Brian’s death. And it was this girl’s mother saying “Go ahead” that backed those feelings of, “OK, how’s my daughter going to react? My wife? My other daughter? What sort of impact will it have on their lives?”

When I reached out to help, seeing a counselor and psychologist, I found that what was happening was, I would avoid answering questions. As I said, I was an adventure-based therapist for a number of years, and the boys showed me how to avoid questions. So on my way home I’d think, “Why did I avoid that question?” I’d go through this process each day, putting those questions into my artwork. So I’d deal with my own issues through art. And that’s what I’ve been doing. And I started making artwork called “Rope tears then stone.” It was a big slab of black granite, and on that I created the Indian rope trick, made a bronze rope, curled it around on the base of this slab, and it went up about 4.2 meters. At the time, I thought it was about Bryan’s suicide and his escape from reality. And it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that it was more about me and my desire to escape. I started working on another piece which at the time was more about me, a piece called “In the Blue Corner,” in which I created another piece of bronze rope, attached real rope to the ends and suspended it so it was like a tightrope for someone to cross. I pivoted a piece of stainless steel across it with a pair of boxing gloves. It was about my ongoing fight with depression and suicidality. I also did another piece called “DNA Spiral,” again, two pieces of cast bronze rope with sandstone, which stood on a blank canvas with a big industrial light projecting down from above. My mother was depressive, and it just seemed there must be some sort of family history of depression. Having nursed our daughter back to health, and with Bryan, and my own history. Something was going on within the family.

That’s how it started. And after that, I started wanting to do more. I was not looking so much at my own life but at how it affected the wider community. Again, using rope, two inches in diameter, I looked at statistics that for every person who takes their own life, at least another 30 people are attempting. “Forgotten field, 30 to 1 against” was created to draw attention to that statistic. After that, more and more artworks were created.

Do you say it that obviously, what each artwork means?

Yes and no. I think my artist’s statement read, “In May 18, 2002, my brother made the decision to take his own life, then I fought my own demons in my own.” That was it. A couple of people actually ran out of the room where “In the Blue Corner” was exhibited. One woman, her daughter had taken her own life. So they were quite powerful works. There wasn’t, like, a warning on the outside on the entrance. For the “Inspired Lives” exhibit, the Dax Centre had a warning on the outside saying the works were about suicide.

Before the exhibition, were you the only person you know who did artwork about suicide?

The only other person I know of was Seamus McGuinness in Ireland, working with a psychiatrist and looking at the bereaved. He did a couple of artworks looking at the increase in suicide among young males, but not from the lived experience perspective. Since then, I’ve heard of a number of artists who’ve explored the issue, who made maybe one artwork from their own perspective. I’m the only one I know of who just makes artwork about suicide, again from lived experience. And Jessica had done her own piece, I think “Suicide Silence, Suicide Spirits,” where she had projected images and text of the sorts of things that were going through her mind during her suicidal crisis onto her. She more or less was in the fetal position with these images and text projected onto her and a screen. It was pretty powerful, emotional work, incredibly so.

One thing I made a very conscious decision to do right from the beginning was, there needed to be a positive aspect to any of the artworks that I did. If I focused on just the negative aspects, the spiraling pain that being in suicidal crisis is, I wouldn’t have survived. It just would have made the spiral go quicker. So there had to be some sort of life-affirming quality to artworks, so it had to be a bit playful in a way. A few years ago, I looked at what is the opposite of suicide. After months of digesting that question, I came up with childhood innocence. That’s the opposite for me, not necessarily for anyone else. That’s the only time in my own life when I felt free of that pain. I’ve been happy in the meantime, but there have been times when that psychache overpowers. So my own daughters are artists, and they incorporate a real naivete in their work, real playfulness. I’ve tried to incorporate that within my own work. Again, some childhood aspect gets incorporated into each work.

What does your wife think?

We’ve had some interesting discussions! It bothers her at times. If I go into a space, which lately, I’m feeling exhausted at the moment, I become burnt-out.  Last year I had spinal surgery, plus months of recovery, and I had to finish the exhibition and get it down to Melbourne. So there’s a huge emotional cost. So now, I’m just working through my PhD, and I’m so incredibly tired. So my wife can pick up on those moods and wonder what she’s going to come home to, if I’m going to be here or if I’ve taken my own life or something. I try to reassure her that won’t happen, but underlying that is always that possibility. But we’ve had some frank and open discussions within the family, about suicide. And they’re quite happy in talking about those issues, and those issues their papa deals with, and they are incredibly supportive.

That seems rare. Do you know other families that talk that way?

I have, actually. I was at a forum recently, and talked about how my family discusses it. One woman came back and said her teenage children have had friends at school who have taken their own lives, and that has instigated a round of dinner table discussions that are quite open and frank. I think it’s a rare event, but it’s lovely to hear other people could go there. We are a fairly unique sort of family, and I guess most husbands and fathers don’t work on the issue of suicide day in and day out.

What have been some of the reactions to your work?

After I questioned the opposite of suicide, I decided to start my honours at Uni. I had a good idea of what the artwork was that I wanted to make. I ended up creating “too few ladders.”  I had already been in contact with a couple of suicidologists. I told them what I was doing, and they dismissed me out of hand. They loved the artwork, really good for the cover of a conference paper, something like that but very dismissive.

I just Googled “suicide,” “spirituality,” and Erminia’s name came up. I read her bio and thought, “I’ll write to her.” Within the first few e-mails, she had invited me to Italy to exhibit “too few ladders” the following year, because it was her passion as well. And it was from that association with Erminia that, once I had started my PhD, she invited me down to Melbourne to do workshops, and that’s where Jessica came to a seminar and then e-mailed me and told me a bit about her story. We got together and decided we would like to collaborate. And it just snowballed from there. That’s where the idea of the book came about, and the “Inspired Lives” project came into being. And then we got to find out about Amy. Jessica had put an ad in the paper, and Amy came on board. Yeah, it just snowballed. But there was lots of knocking on doors, applying for grants. We were just getting rejected the entire time until Dax said, “OK.” That was due, I am sure, to Amy really pushing from the inside to have the exhibition recognized, the issue recognized. Even though they deal with mental health issues, suicide is not on the priority list.

They deal with mental health issues?

It’s a mental health gallery, one of the top three in the world that deal with the particular issue. It has its own collection of about 15,000 artworks, I suppose. It’s huge. mainly paintings. But Cunningham Dax, who started the collection, worked in psych hospitals, came out from England and started doing art therapy with patients and collecting artworks as time went on. And making judgements, diagnosing people’s illnesses from those particular artworks. Now, you’d never do that today, but that’s how it started. I’m really glad that we were at the Dax, because it gave us some credibility. It was the first exhibition they had had outside their own collection, so we really were outsiders.

Was their hesitation because your work was outside the collection, or because it dealt with suicide?

Amy is better to answer that, but I think the issue of suicide was too difficult to handle, so we had to jump a lot of hoops right up front. I more or less had to explain what our artworks were about, what they would look like, so they could see it from my perspective, that I wasn’t focusing on on that darker, more negative aspect of suicide. That you could talk about suicide in art in a way that was meaningful. So yeah, I think they were just hesitant and didn’t know what the works were going to look like. It was a big leap of faith for them. Also, it’s an education gallery, so they had school groups going through and education staff talking about mental health issues. And again, it’s OK to talk about mental health issues, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of suicide, it’s a whole new ball game. So it took a bit of convincing. As I understand it, we’ve broken huge new ground for the Dax Centre. Some of the work proposed for the future is even grittier than ours. That’s what Amy tells me.

What did you hear from people at the exhibition?

The overall comment was inecrdibly positive. It was like being part of an exhibition a couple of years prior when a group in Melbourne organized some community artists to work with the bereaved. They made artworks for this exhibition. Tony Gee (from the Life Is… Foundation) and I had met in Uruguay at a suicide prevention conference and had became good friends. He knew I was an artist and knew I was also bereaved, so he asked me to be part of the “Pieces” exhibition. I created “Paper Shadows,” which consists of two big sheets of suspended handmade paper. The response from the exhibition was absolutely amazing, no standing room in the gallery. Many had been bereaved or were attempt survivors, and the “Inspired Lives” exhibition was exactly the same. Maybe not quite as many people. I suppose there were about a hundred-odd people at the opening, then a fivefold increase in visitors, excluding the people who came for the education component or the art therapists who go there to study or the doctors and psychologists who go there.

I thought it was absolutely amazing, brilliant. We had 60 to 70 people at the forum. When Erminia and I had the workshop, we had 18 people in each one. We couldn’t have handled any more, but had two back to back. There was so much interest. It was made up of therapists, psychologists, people who had suffered from suicidal ideation. There was one guy who inspired the musical notes piece (“Be a right good pal”), he had tried to take his own life a month prior or two prior. There were people who worked with youth groups, in detention centers, a real variety, really very positive. We ended up making these Columbus cubes, we just got people to create their biography on six A4 sheets of paper and put those together. We could put things inside of them. So yeah, there was some pretty special, wonderful feedback. Out of that, I was invited to speak at a number of conferences.

In Australia?

All over. I’ve spoken a couple times at postvention conferences here in Australia and another one on narrative inquiry, original voice narratives. Then two IASP conferences in Uruguay and Beijing. Then Erminia invited me to the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry in Italy, where the Brussels version of “too few ladders” was exhibited, and then my video went to the conference in London last year. So yeah, the word’s been getting out. Again, it’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of money. I don’t know where it comes from.

And how about coming to the U.S.?

It would be absolutely fantastic. I’ve thought about trying to get there and doing something with “too few ladders.” It’d probably be easier to transfer than half a ton of lead. I love the States. I spent time in Utah, Wyoming, Montana. I just love that part of the world.

How to make the public at large more comfortable with discussing the topic of suicide?

Slowly and sensitively. It’s not something you can rush. There was one artwork that was meant to go into the “Inspired Lives” exhibition, and I really wanted it to go in. It was a ladder with about 20 meters of 2-inch-diameter red rope that had come out of a Narnia movie. And it had black cord running around the rope and meeting in the middle and then that black cord would then form the word “yarning.” And that’s a term here, where you sit down and you yarn, or talk. And I wanted to talk about the conversations people have and can have about the issue of suicide. So this rope would weave its way through the suspended ladder, around the room and just be suspended there. But the education people within the Dax Centre opposed it because it contained rope. And also, I was going to take the Indian rope piece “Rope tears then stone” for outside the gallery, but they didn’t want that either because it represented rope. And because so many schoolchildren were going through, they felt uncomfortable with that, that they might get the idea to hang themselves. Hanging in Australia is the most prevalent way of taking one’s own life.

My initial reaction was one of, well, not anger, but I was pretty upset. But I had to look at it from their perspective. They hadn’t seen it, and we hadn’t talked about it a great deal. The piece was evolving as the exhibition was going along. So I thought, “OK, we have to move slowly. It’s really important these people feel comfortable with the artworks we’ve got and can explain them.” We compromised. Now I’ve said to the Dax that if the gallery does decide to tour the exhibition to regional galleries, one stipulation is that “Yarnings” goes in. They’re OK with that because they don’t have that education component in the exhibitions that go to regional centers.

Any of that sort of work, one has to respect people’s feelings and thoughts about suicide. It’s a really sensitive issue. People have been affected in ways that, well, in lots of different ways. And I don’t know how they’ll react. As I said, one women ran out, in fact, two women when they saw my exhibition in 2003. It’s a very raw subject for some people. A comment at the Dax Centre was a woman saying she was still dealing with the effects of the suicide 27 years after the death of her brother. She was still not able to describe how the artworks had effected her, but they had, positively. It’s a really difficult issue. Now Suicide Prevention Australia has invited me to be a member of its lived experience committee, and the first meeting was a few weeks ago. It’s a group of people who survived suicide attempts and those who have been bereaved by suicide. We’re advising them on policy. It’s a very emotive issue, even in that room. Some people have a variety of experiences with suicide.

How do you feel?

(So I tell him, and I end by saying I’ve never really been reproached for my work or for bringing up the subject.)

It’s not even a reproach, but there was one artwork I did with Baden Offord, “The end of statistics,” about statistics, and it has a trolley, a timber trolley with steel wheels, and it moved backward and forwards. I know it as a timber jinker. You put logs on it and roll it into the saw that cuts timber up. But I met a woman who was a third-generation Holocaust survivor, and she said it reminded her of the Holocaust. I’d never made that connection in any way, shape or form. It was interesting to hear.

Was she angry?

She wasn’t angry, she just made the observation. It was a cultural aspect of what I was doing that I hadn’t considered. It was an interesting observation.

The other thing I should point out, the other reason I really got into art was, I couldn’t write anymore. I used to be a big journal writer, every day. Until I worked at the jail. I worked in corrections for about three years, and one of my jobs in running this program was, I had to read inmates’ mail, incoming and outgoing. And I had to search their lockers and rooms periodically. I found that such an invasion of privacy. Maybe some people would say I’m too sensitive. I can’t even watch a documentary with animals in it. But I thought, “What if someone reads my journals? There’s nothing particular or offensive in them, but they’re my journals and my thoughts.” It was through making art that I found that I could express myself. It was a huge thing for me at that particular time.

You mentioned earlier becoming burnt out in that earlier work. Do you worry about being burnt out with what you’re doing now?

I just think that I need a rest. Once my PhD is finished, I promised myself that I’m going to go bushwalking. I love it. I loved teaching other people bushwalking and rock-climbing skills. Tthe Larapinta trail takes about 12 to 15 days to complete, or longer if you stretch it out, and that’s what I want to do at the end of the PhD. I need to do something completely away from just focusing on the issue of suicide and have another life, if you like, outside of that. It’s been almost 24 hours a day in my life, and you get tired and burnt out.

It sounds like you have a bird or a monkey in the background there.

Lots of birds. I should send you the video I made. In the background, there’s a rooster who crows every now and again, and the number of voiceovers that I had to redo or delete, but somehow, Roger the rooster still got in there. But no, I said we have 12 acres, so there’s lots and lots of bird life here.

