Suicide attempt survivor and advocate Dese’Rae Stage poses in New York City on Sept. 9. (Photo: Linda Jaquez)

After Living Through a Suicide Attempt, Telling the Story Can Be Powerful Medicine

A brave group of mental health advocates speak out about the worst moments of their lives.
Sep 10, 2014· 6 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

In August 2013, Emily Lupsor drove more than two hours from Charlotte, N.C., to the house in Raleigh where Dese’Rae Stage was staying. There was a spread of food laid out on the table, and the woman who lived there was pampering her guests, offering them drinks and goodies. Lupsor, now 24, had been hoping for this meeting for months because like her, Stage once tried to kill herself. For the past four years, Stage has interviewed and photographed dozens of others—including several women at the house that day—for her online portrait and interview project Live Through This, one of the few outlets where people speak candidly and publicly about their own suicide attempts.

Lupsor tried to kill herself during college, and later, when she worked at the front desk of an eye doctor's office, she would obsessively Google resources for suicide survivors. There wasn’t much out there, but what she found she pored over religiously, thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this is a thing.” That day in Raleigh, along with Stage, she got to meet some people she’d read about online.

Besides one friend who’d stuck close to Lupsor when the darkness and hopelessness were too much to bear, Stage would be the first person she talked to about the whole story—the depression, the struggle to leave her bed, the suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization during college, and the slow, sometimes halting crawl toward a more positive life.

Everything about the house, the food, and the people there was “wonderful” to Lupsor, and then, on a screened-in porch, Stage listened as Lupsor talked about why she’d tried to kill herself and what her life has been like since.

“I just told her about everything,” Lupsor recalls over the phone. After they spoke, “we went outside in the backyard and did a photograph. It was kind of symbolic of a fresh start.”

Emily Lupsor

(Photo: DeseRae L. Stage/Live Through This)

While every year there are 38,000 completed suicides—as they are sometimes called—around a million adults survive a suicide attempt yearly. These survivors are an underserved group. “There’s always been so much focus on how do we help someone in crisis,” Lupsor says. “After the crisis is over, you’re stuck in this awful place and have had this traumatic experience of almost dying.”

Wednesday is World Suicide Prevention Day, and advocates say there’s still a massive need for counseling and support groups to address the trauma of having tried to take your own life. In July, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Task Force, which included many survivors, released a report with recommendations on how to better care for this population.

The report recommends that more mental health professionals get training and gain experience dealing with suicidal clients. In 2013, one study found that only half of psychologists, 25 percent of social workers, and 6 percent of counselors had suicide risk assessment training. People responding to suicide attempts—EMTs, doctors, and nurses—also require better training. Lupsor says that when she was in the hospital after her attempt, an aide told her, “You should be so ashamed of yourself. You have so many reasons to live.”

At a Starbucks in New York City’s Union Square, Stage is wearing a worn blue T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, her arms and hands covered with bright tattoos. She describes how after years of depression and an abusive relationship led her to attempt suicide in 2006, she began to look for people with similar experiences.

At the time, “those stories weren’t out there. If an attempt survivor did anything, it was anonymously,” she says. “If you don’t have a name or a face, what is there to connect to? You become a number or a statistic, and that doesn’t connect people to the issue or make them feel like it’s important.”

Slowly, thanks in part to advocates like Stage, people are starting to pay attention. In April, for the first time in its 46-year history, the American Association of Suicidology, the oldest organization for those involved in suicide prevention, formally recognized the stories, needs, and experiences of suicide attempt survivors. The site now links to brochures for suicide survivors and to Suicide Anonymous, a 12-step group inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Live Through This has been featured on Upworthy, and Stage was quoted in The New York Times. She raised more than $22,000 for the project on Kickstarter last year (surpassing her goal by more than $7,000). In 2011, a journalist and survivor named Cara Anna started another site called Talking About Suicide, where she publishes interviews with people who have attempted suicide and lists resources and support groups for survivors.

Stage is well suited to public advocacy because she has been sharing her deeply personal experiences and feelings in online journals since she was 15.

“I’ve always been criticized for being too open,” she says with a raspy laugh. Four years after her attempt, while working as a music photographer, she decided she had to do something to address her struggles with mental health and suicide. It was another year before she came up with the concept for Live Through This—warm, intimate portrait photos alongside candid, lightly edited interviews.

She advertised on Craigslist for people to participate.

“Looking for suicide attempt survivors for an education portrait project,” she’d write in a listing that would be removed almost as soon as it was posted.

“I just kept putting the f---ing thing back up,” she says. She thinks the sites were flagging the ad because of the word suicide.

But at least one person saw her post and reached out. Joey Olszewski was living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when he sat down on a park bench and swallowed “enough pills to take out a football team of Sylvia Plaths” and washed them down with some whiskey, he says. He’d struggled for years with bipolar disorder, and that day he was “on my way out, really and truly.”

His brother found him and took him to the hospital.

When he saw the ad Olszewski, now 24, wrote back.

Though recently she’s been meeting people at home, Stage sometimes likes to do the interviews outside. She and Olszewski met in the park where he’d tried to kill himself. She says she felt a little uncomfortable when he told her that his attempt happened “right over there.”

In Olszewski's interview on Live Through This, he said even though he’s feeling better, “I still think about it sometimes.”

But their talk seems to have changed Olszewski. It had been a chance “to free myself of [the suicide attempt] and to lay it all out,” he says. Standing outside his job at a shipping company in Long Island City, Queens, trucks roar past as he describes the interview as “the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Joey Olszewski

(Photo: Dese’Rae L. Stage/Live Through This)

Olszewski loved the transparency he found in Stage—who could be as open and forthright offline as she was in her online journals—and he appreciated being able to put his story out there. “It’s a weird thing to say I’m proud of,” he says. But because the interview is public, he thinks it is a chance to show people what he has learned, that “things don’t necessarily get easier, but there’s a whole mess of people out there that have an incredible love inside them.”

Despite all the warm fuzziness Olszewski experienced that day, suicide attempt survivors still grapple with stigma, fear of retribution, and anxiety over the unforeseeable consequences of their attempts. Both Olszewski and Lupsor don’t want to say exactly when they tried to kill themselves. Lupsor declines to discuss how she tried to kill herself and is wary of speaking too graphically.

Stage thinks that too much of the conversation around suicide is focused on “morbid curiosity” about how people died. Even so, most of the people she’s interviewed for Live Through This have felt compelled to tell her the details. It can be tricky to find the right balance of discretion and transparency.

Having people whom survivors know, meet, date, or work with find out is a concern when going public with a story, yet many say they wouldn’t want to work at a place that would discriminate against them because of a suicide attempt. The people Stage has interviewed talk about the importance of family and friends in their recoveries, and they often say they’ve realized that there are things to live for. However, many survivors feel like it’s a mistake to assume life automatically and always gets better after a suicide attempt.

“It gets better, and then it gets worse, and then it gets better, and it gets worse—it’s life,” says Stage.

Like Joey Olszewski, Emily Lupsor’s recovery has had unexpected triumphs. The interview with Stage was the “beginning of positive events in my life.” She’s now in school to be a clinical social worker. She loves the work but struggles with how much of her story to tell peers. Though Lupsor has yet to disclose her attempt to a client, she wonders if there might be a time when it could help someone to know her story. She started to do some public speaking, and last year, at the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk, Lupsor wore green beads to indicate she was a suicide attempt survivor.

“The only way I feel we’ll ever overcome stigma related to suicide is to just keep talking about it,” she says. “It’s hard, but we have to keep doing it.”

This article was published in connection with Please Like Me, a comedy about 27-year-old Australian comedian Josh Thomas, his quarter-life crisis, and his eccentric family and friends. Please Like Me airs Fridays at 10:30 p.m. on Pivot TV, TakePart's sister network.