Impact of Ideas

How a TED Talk from a fellow suicide attempt survivor helped me rebuild my self-respect

At TEDActive 2011, JD Schramm stepped forward to talk about his failed suicide attempt and the need to break the silence surrounding suicidal feelings. When journalist Cara Anna saw the talk, she says it was a "revelation." Photo: Michael Brands

At TEDActive 2011, JD Schramm stepped forward to talk about his failed suicide attempt and the need to break the silence surrounding suicidal feelings. When journalist Cara Anna saw the talk, she says it was a “revelation.” Photo: Michael Brands

By Cara Anna

I was a foreign correspondent based in China when I attempted suicide, twice. A big factor was the fear that if anyone knew what I was feeling, I would be fired and my career would be over. Here I was, a journalist since the age of 16, whose far-flung life — Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, extra in Bollywood films, teacher in rural Pakistan, copy editor at a Shanghai-run newspaper — had been aimed at becoming a foreign correspondent one day. And then, in my mid-30s, it all seemed finished.

My attempts came 15 months apart, three years ago — the second more serious than the first. I had assumed that if you do everything you can to get better, you get better, and it can’t possibly happen again. But it did. After the attempts, it was a relief to discover that my employer was supportive. That helped me make the daring decision to be open about this. The one healthy thing I could do that I hadn’t before was remove the stress of keeping this a secret.

Like many people who survive, I searched online for resources, for people like myself. Maybe it’s the reporter in me, but I wasn’t comfortable with the anonymous forums I came across, the first-name-only nature of stories, the “all names have been changed.” To me, it reinforced the idea that this experience is shameful. And who’s going to break that kind of silence?

JD Schramm: Break the silence for suicide attempt survivors JD Schramm: Break the silence for suicide attempt survivors But then I came across JD’s TED Talk during my determined Googling. It was a revelation. Here was someone telling their story openly, and on a stage that’s famously welcome to creative and groundbreaking ideas. To me, JD’s idea was this: You can be a successful, smart, articulate, caring professional, and you don’t have to hide.

The fact that TED, a popular mainstream media source, was taking him seriously kind of blew my mind. By that point, I had scoured the websites of the major mental health organizations and suicide prevention groups and found almost nothing in the way of real people’s stories told with confidence. After I watched JD’s video, I read through the hundreds of comments and found plenty of people who agree with him, who’ve been there, too. Take note: Whenever a major outlet publishes something about suicide, we tend to perch in the comments section like birds on a wire. Quietly waiting to be noticed, waiting for a national conversation to begin.

JD’s talk convinced me that opening a true conversation about suicidal thinking may very well depend on the efforts of projects like TED, innovative ones outside the traditional and often nervous world of suicide prevention. While JD was clearly saying, “We have to talk about this,” I’ve heard so many people in suicide prevention say, “Oh, but we have to be careful,” with the result being that little is said at all. Change comes very slowly. And yet, many people in mental health, and indeed in suicide prevention, have quietly told myself or other outspoken suicide attempt survivors, “Me, too.” They’ve been there. They just don’t dare say so.

Many, many professionals like JD and myself have had suicide attempts or suicidal thinking. What will open the door to reducing the suicide rate in this country is a real, high-profile, earnest effort to bring our voices forward. For me, not being able to see anyone like myself talking about feeling suicidal only made me feel more suicidal, because it was easy to tell myself that I was a loser.

What if we were encouraged to come out? What if there were a national campaign that built on JD’s speech, featuring the lawyers among us, the doctors, the artists, the tech workers, the grad students, the people who know so well the enormous effort of gritting their teeth and saying to colleagues and the world, “I feel fine?”

What if everyone took a look at the first national project to take this idea and run, the beautiful portrait series Live Through This? Its founder already has posted more than 60 portraits of attempt survivors, each taken moments after a person tells their story. What’s just as striking is that everyone agrees to use their names.

More modest projects have begun. I started Talking About Suicide with the goal of putting all the resources I could find, like JD’s video, in one place. It began with the nervous interview of another “out” attempt survivor, and it now features more than 50 conversations. Everyone has been direct and fascinating. Only once, briefly, has someone cried.

The American Association of Suicidology took notice, and Attempt Survivors launched a year ago with essays, videos and resources.

I love that people are finding they’re not alone. It’s a relief for them, and it’s been a relief for me. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for everything you’re doing here. I am a suicide attempt survivor,” one man wrote.

“I find that what you’re doing here is amazing,” a woman wrote. “I think it’ll help so many people who are suffering in silence.”

The thinking behind these young projects is simple: What if we showed that suicidal thinking can happen to anyone, including the best of us? And that being open about it can make us stronger?

What if by speaking out, we could remove the tremendous, unnecessary stress of thinking that what happened to us is tied to misbehavior or shame? What if we no longer had to fear any disappointment in people’s eyes, or the recoil of people who don’t know what to say because no one ever says anything? What if by speaking out, we made everyone a great deal smarter about a major, fatal health problem and more confident in demanding a far more serious and better funded system of advocacy and care? Not to mention respect?

What if by speaking out, we turn suicidal thinking into a topic we can say we once whispered about, like homosexuality or cancer not so long ago? What if we could look back a few years from now and ask, “What on earth were we thinking?” And finally, why don’t we start now?

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Cara Anna blogs at TalkingAboutSuicide.com and tweets at @AboutSuicide. She is one of 250 people who have written JD Schramm since his talk came out, letting him know that his idea had a deep impact on their lives.