Suicide is historically burdened with the tenacious stigma of being “taboo”—a label that once meant the conversation was not suitable for mixed company (or any company) and should be quarantined to the likes of medical professionals. As talking openly has become inextricable from progress, this dated label has gone the way of matrimonial twin beds. No conversation is out-of-bounds anymore. Now when we say “taboo,” we mean to point out that our persistent reluctance has become a detrimental hindrance to growth.
To be fair, suicide is complicated and heavy and sad. People generally avoid talking about it because they don’t know how to navigate their own uneasiness around this relatively unexplored discourse. The history of our discomfort has a multitude of sources: the persistent shame attached to mental illness, the guilt about our role in someone’s demise, the fear of playing a role in someone’s future demise, or perhaps the general squirminess we feel around the endlessly troublesome notion of choosing to go from living to not. The problem is that our collective avoidance has quarantined the issue to the world of community advocacy, with its fundraising walks and brightly colored honor beads. Such advocacy efforts are positive and uplifting and necessary but not entirely inviting to your average spectator, who might observe from afar and think: not my problem.
“When somebody says they have no experience with suicide, the sad truth about that is that they will. If you live long enough you’re going to know somebody or somebody who knows somebody,” says Lisa Klein, director of forthcoming documentary The S Word—a film bent on edging its audience into being more proactive and less avoidant about the topic. “It was like this fifty years ago when cancer was still ‘The C-Word.’ You say suicide enough and it’ll become just like anything else. I want to make the word so comfortable that the act becomes uncomfortable. If you normalize the word then you can talk about what’s going on—with you, with your feelings, or with the fact that you’ve lost somebody.”
Klein is no stranger to grappling with difficult and sensitive material. In 2012 she made the documentary Of Two Minds, a film about the struggles of bipolar disorder. “After Of Two Minds I thought, okay, I’ve covered that, I can move away from mental health,” she says. “I was actually researching suicide and Jewish comedians at the same time. I thought, maybe I should just do a film on Jewish comedians. That would be a palette cleanser.
“When I started thinking about [my next film], I realized I had more demons to face. That’s such a cliché, but it’s pretty much everywhere in my family—mental illness, suicide, all of that.” Klein lost both her brother and father to suicide and ultimately felt compelled to embark on a deeper and at times scarier exploration of the topic in her second film. “It just feels like the thing I need to be doing with my craft and my experience,” she adds. “It’s not like if I weren’t making this film I’d forget about the losses I’ve experienced. It’s there anyway, so I may as well be using it for good.”
The S Word features interviews with people whose lives have been permanently transformed by suicide, loss and mental illness, as well as those working in the field to study and prevent suicide. The central narrative follows the work of Dese’Rae L. Stage—photographer, suicide awareness advocate, and founder of Live Through This, a project that gives voice to suicide attempt survivors. After surviving her own suicide attempt, Stage grew frustrated with the oppressive stigmas surrounding that experience. Attempt survivors have historically spoken with anonymity to avoid shame and discrimination. Until recently, they have also been generally overlooked in the scientific and advocacy community, an imbalance that Stage’s work has helped to level. “Live Through This encourages survivors to own their experiences publicly—using both their full names and likenesses,” writes Stage. “I get it: we’re afraid of death. But avoiding it and pretending it doesn’t exist is nothing more than willfully perpetuating ignorance.”
Dese'Rae L. Stage
Klein originally intended for The S Word to dig deep into loss and what that does to people, but after connecting with Stage and several other attempt survivors, the project organically veered more in their direction. “There’s this whole world out there of people with lived experience, people who have attempted suicide. Hearing the voices of people who’ve been there has been unbelievably eye-opening for me. I just didn’t think of it in that way, I always thought of it as death, the end, because that’s what I knew.”
The dialogue around suicide swells immediately after a death, so it’s no wonder we find the subject veiled by an impenetrable shroud of tragedy and macabre. “When people ask you what you’re making a film about and you say suicide they’re like, oh, hmm, that’s really an upbeat topic. But I don’t want this to be a dirge. It will be funny. Des is funny. These people are three-dimensional.”
A sense of relatability is what has generally been missing from the conversation, which has until recently been relegated to science journals and grief support groups. The aim of projects like The S Word and Live Through This is to rally an engaging and inclusive conversation around a rampant public health problem that affects everyone. Perhaps those who haven’t struggled or watched someone else struggle with mental illness or suicide will claim they don’t relate, but there’s a better chance this demographic doesn’t exist.
“Suicide has been the tenth leading cause of death for years and years,” Klein points out. “It’s great that we have scientists, it’s great that we have psychologists and psychiatrists, it’s great that we have drugs. And the walks are great, or wearing a ribbon, it’s all fine. But the problem is we’re stuck, and whatever it is that people believe is so much easier than radical thinking. Things need to change and voices need to be heard. I know I’m standing on a soapbox here, but people like Dese’Rae and others trying to push things forward can only be good because we are absolutely stuck. We have to shake things up.”
What does that look like? Talking, mostly, but not the kind of saccharine talk that happens in afterschool specials, the kind of talk that makes us uncomfortable because discomfort is necessary for progress. The problem with sweeping our cumulative discomfort under the proverbial rug is that the rug eventually becomes a toxic landfill. Suicide is not going to go away if our greatest collective movement is to avert our eyes. The truth is that we’ve run out of places to look instead.
“I don’t think that it’s fair for anybody to walk on this earth and not know a little bit about this or how to talk to somebody about this,” says Klein. “It’s really irresponsible to say, oh just call this number or go to this doctor. You know what? If somebody falls in the street, we’re not going to just walk by. We’re going to do what we can until the help gets there. We have to treat suicide the same way. It shouldn’t be like, oh my god there’s somebody on the bridge and they’re about to jump I better call somebody. No, you better fucking go over there and do something.”
If that makes you uncomfortable, it should. That means it’s working.
This is a guest post by Candace Opper. Candace writes and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Brevity, and Bitch Magazine, among others. She has an MFA from Portland State University and is the former co-host of Late Night Library's "Late Night Love Affair," a beloved podcast about books written by women. On most days she is busy at work on her own book—an exploration of suicide and the ways we give it meaning.
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