Who else should I talk with?

I haven’t met anyone. I mean, conferences are incredibly boring! It’s the conversations outside the sessions that are the most enriching. I guess one reason I started doing my PhD is, I want a seat at the table. No one takes an artist for real. I don’t have much credence among suicidologists. I’m a bit of a joke. but if I have a PhD, I hope that will be taken a bit more seriously, I’ll have something to offer. I certainly do have a bit of a fan group, and they’re incredibly supportive, but they’re academics or running programs based on helping people bereaved by suicide. But there’s a lot of support in looking at suicide from different perspectives, examining it in a way people feel more comfortable with and giving them a sense of, maybe not of peace, but of … Yeah, just a different way of talking about it, from lots of different perspectives. I’d like to work with other artists, I mean the full spectrum, dancers, musicians, people in drama, visual artists, whatever, who have attempted to take their own lives and would like to create to express what the experience was like and how they moved on to live an inspired life, a meaningful life.

Baden’s a writer and academic, but his history of suicide, the number that have occurred in his family through the generations, is absolutely horrific. After his brother’s death a few years back, he approached me to talk about my artworks. Eventually we decided to collaborate. We’d sit down and have coffee and talk about suicide. And he and I would just talk. And it was incredibly healing for both of us, and a wonderful experience. I count him as a really close friend now. I really treasure those moments. I’d like to do that with other people. I’m working on a project at the moment about loneliness and its association with suicide and how we might look at that sense of loneliness and how to develop that into hope. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. But that’s one aspect. One of my artworks was an umbrella and cast lotus pods. That was about suicide amongst women in rural China. I did a piece on suicide among women in Afghanistan. I’d really like to explore more at some stage with other people in addressing the issue, draw attention to sociocultural aspects of suicide that people may not have thought of.

And break away from the medical model, to show there’s so much more to it than having this or that.

Yeah. My niece is suicidal at present. Her mom’s had to hide the knives, all that sort of stuff. The issues are around us, all the time. But suicide prevention is a whole community problem, an all-of-the-community solution. We need to learn how to talk about the issue in ways that can help and support one another. Of putting our hands up and saying, “Hey, I need help.” That’s my fervent hope, that we can change the issues and get past this medical, mental illness persona. When you talk about mental illness, a shadow goes up. I don’t know about there in America. But you become a basket case. We need to move away from that. Mental illness is one great big label. We don’t do that with cancer or other diseases. There’s enough stigma with that.

And we have to change the perception. And if artworks can do that, that’s great. There’s an organization in Australia, Roses in the Ocean, and in that week around the suicide prevention day, they’re planning a number of events where they throw roses into some kind of watercourse, the ocean, a dam, a river, as some way of drawing attention to the issue. She’s on our lived experience committee. She’s trying to do that as a sort of worldwide symbol.

This is what I do. This is my calling. This is where my passion is. Life changes. That’s the one constant in life. Life changes. It might get worse, it might get better, but it never stays the same. That’s why I’m so open. Somebody’s got to talk about the damn issue.

Talking with David Granirer

Can suicide, and mental health at large, be funny? This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed someone who believes it can, but perhaps no attempt survivor has taken on the question as directly as David Granirer. The Canadian founded and runs an organization that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues.

David sees his work as part of the growing outspokenness of the recovery and consumer-driven movement. “The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, ‘Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office,'” he says.

Here, he talks about taking his students to perform in psych wards, the scandal of a teen’s recent suicide behind bars in Canada and what happens when a psychiatrist takes the stand-up stage as well.

Who are you?

I’m David Granirer, a counselor, stand-up comic, author, speaker and a mental health consumer. I have depression. I run Stand Up for Mental Health, my program teaching comedy to mental health consumers as a way of building confidence and fighting public
stigma.

And where are you?

Vancouver.

How did you get to this point?

My depression started when I was 16 or 17. I attempted suicide when I was 17, and I was in the psych ward for six weeks. All the red flags were there. I look back, knowing what I know now, and I can’t imagine how they could have missed all the signs. No one caught it ’til my mid-30s. So from the time I was 16 til my mid- 30s, I just thought it was normal to always be depressed. I thought everyone was like that. I had no idea there was any other way of being.

Until I was about 26, I was a musician. Then I hurt my wrist. I played guitar but wasn’t able to play any more, so I went through a floundering-around period. I started doing volunteer work with the Vancouver Crisis Center, and it clicked. I met great people, they hired
me as a trainer, and I trained as a counselor.

Then, around the same time, I started doing stand-up comedy and was asked to teach a stand-up comedy course at a local college. This was 1998. It gave me the idea for Stand Up for Mental Health. I would see people come through the class and have these life-
changing experiences after doing their showcase. One woman said she had a fear of flying, then after our show, she got on a plane and didn’t have that fear anymore. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to give people this kind of experience!” I taught comedy to a group of recovering addicts, then cancer patients, some of them terminal, some in remission. Then I started Stand Up for Mental Health.

But you weren’t diagnosed yet, right?

No, I started it in 2004. I was diagnosed in 1993. Yeah, being diagnosed. I’ve done lots of therapy, but getting on medication made a huge difference. I know it’s fashionable in some places to be anti-medication, but anti-depression medication made a huge difference.

Are you still on it?

Yes.

How has your group gone?

We started with one group here in Vancouver. The next year, there was a documentary called “Cracking Up” made on us in 2005. “Cracking Up” won a Voice award by SAMHSA, are you familiar with them? Thanks to the documentary, it really expanded my reach. Now I run classes all over North America. Basically, I’m contracted to run the classes by different mental health organizations in various cities.

Right now, I’m working with a group in Phoenix and I give classes via Skype. Then, at the end, I fly in and do a big show with the comics. I will also be running a group in Australia starting in the summer.

Is any subject taboo?

In Stand Up For Mental Health, the rule is nothing racist, sexist or homophobic. All the comedy is clean, no swearing, nothing obscene or grossly sexual. We’re often asked to perform in all kinds of places, military bases, correctional institutions, medical school
programs, government departments, corporations, universities, etc. We need to be able to go in and present a positive face of the mental health community. That certainly isn’t helped if people are gross and obscene. It’s really classy, well-done, clean humor. But other than that, people pretty much talk about anything: psych wards, hallucinating, times in psychosis, drug and alcohol problems, suicide attempts. Yeah, that’s pretty much whatever they want to talk about. You can see clips on the website.

Is it easy to find humor in a suicide attempt?

In some ways it’s a pretty black topic, but certainly we’ve had comics talk about it in acts and come up with really funny stuff.

For example?

Yeah. Actually, well, there’s one comic who has a great line, quite black, she says, and I’ll try to get the quote right, she says, “I’ve attempted suicide. Obviously I wasn’t successful, but I did learn one thing: that I CAN tie a knot to save my life.” So that’s an example.

When it’s mentioned, is it kind of fleeting, one joke, or is it all a comic
talks about?

I don’t think anyone just talks about one thing in their whole routine. I think in stand-up you tend to talk about different things. So, no, there’s no one who does a whole routine on suicide.

Does anyone ever point it out and say, “I can’t believe you go there?”

I think sometimes people may be a bit taken aback, but they also realize that people are not making fun of suicide attempts, they’re talking about their own lives. So when you hear it in that context, it sort of takes the edge off. So people would hear it and say, “Oh wow,
that was a pretty intense experience that person must have had.”

Do you have your own joke about it?

Yeah, I talk about my own suicide attempt. To roughly paraphrase it, the joke is, people are really afraid to talk about suicide. My friend says, “I’m afraid if I use that word, it will give you ideas.” I say, “Listen, when I’m depressed, I think about doing myself in every second of the day, so if you ask if I’m suicidal do you really think I’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before’?” So people use terrible euphemisms. Like, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” “Like talk to an idiot like you?” When I tell the joke in Canada I say, “Someone asked me, ‘Are you thinking of going to a better place?’” And I’m like, “Hey man, I’m from Winnipeg, any place is better than that.” In the U.S., since most Americans aren’t familiar with Winnipeg, I use a local reference they can relate to. So basically, it’s a joke about how afraid we are to talk about suicide, and how important it is to bring it up.

(I mention my previous interview with Mike Stutz, who made a documentary about suicide that includes humor and who has faced nervous responses from some suicide prevention people.)

We’re not specifically a suicide organization. Since we talk about so many different things under the headline of mental health, that makes it more acceptable. In general, we’ve had very little pushback. In some ways, Stand Up for Mental Health is the right idea at the
right time. Right now, the recovery movement is pushing the edge. People are looking for new modes of recovery, new modes of spreading the anti-stigma message. The fact that we came along with a unique way of doing it has been picked up by a lot of mental
health organizations: “We’d love to do something like that.” There’s been a minority of cases where someone said they took it to the board: “Comedy? You can’t do comedy about this.” But usually, once they see the documentary, the resistance is gone. I send out tons of copies. Once they see it, they totally get it. I think they’re afraid we’ll trivialize the subject, make fun of it. But then we have fun with it. Mostly what I’ve experienced was enthusiasm, interest, positive interest.

Your website mentions that you’ve performed in psych wards. How did that go?

It’s gone great. People, when we’ve gone into psych wards, they love us, you know. The patients love it, the staff loves it. Let’s face it, it’s not a lot of fun to be in a psych ward, and it’s not fun to have a mental illness. People are dying to laugh. And when you give them a
chance to laugh about it, and the comedy is actually being delivered by people who’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, it’s very inspiring: “Wow, I have the same condition, and if they’re capable of doing that, I can do something amazing, too.”

