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@deseraestage | contributor
Dese’Rae L. Stage is an artist and suicide awareness advocate. She’s the creator of Live Through This, a collection of portraits and true stories of suicide attempt survivors across the U.S. Live Through This re-imbues the topic of suicide with humanity by putting faces and names to the statistics that have been the only representation of attempt survivors in the past. Dese’Rae speaks at universities, professional and academic conferences nationwide about Live Through This, crowdfunding and suicide prevention in social media. Live Through This has received extensive media coverage, including features in the New York Times, Associated Press, NPR and more. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife and probably too many furry creatures.
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What Robin Williams’ Suicide Teaches Us About How to Save Lives

Williams at the 2011 premiere of Happy Feet Two | Photo via Wiki Commons/Flickr It’s been two years since Robin Williams died, and I still can’t watch anything he’s been in without feeling a deep pang of sadness. For decades, we watched him play characters that touched different parts of us. The range of emotion he masterfully portrayed over the years  —  and in so many genres, though he was primarily a comedian  —  is no doubt why we felt so attached to him. Robin, through his work, reflected our various selves back at us :  hilarious and vulnerable, a little off-kilter, addled, wild, hopeful. Now that he’s gone, it’s plain how ubiquitous his work is, how he infiltrated our hearts. Flip through Netflix right now. “The Crazy Ones.” “Insomnia.” “Good Will Hunting.” “World’s Greatest Dad.” He certainly weaseled his way into my heart. I named my car Euphegenia, and I often find myself yelling, “Hellooooo!” the way he did in “Mrs. Doubtfire” after shoving his face in a cake to fool the caseworker when he’d nearly been caught masquerading as the fictional nanny. I could watch that movie on repeat. I doubt I’m the only one still in shock. Robin Williams had everything. He had money, fame, power, adoring fans, and access to every resource imaginable. Why’d he have to go? And where does that leave the rest of us? That’s the thing about suicide: it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have. It doesn’t matter how loved you are. The pain and the feelings of isolation build and build over time, and if something or someone doesn’t set you back on your path, you get trapped in the box. The box is filled with self-loathing, self-doubt, hopelessness, futility, the thought that you and your pain are a burden to every single person around you, and that they’d be better off if you erased yourself from their lives. The box lies. And when you get trapped in that box, it can feel impossible to get out. Sometimes it is. That’s when we lose the people we love. Photo courtesy Chris Maxwell If losing Robin Williams  —  undeniably one of the most well-loved, greatest entertainers of our time  —  teaches us anything, it should be that none of us is immune to suicide. It should be that we are each responsible for, and have the power to bolster, the well-being of those around us. That we can form a net to catch those who might be struggling. Mental health differences and suicide aren’t issues best delegated solely to mental health professionals. We’ve been sold a lie. Only two of our Fifty Great States have mandatory crisis intervention training for future behavioral health clinicians. Sometimes, the people we expect to be our experts are not experts, through no fault of their own. Compounding the problem is fear of liability, a dearth of resources, difficulty accessing the ones that do exist, and an overall lack of funding for mental healthcare. We’re in a dire state. On the flip side, this leaves us with a unique opportunity and a tremendous amount of power. Every single one of us can save a life. We all possess the ability to reach out, to listen, to empathize, and to be present for those we love (and even for strangers in need), and using these skills can mean the difference between life and death. But it’s so simple as to feel counterintuitive. So, how do you do it? Ask: If you’re worried someone is suicidal, ask directly, “Are you thinking about suicide?” It’s worth keeping in mind that asking the question won’t plant the idea in their head (a common myth), and that, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” is a completely different question that leaves a lot up to interpretation. Bonus: using that scary word (“suicide”) can subvert fear and lift the elephant off their chest, allowing a real conversation to happen. Listen: If they confirm that they’re thinking about suicide, ask what’s going on. Don’t offer advice. Don’t tell them what they have to live for. Just listen, and listen hard. Validate their feelings. Tell them you love them. Tell them you’ll help them and that, if you can’t, that you’ll find someone who can. Keep them safe: Ask what makes them feel safe, and how you can facilitate that until you can both figure out what to do next. Remove access to anything they might hurt themselves with. This is especially relevant to gun owners  —  offer to hold on to their gun(s) until they’re feeling better. Be there for them: Ask them what they need. Is it a friend to watch bad TV with, help making an appointment with a therapist, a clean apartment, a week’s worth of meals, a yoga session, a friend to stay the night and keep them company? Stay connected and follow up: Check in regularly. Send cat gifs, smoke signals, carrier pigeons, owls. Drop by. Take them out. Coordinate with other people they know so that someone is always in touch. Do your best to make sure they don’t feel alone. Research shows that keeping in contact after a crisis makes a huge difference. Robin Williams once said, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” His words, his ideas, his characters created a number of entirely new worlds for us. He was our Genie. Our Mork from Ork. The English teacher we all wish we had. Let’s change the world he left us with the idea that every single one of us has the power to save a life. Let’s make that idea a reality. If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved — even when you can’t feel it — and you are worth your life. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273–8255 or Trans Lifeline at 877–565–8860 (U.S.) or 877–330–6366 (Canada). If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world. If you’re a suicide attempt survivor and would like to share your story, take a look at Live Through This.

