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September's 'National Geographic' Cover Features a Suicide Attempt Survivor

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post mentions suicide means and could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

The first line of this month’s “National Geographic” cover story is, “This story is difficult to look at.” Suicide attempt survivor stories are often difficult to talk about — but this story, Katie Stubblefield’s story, is unique. Not just because she attempted suicide when she was a senior in high school and survived, but because afterward, she needed 22 surgeries to reconstruct her face. In May 2017, at the age of 21, she became the youngest person in the world to receive a face transplant.

Her story in “National Geographic” is heavily visual, and mostly covers the 31-hour procedure Stubblefield went through to get a new face. But, as a suicide attempt survivor, Stubblefield story isn’t simply about a surgery. If you read her story (which you can find online here), these are a few things we’d want you to keep in mind, from a suicide prevention perspective.

1. Healing after a suicide attempt means more than patching up physical wounds.

While those who survive a suicide attempt may need to be hospitalized for physical wounds, this is only one part of their healing story — and sometimes, not even the hardest part. Because when all is said and done, after cuts get patched or bones start to heal, a suicide attempt is a traumatic experience, and whatever emotional pain pushed someone to that point doesn’t simply “go away.” While the “National Geographic” story mostly focuses on Stubblefield’s physical transformation (because it is fascinating), we can’t forget how much work it can take to heal our minds after a suicide attempt as well.

In her piece, “Returning to Life After a Suicide Attempt,” Mighty contributor Lucy Dimbylow writes:

When you attempt suicide, there’s not supposed to be an afterwards. It’s supposed to be an ending, not the beginning of a whole new horrendous chapter. No one tells you what it’s going to be like to live through the aftermath…

Yes, I still bear the mental scars of my suicide attempts. Those attempts have changed me in a way I can never undo. I’m a different person than I was before. I crossed a line we’re not supposed to go near. I prepared, when I took those tablets, for one outcome. The one I got was entirely different.

I’ve lived through an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody else. I’m glad to be alive, something I once thought I would never be.

We can’t assume people aren’t struggling anymore just because they’ve healed from any physical side effects of their suicide attempt. We need to support people even after they’re physically “well” — and make sure their healing is holistic.

2. While reporting guidelines say to leave out suicide means, there are exceptions.

Sharing details about suicide “means” — meaning how a person tried to kill themselves — goes against guidelines for reporting on suicide. And for good reason. Details about a suicide can inadvertently act as an instruction manual for “how to” suicide. The guidelines state, “Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”

But, sometimes the means can’t be ignored. In Stubblefield’s case, to hide the means would mean to hide her story — and her humanity is more important than guidelines. That’s why in this case, it’s OK to mention she attempted suicide by gun.

Saying she used a gun to explain her need for a face transplant is all we need to know. We don’t need to know what kind of gun she used (which, unfortunately, National Geographic provides). We don’t need to know what it was like the moment before she shot herself, or the dramatic details of what happened after. By saying she attempted suicide using a gun we can explain part of her story — but it shouldn’t be the focus.

3. When it comes to suicide by gun, most people don’t get a second chance.

Firearms are the most lethal suicide method, and those who attempt using a gun only have a one in 10 chance of surviving. Stubblefield’s survival story is inspiring, and she refers to her facial transplant as her “second chance” at life. It’s important to remember though, most people who attempt suicide using a gun are not given a second chance — one of the reasons means restriction is so important when it comes to suicide prevention.

4. Surgeons worked hard to give Stubblefield a second chance at life — but not everyone is treated with such respect by medical professionals after a suicide attempt.

Of course, we can not assume every doctor Stubblefield encountered since her suicide attempt has been compassionate, but from “National Geographic’s” coverage, we can see nurses and surgeons working tirelessly to help her start this “new chapter,” as Stubblefield calls it. After her surgery is complete, there’s a picture of them clapping and cheering. But, not everyone gets seen by such a compassionate team of medical professionals after a suicide attempt. In fact, many people report feeling like doctors don’t take their needs seriously after an attempt because they “did it to themselves.”

In a piece about just this, Mighty contributor Alyse Ruriani told her story about going to the ER with a self-harm cut:

I felt like I wasn’t even a patient, let alone a person. He talked to the other nurses about my cut like someone gossiping about some drama. They made it seem like my wound wasn’t even attached to a person…

Holding back tears, I tried to explain that for me self-injury is an addiction. But [the doctor] told me this was a choice.

‘Why should I even help you?’ she said. ‘You’re just going to do it again.’

Those words cut me deeper than I have ever cut myself. This doctor — a person who has taken an oath to help those who need it — was telling me I wasn’t worthy of help or compassion. I finally got myself to go to the emergency room for a self-inflicted injury, something I probably should have done in the past, and I was being treated like I was wasting their time.

If anything, I hope this story shows people in the medical community that suicide attempt survivors deserve as much effort, energy and resources as everyone else. They are not ungrateful, and they are not undeserving of care. It’s also important to note her parents seemed to have advocated for her throughout this whole process — and not everyone has this kind of support system when dealing with doctors.

5. Beware of framing this story as a “cautionary” tale.

Please, please challenge anyone who frames this story as a cautionary tale — a “look what happened to this young woman, so you better not try to kill yourself” story. This message, that you shouldn’t kill yourself so you don’t end up injured, can actually have the opposite effect. 

With this story, of course, it’s hard to avoid mentioning the means, because how she attempted suicide is why she needs a face transplant. But typically, we shouldn’t focus on how someone tries to kill themselves — but what got them through. Instead, let’s frame this as a story about hope. In a supplemental piece, Stubblefield shares what she wishes what she was told before her suicide attempt: “Step back. Breathe. Pray. Breathe some more. Breathe again. Relax. There’s always someone you can talk to.” Now, she wants to be a counselor so she can help other people like her. That’s the story. Not, “Look what happened to her.” Instead, “Look what she’s doing now.”

6. Your suicide survival story doesn’t have to be dramatic to be important.

Every suicide attempt survivors story deserves to be told — even if it’s just to a friend. You don’t need to have the most violent suicide attempt, or the most dramatic physical ramifications, for your story to matter. This is just one woman’s story and we hope it shows that suicide attempt survivors everywhere deserve this level of support — no matter what.

Originally published: August 15, 2018
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