What was the first time like for you, performing in a psych ward?

The first time we performed in a psych ward, it was a place called Riverview, one of the big ones out here, probably in 2004 or 2005. They actually asked us back every year, but the audience is getting smaller because they’re gradually closing down. The first show had
probably 200 or 300 people, the auditorium was packed with people, and it was hilarious. I think the last show we did, there were 30 or 40 people. Like I say, they’re closing down. I’m not sure, but I think they’re trying to get people back into the community. But yeah, it was
great because there was staff and patients.

It didn’t bring back any memories of your own experience, walking into that setting?

I think enough time had gone by, like 25 years, so no, it really didn’t. I think I was more concerned like I usually am with things like, “Do I have the order of comics right, what parts of the act am I going to do, etc.?”

Do you change the message depending on the place you’re in?

We’re going to be doing a show in a couple of weeks for a government organization. Certainly with them, it will be more mainstream. I’ll probably do the suicide joke, but what I find is if we’re playing to mental health consumers, we can push the edges a lot more. We don’t have to worry about them being taken aback about something that’s too black. For corporate or government audiences, we keep it mainstream.

Is there something you’d like to explore but is too over the line?

Not really. The only thing I haven’t found anyone make funny is the topic of sexual abuse. I just tell people to stay away from it, not because it’s a bad thing to talk about, but because I’ve never heard anyone find any humor in it.

I see you have a Wikipedia page, and I like that it has a note at the top that says, “This page has issues.” That was kind of cute. But maybe that’s an Americanism.

I’ve seen the page, and I know it says, “This page has issues.” They think it’s like a promotional piece. Someone wrote that a while ago. And I’m not sure, to me, it seems factual. It doesn’t seem too _ yeah, it’s out of date. I should get someone to update it. I don’t know quite what they mean.

Have you had any memorably bad responses to your shows?

In general, in terms of myself, I can remember some really bad comedy experiences at crappy bars, stuff like that, just dreadful. I can remember my very first comedy experience. I had wanted to do comedy for a couple of years. I finally got the courage to do amateur night at a local club and had no idea what I was doing. The club sat about 200 or 300 people, but only about 25 were there, just a sprinkling. An empty cavern. They put me up first, threw me to the wolves. I did five minutes of dead silence. So that was my first experience. I thought, “OK, no need to do that again.” I probably wouldn’t have gone back, but this comedy course came to Vancouver, and I took it. The next time I got up there, the club was packed with all our friends etc. I was an amazing audience, an amazing night. I was hooked.

Is there any group you’d steer away from in the future in the mental health routine?

Not really. I’d say sometimes some audiences … You know, it’s really hard to say. Basically, the overwhelming number are really good. Occasionally, you run into an audience that’s real quiet. Sometimes, in part, people in the audience were heavily medicated, not responsive. But there’s so little of that. First of all, people want to be
there, they’re up for it. For corporate and government groups, there’s usually quite a bit of buzz around it. People are excited: “Wow, how often do you have comics come into the workplace?” Some people, they’re intrigued: “Wow, they’re going to be talking about
mental illness?” There’s usually quite a bit of buy-in already. I make sure the comics have good experiences with comedy. We don’t do pubs unless we’re really clearly advertising what they’re getting. If it’s a drinking crowd on Saturday night, we’re not a good fit for that
because they want a certain kind of humor. When you’re partying on a Saturday night, you don’t want to talk about schizophrenia and suicide and all that. And so I screen all the venues really carefully. I think that’s been part of the success, getting in front of the right
audiences.

Among the students, what moments stand out for you?

Probably I’ve taught since 2004, I’m thinking between 300 and 400 students across North America have taken the class. So, a lot of great moments. In terms of stories that stand out, there have also been a lot, so many. I’m thinking of one fellow featured in “Cracking Up.” Robbie Engelquist had just come out of Riverview after almost six months. He had finally stabilized. When he went in, he was really sick. He thought he had to drink his own blood; he was hearing demons, smashing his head against walls. Anyhow, he came out, and he was finally stable. But it was like he was dead. Unfortunately, the mental health system had nothing to offer him. He said, “I didn’t want to sit around all day going to groups and talking about my illness.” His mom found out about SMH and brought him to a show and he decided to take the program. But he was convinced he would fail. He had failed at everything. I mean, how do you pass school when you have undiagnosed schizophrenia? He was always in trouble with police, etc. But then he succeeded, then he succeeded again and again. He’s probably done 150 shows. He’s one of our stars. It’s completely changed his life. It’s the first time he got attention for something positive. That was in 2005. He’s still around doing shows with us seven years later. Yeah, he just turned into a really good comic, does rap music now, really cool stuff.