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Dese'Rae L. Stage: 10 Years After My Suicide Attempt

In late June of 2006, I tried to kill myself. Then. I was flailing. I was three years into a volatile relationship with a woman who swept me off my feet and into a whirlwind romance in the summer of 2003. We lived in a one bedroom apartment, all wood-paneled walls and low-pile beige carpet, in downtown Johnson City, Tennessee. We did everything together: we lived together, worked together, went to school together, watched indie films and made art together, partied with the same people, fed off each other’s insecurities, screamed and yelled and destroyed each other’s things, cut ourselves (separately) in the same bathroom, pushed and pulled and hit and hurt each other. *** My first memory is of my dad throwing an alarm clock at my mom’s head. Years later, I watched another man drag her around by her mop of thick, curly hair, her knees scraping across the terracotta tiles in the living room. I remember thinking to myself then, “That can never be me.” I didn’t recognize it was me, that the exact same thing was happening in my own life, until that summer. And I didn’t know how to stop it. I thought love was enough to fix it, and my love for her was so desperate and so single-minded that I believed we could fix it. She was the be-all, end-all. I wanted it to work with her, and if it couldn’t, I wanted to die. My mind saw no other options. But it wasn’t working. I couldn’t fix it. *** I would come home after a day of waiting tables and sit on the porch, distraught, scratching through pages and pages in my journal, chain smoking, listening to the trains pass behind our house, wishing for whatever kind of fortitude it required to lay on the tracks and wait. Those suicidal thoughts, gifted to me by my adolescent brain, were nothing new. They were just exacerbated by the situation and had, at that point, been steadily building in intensity for two years. *** Despite my struggles, I achieved every goal I set for myself. I volunteered at the crisis hotline and shared about my self-injury for the first time. I won awards for my writing. I discovered photography and showed my work in small galleries. I was an undergraduate researcher. I got my degree. I got accepted to a Ph.D. program back in my hometown of Miami. I had a family and friends all over the country willing to support me, no matter what. I had a future, but I didn’t believe it. *** On June 27, 2006, the switch flipped and I decided I was done. But my plan didn’t pan out the way I intended. I woke up the next morning in a friend’s bed, in terror, alive. I’d made myself a promise in the hospital the night before: I was going to stop hurting myself, at all costs. And if I wanted to keep that promise, there were a lot of choices to be made. The discharge papers I received from the hospital after my attempt, June 27, 2006. Now. I live in Philadelphia with an incredible human — an intelligent, funny, kind, beautiful, patient woman — who said, “I do,” and, “I will,” and allowed me to put a ring on her finger, signifying a lifelong promise of partnership (and an unspoken contract that I must do everything I can to live, despite my mind’s occasional spirals). We communicate often, argue well (most of the time), make up easily. We live alongside six furry creatures. We each have careers that fulfill us, and we each enhance the other’s work. The past year has been one of extreme growth: a wedding; a move from Brooklyn to Philadelphia; a full-time freelance career (instead of juggling freelance with part-time work); a new puppy; a new home; a new car; and new challenges. *** When I saw my new therapist for the first time, she asked, “Who is your primary physician?” “I don’t have one.” “When did you get your last physical?” “I don’t know.” “Your last gynecological exam?” I shook my head. “I only have so much energy in me, and I choose to use it to maintain my mental health. I’m here. It’s the best I can do right now.” *** I struggle to fall asleep. I struggle to wake up. I forget to eat. My diet consists mainly of beer and cheese. I no longer walk 3–5 miles a day like I did when I lived in New York and have, subsequently, gained 20 pounds. I hate looking in the mirror. I am irritable. I forget to feed the dogs. I forget to take the trash out. The prospects of cooking, cleaning, or doing the laundry overwhelm me to the point of paralysis. My mind says, “You are useless. You are worthless. Everyone around you can do these things. You can’t, and that will never change.” I am flailing. *** Despite the challenges, I have a future I look forward to. I have a wife with boundless love for me. I have friends and family all over the country who support me, no matter what. I have work I love doing and opportunities beyond expectation. I just signed a lease for a studio of my own. I travel regularly. I want for very little. Ten years later, the struggle is still very, very real, but life is flawed and beautiful and I’m glad I’m still here. If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out  —  to anyone, anywhere. Someone will reach back. Please stay . You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved  —  even when you can’t feel it  —  and you are worth your life. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273–8255 or Trans Lifeline at 877–565–8860 (U.S.) or 877–330–6366 (Canada). If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.

