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New Research Unlocks a Critical Resource for People Who Are Suicidal: Personal Essays

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts and need support right now, you can call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. A list of crisis centers around the world can be found here.

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There are few experiences more lonely than feeling like the world would be better off without you in it. When you’re suicidal, your thoughts feed on this isolation, and it can feel like no one understands what you’re going through. 

The truth is, many people experience suicidal thoughts. In 2020, 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide. 

While these numbers are large and distressing and we don’t want anyone to ever feel that way, these numbers also mean so many of us have experienced serious suicidal thoughts and survived. These numbers mean millions of people have stories to tell about their own experience with suicidal thoughts, how they got through these tough, painful moments, and what it means to live well with (or maybe eventually, without) the occasional feeling that you don’t want to be here anymore.

New research – made possible with help from The Mighty’s community – found that not only can reading stories written by people who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts and attempts make those who are struggling feel less alone, it might actually decrease their desire to die. These stories could actually help people who are suicidal. 

Millions of people have stories to tell about their own experiences with suicidal thoughts.

Looking for additional support?

The Mighty has compiled our best and most helpful stories on the topic of suicidality for you, all written by people who have been there. Click here to explore.

How We Got Here – and How Our Community Helped

At The Mighty, we’ve published over 1,600 personal narratives about suicide, and wow, are these stories special. For a topic that’s so stigmatized and too often presented in black-and-white terms, this collection of stories, written by the incredible people in The Mighty’s contributor network, showcase the experience of suicidality in all of its colors, all of its nuances, and all of its complexities. From stories about what it’s like to survive a suicide attempt, lose someone to suicide, or live with chronic suicidal thoughts, to stories filled with advice and tips for how to get through moments of intense suicidality, our community has steadily been building the largest collection of personal essays about what it’s like to be suicidal on the internet.

When there was an opportunity to collaborate with Harvard University’s Nock Lab and Montefiore Medical Center where researchers conduct studies that primarily focus on suicide and suicide prevention, we knew our community could help. The researchers at Harvard and Montefiore were interested in one main question: Could reading stories written by people who’ve experienced suicidality help those who are currently suicidal? We chose Mighty stories to put that to the test, and recruited Mighty members who were willing to participate in the name of advancing suicide research. 

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 The Harvard/Mighty Suicide Study: Fast Facts

  • 528 Mighty members participated in the study
  • Participants were either put in a “treatment” group or a waitlist control group 
  • Members in the treatment group read one personal essay about suicide every day for 14 days and then answered a daily survey about how they were doing. 
  • The survey asked questions about how much they wanted to die, how connected they felt to other people, and how optimistic they felt about their future. 
  • Members in the waitlist control group answered the daily survey without reading Mighty stories for the first 14 days. Then, they underwent the same “treatment” as the first group, reading a story about suicide every day for 14 days and reporting how it made them feel. 
  • Both groups were given a follow up survey two weeks after receiving the “treatment” to check in on how they were doing. 

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What happened? The people who read a story about suicide every day reported a significantly lower desire to die than the people who didn’t. 

Eventually, the group who originally did not read Mighty stories were given Mighty stories to read. For this group, the week they didn’t read Mighty stories, their overall desire to die went up. When they started reading Mighty stories, this desire to die stayed the same on average – but stopped getting worse.  

A note about safety: What a vulnerable thing to do – let researchers know how suicidal you feel on a daily basis. It’s important to note that people who participated in this study were screened beforehand to make sure they weren’t actively in danger, and were given resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line all throughout the process. Similar to other studies like this, participants could pull out at any time, and could reach out to the researchers directly if they had any questions or concerns. 

For those who read a Mighty story about suicide every day, two factors helped explain why they had lower desire to die: their sense of belonging and their general optimism. This means that while reading a story can’t magically change your life circumstances or cure whatever it is you’re struggling with, it can cut through one of the most insidious features of suicidal ideation: the isolation. The feeling that you’re alone. The feeling that you’re disconnected from the world. Reading stories written by people who have lived through suicidal thoughts or survived suicide attempts made people feel more hopeful about their own future, and hopefully reminded them that no matter how alone suicidal thoughts can make you feel, other people experience them, too. 

What This Could Mean for Suicide Prevention

The idea that people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts could be helped by stories told by people with lived experience is not a new one. Projects like Live Through This have been collecting stories from suicide attempt survivors since 2010, and plenty of mental health advocates are now using social media and other platforms to break the silence about suicide. The peer support movement has meant more people with lived experience are being called to help people with similar experiences, and through both these formal and information connections, it’s easier than ever to find a story about suicide that could instill some hope (or at the very least, set a precedent) that it’s possible to survive moments of intense suicidality.  

Research like this can be important, though, because while at least most mental health professionals no longer believe talking to someone about suicide could make their suicidal thoughts worse, or even “plant” the idea in their head (a real misconception that needed to be busted), the way the mental health system formally responds to people who are suicidal is still often punishing. Instead of finding ways to connect suicidal people back to the world, we often physically remove them from it — taking extreme, and too often fear-based and liability-driven, actions like forced hospitalization, resulting in people spending time in inpatient psychiatric hospitals that widely differ in quality of care. We need researchers to explore alternative interventions that rely more on community and connection, and less on reactive risk-assessment and fear. And any intervention created for people who are suicidal should be driven by the people who’ve been there.

We need researchers to explore alternative interventions that rely more on community and connection, and less on reactive risk assessment and fear.

To me, the most special thing about this research is that it wouldn’t exist without all of you — people in our Mighty community. People who are willing to talk about what’s going on in your heart and minds, get honest and your experiences, and use your stories of survival to offer others hope. To both the Mighty contributors who’ve written stories about your experiences with suicide, as well as the folks who offered to participate in the study, we could not be more grateful for you. We’ve always known your stories helped people — now we just have some research to back it up. 

Read the full study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

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