Is there anyone you feel you can’t work with, who doesn’t fit?

There have been a couple of cases. I remember we had one woman _ there are certain ground rules, ways of behaving, how to behave towards the class, etc. And also certain ground rules about stand-up comedy. One thing is, it’s all original material. You’re not allowed to steal jokes you read on the Internet or hear at parties and pretend they’re your own. It’s just not done. It lessens the value of the act. The cool thing about stand-up is that you’re doing something the audience can’t do, and if they see you doing jokes they’ve heard they think, “That’s no big deal, I can do that.”

Long story short, one of the comics was doing that. At first, I didn’t realize it, but people started coming to me: “I’ve heard that joke.” I did research. So basically I said, “It’s gotta be original.” She got really angry. She said in her culture they did that (used other people’s
material), and it was OK. I was like, “Um, no. This is stand-up comedy. I don’t care what you do in your culture. These are the rules you all agreed to. You know, if you’re not willing to play by them, you can’t be in the program.” At that point, she lost it on the class, and it
was easy to say, “You can’t be here.” So yeah, a small minority. I can think maybe two or three, who were not let in or asked to leave.

Going back a bit, you mentioned that the recovery movement is kind of on the cutting edge? What does that mean?

There’s a lot recovery through the arts. So people are putting on plays, one-man or one-woman shows about their stories. Ways of reaching the public that way. People also do artwork, paintings, sculpture. So I think the recovery movement, consumer-driven, is
very progressive in the sense that it’s not willing to settle for the medical model that says, “We need to get you on the right meds, and that’s it.” Meds have helped me, but meds alone are not recovery. I think the bottom line, and most people would agree, is that recovery means you have meaning in your life, whatever that meaning is for you. A lot of people find meaning in the arts and explore their talents.

We have a place here in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet, for people with mental illnesses to do their artwork, do art shows. I also work with this organization in Norwich, Connecticut, called Artreach, and they do recovery through the arts. Their big thing is to put on plays, sketch comedy, and they also have a Stand Up for Mental Health group. And yeah, they’re all peer-run, by people who have a diagnosis.

The recovery movement is a big movement, much more so in the U.S. than Canada. You guys have a much more organized, cohesive movement. And every year, you have an Alternatives Conference. I did a keynote there once on my own, about half comedy and half talk, about my program. And last year, 2012, they had it in Portland, and we did a Stand Up for Mental Health show because we have a group in the Portland area. It was really cool. We did a show for the whole conference. So Alternatives is a great example. You see the power of the peer movement. It’s great to see because you meet people
who’ve been involved in the movement for a long time, like the elders who have been around since the ’60s and ’70s, who can tell you what it was like back then: forced shock treatment, lobotomies, all sorts of horrible shit, how far we’ve come, how far we still need to go.

How much farther does it need to go? What would you like to see?

Well, sort of where we’re going is peers. Most mental health agencies now have peer specialists who work for them. So they’re actually considered an important part of mental health system. So peers are working on multidisciplinary teams, leading workshops, all sorts of stuff like that. Also, peers are helping people coming into the system find the help they need. So yeah, it’s really wonderful. I think there needs to be a whole lot more of it. The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, “Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office.”

I did an event for Seven Counties in Louisville, Kentucky, and I worked with their peer staff. One woman was amazing. She has bipolar, and at one point the psychiatrist said, “You’re bipolar. You’ll be sick the rest of your life, you’ll never work again, you’re gonna get dementia and die.” Since then, she’s gone on and pretty much trained all the peer support workers in the state of Kentucky. She’s trying to retire right now, but they won’t let her go. She’s had an amazing career. So this person, who according to her psychiatrist
was supposed to be a useless member of society, found out single-handedly about the recovery movement and brought it to the state of Kentucky. And so I think there are still places where the medical model prevails, still a struggle going on, where those
interested in the medical model don’t want to give it up.

Are things different when it comes to people with suicide attempts or suicidal thinking?

Here’s where I think the peer model is so great. Whatever the issue is, including suicide, you would think a lot of people have been trained as peers. They’ve been through it, psych wards, suicide attempts, often numerous suicide attempts, they’ve experienced being treated against their will, all sorts of stuff. I’m thinking of some people I know. Who better to work with for someone who’s suicidal than someone who’s been through it? Obviously, I think medical specialists have a place too, but I really think that well-trained peers are just a huge asset for whatever the issue is. And personally, I think, especially with suicide.

