Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

What is the role of survivor stories in suicide prevention?

The stories of survivors magnify the importance of suicide prevention.

When I started writing this blog, I wrestled with whether or not to disclose that I have personally been touched by suicide. Today is the best day for me to do that, the day that I feel most connected to that loss, the day that I most identify as a survivor.

Twenty-one years ago today, my father died by suicide.

There will be people who have known me for years yet, until they read this post, did not know. I work every day in an office where the word "suicide" is constantly on our lips, and there are only two people who know. I write for a fairly public audience about suicide and suicide prevention every single week, but do not regularly share with people closest to me about my family's experience with suicide.

Over the past year, I've found myself reading the writings of other survivors who are "out" about their identity as survivors. I have been struck by their bravery, the ease they seem to possess as they put this intensely personal piece of information out into the world.

I spent a lot of time considering whether my story would contribute anything to preventing suicide. These survivors who have been so open showed me that these stories do have their place in suicide prevention, that they are at the core of what we do, and that I'm not any less of a "preventionist" for having a story to tell.

I realized that other people live with the contradiction I feel, and do so beautifully. Other people have lost family members to suicide and do not feel guilty or ashamed about it. They have built their lives, and sometimes their careers, around that loss. They are driven by it to work to truly prevent suicide.

I have to imagine that I didn't end up working in the field of suicide prevention purely by accident. Twenty-one years ago, there were very few resources for survivors, fewer for suicide prevention. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention was founded in 1987, so was just getting started when my father died. Suicide wasn't really even viewed as a national problem, a public health problem, until the late 1990s. The Suicide Prevention Action Network USA (SPAN USA) was founded in 1996. It wasn't until 1998, 10 years after my father died, that a national conference on suicide prevention was held, an outgrowth of which was a National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, released in 2001. So, to find myself part of a national organization working to equip people working in communities across the nation with the skills they need to create effective suicide prevention programs is to find myself at a pretty good place.

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I'm still not entirely sure where my story fits in, or really how to tell it to truly honor the memory of my father without magnifying the importance of his death to unrealistic proportions. But, I do believe that the stories of survivors, if nothing else, magnify the importance of suicide prevention.

Copyright 2009 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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