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Dese'Rae L. Stage: Media Forgets Hope When Covering Suicide

Image by Chris Maxwell. In June 2006, at 23 years old, I survived a suicide attempt. I felt hopeless, futile, unloved, unworthy, without a future. I thought there was nothing else I could offer the world, or the world could offer me. So I tried to die. — A CDC report released last week shows a steady 24 percent increase in suicide rates from 1999–2014. The media are already running in some dangerous directions with this information. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, in partnership with several leading suicide prevention organizations, released a statement in response to the CDC report, urging safe, hopeful media coverage: “The CDC data remind us that there is more we must all do to prevent suicide in our communities. However, it is important to be aware of data that indicates suicide prevention is effectively occurring daily, in ways that are rarely finding headlines. For every one person who dies by suicide in the U.S., there are approximately 278 people who have moved past serious thoughts about killing themselves, and nearly 60 who have survived a suicide attempt, the overwhelming majority of whom will go on to live out their lives. These untold stories of hope and recovery are the stories of suicide prevention.” — Ten years after my suicide attempt, I can say with confidence that life is good. It was worth sticking around for. I wish I could say I was cured of the depression, self-injury or of the suicidal thoughts, but I’m not. They still pop up occasionally. The difference is that I have tools now I didn’t when I was 23. I have a community. I have people to turn to. So, even when my mind is trying to sabotage me, even when I think I’m the most useless, burdensome human on the entire planet, I know better. I use my tools: I feel my feelings; I wait it out; I get a giant, too-expensive Starbucks coffee and I wander around; I talk to my wife or my friends or my mom or my therapist; and eventually, it’s OK again. It’s not always better right away, but it’s OK enough to live through for another second, minute, hour, day, week. I think you get it: we can live. It’s not easy. We’ll still suffer. But we can live. — Please remember when you read the sensational stories, the gross stories, the emotionally manipulative Shonda-style stories, the media can do better than this. They can report the facts, but they can also instill hope in those who need it. We all need it sometimes. Today is a day when we need to remember those we’ve lost, and those who continue to live. As loved ones of those lost to suicide, as those with lived experience of suicidal thoughts and attempts, as loved ones of those who struggle every single day, our voices are important. Our voices can inform and guide productive change. Let’s raise them, because our stories can save lives. — If you want to raise your voice right now, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, Tumblr, MySpace (wherever it is that you go and talk to people), and post something about how you lived through your own suicidal thoughts, through your own attempt or through the loss of someone you loved. Use the hashtag ‪#‎ILived‬ (as well as ‪#‎suicide‬ — activity on that one is skyrocketing this week) and this beautiful image made by Chris Maxwell. Roar! This is how lives get saved. If you’re in a rush, here’s a quick, pastable tweet to use with the image below: “For every person who dies by #suicide in the US, 60 will survive a suicide attempt. livethroughthis.org #ILived” — If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1–877–565–8860. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world. For true, honest, hopeful stories of those who lived through suicide attempts, take a look at Live Through This. If you’re a journalist and aren’t sure how to report on suicide, here are recommendations compiled by the world’s top suicide prevention organizations: http://reportingonsuicide.org. This piece originally appeared on Medium. Lead image by Chris Maxwell. If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.