We just had this case here in Canada, a horrendous case. This girl, Ashley Smith, was in prison. I think she was 17 or 18. She was put in prison for throwing apples at a mailman. So she was acting out. She obviously had a mental illness, but the morons in the corrections service gave her no treatment, just locked her up in seclusion and made it worse. She was transferred so many times in the space of two years. She kept trying to kill herself, and she got the reputation for being a really difficult prisoner. They kept drugging her, putting her in seclusion. They have video with her on a plane with her hands
duct-taped to the armrests. And in the videos, the corrections people say she was dangerous, but she seems to be quite cooperative. Long story short, she finally succeeded. What happened is, the guards kept getting different orders. First, if she tried to suicide, they were supposed to stop her. Then they got other orders: Stop her only if she
stops breathing. So she succeeded in killing herself.

And Corrections Canada videotaped all these incidents and then spent millions on lawyers trying to make sure the public didn’t see the videos. Finally, these videos came out, and there was a huge outcry: “What the fuck did you do with this person?” She had a
mental illness, and being in the system made it a million times worse. She received absolutely no treatment. So, yeah.

You know something, I get so pissed off I can’t remember the point I was trying to make. Whatever I was saying.

I’d have to scroll back … Oh! I remember.

I read accounts that she was trying to strangle herself seven or eight times a day. She really could have used really good peer support. Other stuff, too. But sedating her, seclusion, duct-taping her arms, I mean, they need some peers in that correctional system to make sure hat never happens again. And they need peers with the power to
make decisions, not just a token hire, “We’ll just hire one person and have them empty ashtrays.” Someone with some power to change the system.

(I mention peers in the sense of support groups and the fears that suicide attempt survivors would inspire each other to kill themselves or refine their methods.)

I think once again, that’s the kind of uninformed _ you know, like, my thought is, “Why don’t you ask people if they want a support group like that, rather than make the decision for them?” In class today, one woman was saying, “I don’t go to support groups because it makes me more bummed out.” My thought is, first, “I don’t blame you.” Also if that’s all groups are, I don’t think they’re very well-run. Yes, you need to be able to talk, but if all people are doing is talking about how terrible their lives are, yeah, I think the group needs to be more than that. I think we need survivor groups, and my guess is, most people
who have survived suicide attempts want that and don’t want to be left on their own.

In the professional world, the psychiatrist people, how is their sense of humor?

Most psychiatrists I’ve encountered have a great sense of humor. One performs with us regularly. Also in Ontario. It was fabulous, they were in the green room before the show and they were just as nervous as the comics. The boundaries melted away. They weren’t
on that psychiatrist pedestal. In general, they had a really good sense of humor and welcomed this project.

In general, how do you break the ice on this subject?

Like in our daily lives? I think two things. Two different perspectives. If you suspect a friend is going through a bad time, it’s important to be direct. It’s a huge relief if you say, “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” Because finally, someone gives them a chance to talk
about it, rather than sort of pussyfooting around it, like, “Are you thinking of going to a better place?” Just ask someone directly.

I think that if you are someone considering suicide, obviously it’s a lot harder. It’s really hard to go to someone, “Hey, I’m thinking of committing suicide.” Sometimes, the best place to start is a crisis line.

What if it’s in your past and you want to bring it up? Like, while you’re getting to know someone?

I think people have pretty good instincts. Obviously, it’s not something you’re going to talk about over coffee on a first date. I think most people have a sense when a relationship, a friendship, is building toward a place of trust. So yeah, I think I would say use your instincts
because they’re usually right. Some people are ready to talk about it. It depends on the responses they’ve had.

Where else do you want to go with this?

What usually happens now is that an organization will contact me and have funding for a group, then there’s no more funding and it doesn’t continue. What I’ve been doing is creating another phase when the initial program is over. The comics then have monthly classes and continue performing. I want to have more of these ongoing groups in cities across North America. Australia is also looking pretty good, maybe the UK, New Zealand. Obviously, I don’t speak any other languages.

What’s your favorite memory from this work?

So many great experiences. I guess I’d say my favorite part is once the group is trained. I love the experience of flying wherever and doing a show with them. It’s such a wonderful experience, meeting the group in person, watching them step through that ring of fire. How
great they feel. And so I guess what I would say is, I love performing, but I also love making other people into the stars, giving those who never had that to the chance to be a star.

Who else are you?

I’m pretty ordinary. I have two kids. A 14-year-old boy who actually has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 5. He’s done shows talking about what it’s like to have a dad with mental illness. He’s taken a break the past couple years, but he’s coming back to it now. My daughter is awesome, 21, in the third year of university. My great wife and I have been together 16 or 17 years. I have two wonderful cats. Yeah, when I’m not on the road, I have a pretty ordinary life. I enjoy that ordinariness, no drama, no chaos. Sort of a really nice happy life.

I had meant to ask earlier if you ever get tired of talking about mental health issues.

No, I enjoy it. It’s something really important to me. I find I’m one of those people who has to be doing something he feels is important. I’m really intense, passionate about things important to me. This is one of them.