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Talking about Suicide, Prevention, and Our Personal Experiences

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by Cheryl Puntil, MN, APRN, PMH-CNS, BC

Cheryl Puntil, MN, APRN, PMH-CNS, BC, is the chief nursing officer at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA.After moving to the Berkshires in September 2018, I attended The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness Walk,” which was held at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. The walk filled me with a sense of hope that bringing people from the local community together for suicide prevention not only fulfills the aim of public awareness, but also serves to empower us all. I was very inspired by the courage of each of the speakers who shared their experience and beliefs, stating that in breaking their silence they grew in their recovery. As a mental health professional, I gained a greater understanding of their struggles and developed a clearer picture of what made their lives meaningful again. In addition, those who spoke about their personal experience made it more possible for others who were affected by suicide, or who experienced suicidal thoughts or behaviors, to share their stores openly and without judgment. 

During the “Out of the Darkness Walk,” speakers reported that having the courage to share their story helped them work through their struggles, made them more resilient, and made recovery possible. For those who experienced thoughts of suicide, many spoke about the importance of connecting to another person, group, or thing as a protective factor that lessened their risk. In addition, many talked about the treatment and help they received from mental health professionals in working through depression, anxiety, and chronic suicidal ideation. Access to mental health care and treatment, being listened to non-judgmentally, the importance of partnering with someone who ‘cares’ to help them articulate their thoughts and feelings, and finding someone to help them gain a sense of hope were all referenced as paramount to healing and revival.

It surprised me that in the aftermath of the “Out of the Darkness Walk,” many mental health professionals shared their stories with me regarding their patients’ suicide attempts or death by suicide. I am in awe of the intricacy of responses, reactions, and personal accounts of struggles. I find that suicide affects mental health professionals, who are working at providing a therapeutic treatment that ultimately tries to prevent suicide, in complex and unique ways. Consequently, I believe ongoing support, education, and frequent communication about suicide and how to prevent it are a priority. Over time, mental health professionals are greatly impacted by their work with people who grapple with whether to live or die and who sometimes do die by suicide. This work is serious and stressful for everyone involved. For mental health professionals, several important questions come to mind:

  • What are our experiences and how do we cope? 
  • How do we take care of ourselves? 
  • How are we impacted and with whom do we talk? 
  • Do we feel we can voluntarily share with our peers how suicide has impacted us? 
  • Do we care for patients differently based on our professional or personal experiences with suicide?
  • Do we feel anxious, depressed, or frustrated? Do we lose sleep, or are we hyper-vigilant or overprotective of those for whom we care? 
  • Do we feel incapable of providing care for someone who is at risk for suicide? Do we feel ashamed or believe that we are failing in some way?

We need the opportunity to talk to each other about suicide, prevention, and our personal experiences. In addition, it is worth exploring whether or not it would be beneficial to speak to our experiences more broadly to raise awareness about the impact of working with people at risk for suicide in a professional manner. I wonder if it would it create more of a divide or cross a boundary if next year at the “Out of the Darkness Walk,” a mental health professional carefully spoke about their experience of losing someone for whom they cared for by suicide? Many mental health professionals may be concerned about what the impact might be on others if they talk about their personal thoughts and feelings about suicide. Does stigma and blame prohibit or inhibit the mental health professional’s voice? One thing is for sure, being able to talk about a suicide or to receive support from another mental health professional is recommended. When mental health professionals keep silent about the circumstances around a suicide or how it has affected them, it can add additional stress that can have debilitating outcomes and it can impact one’s willingness or ability to work with people who have suicidal ideation or behaviors in the future. 

Many people who have survived a loved one’s suicide or even their own suicide attempt have expressed how sharing their thoughts and feelings with others or getting professional help has saved their lives. As a mental health professional, I believe it is imperative that we listen to each other’s narratives about suicide in ways that are supportive, validating, non-judgmental, and allow for healing connections, all of which can assist in a better understanding of the impact. This, along with seeking professional help when necessary, may help save our careers, ourselves, and ultimately help to prevent a suicide in the future. 

 

Talk About Losing a Patient to Suicide on April 24th

  Join a Twitter chat on Losing a patient to suicide on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 with Dr. Eric Plakun.

 

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