Lived Expertise and Suicide Prevention

Integrating the voices of people with mental illness into suicide prevention.

Posted Mar 30, 2017

“My name is Adam. I am a human being, a husband, a father, a pediatric palliative care physician, and an associate residency director. I have a history of depression and suicidal ideation and am a recovering alcoholic.”

This is how Dr. Adam Hill begins his story, which he shared this past week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It reminded me so much of Dr. Quincy Lezine’s story:

Dr. Hill goes on to share:

“Last year, I decided I could no longer sit by and watch friends and colleagues suffer in silence. I wanted to let my suffering colleagues know they are not alone. I delivered a grand-rounds lecture to 200 people at my hospital, telling my own story of addiction, depression, and recovery. The audience was quiet, respectful, and compassionate and gave me a standing ovation. Afterward, hundreds of e-mails poured in from people sharing their own stories, struggles, and triumphs. A floodgate of human connection opened up. I had been living in fear, ashamed of my own mental health history. When I embraced my own vulnerability, I found that many others also want to be heard—enough of us to start a cultural revolution.”

These stories rang particularly true for me this month, after returning from a trip to speak at McLean Hospital’s grand rounds about being a mental health professional with a personal story. My personal story, though, is that my father died by suicide—quite different from Dr. Hill’s story. My breath caught as I read that Dr. Hill had spoken at his hospital’s grand rounds, as I knew how much trepidation I had speaking about my own experience in front of a large room of people, and I was not disclosing personal mental health struggles.

Dr. Lezine’s story stands out as it is a part of the lived experience movement in suicide prevention, an effort to involve people who have firsthand, lived knowledge of mental health challenges. Dr. Lezine also happens to be a researcher, a suicide prevention expert—in addition to a suicide attempt survivor. He brings all of these parts of himself to his work in suicide prevention.

One lesson of the lived experience movement is that it takes people like Dr. Hill and Dr. Lezine—people who have earned a lot of credibility through their professional accomplishments and who are able to disclose their own personal experiences—to break down stigma and change perceptions and policies related to mental illness.

In his piece, Dr. Hill shares what he learned from his personal experience and how those lessons have informed how he approaches his work as a physician as well as his mental health advocacy.

  • Lesson 1: Self-care: We need to be committed to having plans to cope with rigorous and stressful situations. (He is specifically focused on changing the way that medical professionals with mental health conditions are treated and how they get help.)
  • Lesson 2: Stereotyping: Mental health and substance abuse conditions have no prejudice.
  • Lesson 3: Stigma: We have to stop the shaming.
  • Lesson 4: Vulnerability: Revealing vulnerability unlocks compassion.
  • Lesson 5: Professionalism and patient safety, specific to those in the medical profession: “Physicians who are successfully engaged in a treatment program are actually the safest, thanks to their own self-care plans and support and accountability programs.”
  • Lesson 6: Build a support network.

Dr. Hill’s lessons apply outside of the medical community and mirror the experience I have had and which I share when I speak or write about balancing a personal story with a professional life.

This week, as I was writing this post, I learned of the death of a woman who had changed the suicide prevention world through her lived experience. Amy Bleuel founded Project Semicolon with the idea that a suicide attempt doesn’t mean that your story is over. A semicolon, the punctuation that marks a pronounced pause in a sentence, represents a break and a new beginning. Amy started a movement of people getting semicolon tattoos and wearing semicolon bracelets to represent that their journeys continued. Amy had struggled with depression and suicidality and lost her father to suicide. All of these experiences inspired her to start Project Semicolon, an initiative which has spoken to and helped so many.

Top Right News
Source: Top Right News

It feels important to share Amy’s life in this post. May her memory, and her lived expertise and that of others who share their experiences so that we can have better mental health systems, be a blessing.

Copyright 2017 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved