How Society Discusses Suicide



By Aaron Beatty

Dr. Jane Tillman, Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and ResearchBenedict Carey, in his recent New York Times article, “Suicide Prevention Sheds a Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts,” explores the recent move by the American Association of Suicidology to recognize those who have attempted suicide and survived and what this acknowledgment means for the survivors, the clinicians who treat suicidal individuals, research into suicidality and how society discusses suicide.

Though the stigma surrounding mental illness persists, nowhere is it more evident than in its relationship with suicide. Because of this stigma, survivors of a suicide attempt have long been silent or silenced. And this is not a small population we are talking about; there are an estimated 11 non-lethal suicide attempts for every lethal one – according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, in America alone, nearly 1 million adults reported making a suicide attempt in 2008.

Carey notes that “People who have survived an attempt and gone public often say the treatment they got afterward — locked down in a hospital ward, with little chance to confide in a sympathetic caregiver — was dehumanizing.” He goes on to say that survivors further encounter reticence from doctors, therapists, friends and family to discuss their experiences. 

From a research perspective, identifying survivors of a suicide attempt and studying their experiences could potentially deepen our understanding of the event itself and what implications those observations have on the treatment of patients. Psychologist and Riggs Advisory Council member Nina Gutin, Ph.D., elaborates, stating that these “lived experiences” can potentially “highlight the optimal internal and external processes involved in moving from suicidal despair toward hope.”

Dr. Gutin continued by saying, “These voices are not only inspirational to those who still struggle with suicidal thoughts and feelings, but also provide crucial information to clinicians, researchers, family members and anyone else who aims to understand and prevent suicide.”

This is a subject matter that touches the Austen Riggs Center in many ways., Jane G. Tillman, Ph.D., the Director of the Erikson Institute, has published her research on therapists as survivors of patient suicide and is currently the Principal Investigator on an externally funded study, “States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt,” involving the study of participants who have survived a near-lethal suicide attempt.

Related to treatment, many Riggs patients are survivors of a suicide attempt or have issues surrounding suicidal ideation. In an open and voluntary setting, we rely on building a treatment alliance in a therapeutic community to continue the work of treatment with patients for whom suicide or suicide ideation is an issue.

To hear Dr. Gutin speak more about her interest in suicidology

Nina Gutin, Ph.D., speaks about her work on suicidology

The Suicide Prevention Partnership

Related reading

Improvement and Recovery From Suicidal and Self-Destructve Phenomena in Treatment-Refractory Disorders

Suicide: From Chronic Risk to Imminent Danger

Suicide Rates on the Rise - Blog Series


When I read this blurb I remembered how it felt to stare in the mirror and feel nothing.  I could only see dead eyes in the mirror.  I remember thinking the person was already dead so help that being go for good.  I remember feeling the world was so burdened by the me in that room and if I allowed myself this moment no one would have to suffer any longer.  There was a sense of peace and the pills took over.  Waking up in the hospital all I could respond when asked about the why was "I don' know."

The biggest move forward for me surrounding issues of suicidality was to understand my loneliness at the time of my abuse, no way out, overwhelmed and trapped.  When I learned my strengths and bravery in surviving these horrors and being reminded of these CONSTANTLY by Dr Demos I began to heal.

This inner strength had allowed me to find a wonderful husband, have six wonderful children and longstanding friendships, a beloved Nana to my grandchildren, and pursue a career in nursing I always dreamed.  It was a definite new perspective for me to understand my suicide thoughts were the old way of thinking even if they burdened me every now and then in the now.  I can now use those thoughts to help me understand how hurt I was back then and continue the process of loving that little girl and now this woman.  When the trapped feelings appear, I can now respect them instead of fear or feel allured by them.  I do not want to die but I do want to find a way out from the fear and loneliness I am experiencing.  I feel happiness to know I have the tool to do that by allowing the thoughts to flow through, identify why they are there and to allow myself to feel whole.  They are all a part of the person I was and now am.  

There are times when I simply tell those thoughts to get the hell out.  I then smile and know I am going to be just fine!!


As someone who struggled with suicidal depression from the ages of 10-32, this is a topic of particular importance to me.  While I never discuss the specific details of exactly how I planned to end my own life- or even very many details about WHY- I have recently become VERY vocal about the fact that I have struggled with depression and spent much of my life wanting to commit suicide... and despite both of those things- I am not just surviving- I am thriving.  Yes, I still deal with depression- but not the hopelessness and despair- and one thing I've learned along the way is just how important it is for those who are still suffering to know that they are not alone.  That has become my motivation for participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk... and to become the captain of Team Me Too... I'm grateful for the 8 weeks I spent at Riggs during the worst of my depression... and I welcome everyone who is interested to read a little more about my journey and my thoughts on the importance of open discussion: