Sharing Our Stories and Listening

Safe and Effective Messaging in Suicide Prevention

As a suicide prevention community, one of our primary goals is increasing public awareness and educating people about suicide.  There are many good documents that provide evidence-based recommendations for creating safe and effective messages to raise public awareness that suicide is a serious and preventable public health problem.  The SPRC, National Action Alliance, AFSP, SAMSHA and many others have put forth guidelines to help us with awareness campaigns, as well as educational and training efforts in the community.  All agree that there are definite Dos and Don'ts.  In addition to message content, we also need to think about our targeted audiences and the best ways to reach them-i.e.-internet, social media platforms, places of work and worship, etc.

One powerful form of public education is the sharing of our stories of hope and recovery.  People with lived experience - both survivor's of suicide loss (SOSL) and survivor's of suicide attempts (SOSA), have made an enormous impact  in the field.  Whenever someone takes the brave step to share their story, they make it safer for the next person to take that step.  And research supports the power of storytelling in lighting up areas of the brain that just listening to statistics or research findings just doesn't accomplish.   Stories of survival - whether surviving the loss of a loved one to suicide - or, surviving a suicide attempt are often compared to the mythic hero's journey.  In the hero's journey, an ordinary person, through experiencing tremendous struggle and after learning many hard-fought lessons, is transformed into an enlightened, stronger and better person.  The guidance in our field for survivors who choose to share their story is to spend 20% on the difficulties and about 80% on lessons learned, hope and recovery.

We know that the experience of sharing our story - especially if that story is very personal and painful - can have enormous benefits for the sharer. It can help lower anxiety, build trust and social connection, provide clarity and help us figure out our own best next steps when we are struggling with difficult life circumstances.  Of course, the people we share our story with must earn that privilege.  What do I mean by that?  Well, we must be ready to provide the sharer with our focused attention, to listen without judgment and with acceptance and support.  We need to provide a safe space for the storyteller.  So, whether we are an audience member, or a crisis counselor on a hotline, or a friend or loved one - we can play a huge role in listening with respect to survivor stories, providing safety and honoring their courage.

As we all work to increase public awareness around suicide and suicide prevention, we can all play a role in creating messages that educate and inspire - we can truly create the change we wish to see in the world.

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