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Secrets We Dare To Speak

December 16, 2020
Nina Gutin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Pasadena, California. She received her MS and PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University. Gutin is co-chair of the Coalition of Clinician-Survivors. She was a patient at the Austen Riggs Center from 1978-80.
For a very long time, I kept my history as an Austen Riggs patient hidden from all but my closest friends. My fears about disclosure in professional domains were reinforced when in 1995, my brother took his life when I was in graduate school. I was stunned by the reactions from my professional colleagues, particularly the ones I thought were my friends, and from my professors. After a couple of weeks off, they avoided me like the plague, and shortly thereafter, I was told that I was still “too negative.” My grief was clearly pathologized. I now know that these stigmatized reactions from others are fairly normal for suicide loss survivors, but I really thought that people in the mental health field would be more empathic and should know better.
I realized that not only is there professional stigma re/suicide, but there’s also significant stigma around professional vulnerability. Put very simplistically, I believe this is predicated on an “us/them” distinction in the mental health field: Buying into this distinction serves to bolster one’s professional status and identity. However, within this framework, any professionals who display such vulnerability cannot be an “us” anymore. So, I hid the loss of my brother as well once I graduated, compartmentalizing the “competent clinician” and the “grieving survivor.”
Part of me knew that if I were to fully heal, these parts needed to be integrated. So, I took a big risk: I presented a paper about these experiences at a clinical conference. After this and subsequent presentations, clinicians who’d also lost loved ones and/or clients to suicide came out of the woodwork-thanked me for breaking the silence and for validating their experiences of feeling shamed and pathologized by professional colleagues.
It was only in realizing the profound degree of meaningful healing for myself and for others that could come from breaking the silence around the stigmatized topic of suicide loss, that I was able to begin to contemplate what might be possible in a disclosure of an even deeper “secret:” my own history of suicide. But I had questions: 1) Could I withstand the personal/professional judgment that could come my way? 2) How would this disclosure affect my credibility as a professional? 3) Could my disclosure be potentially helpful to others? 4) Would the message I wanted to convey through my disclosure be enhanced or diluted by my professional status?
I also felt the need to consider the context and culture of the environment in which I would potentially disclose. Would it be a rigid professional setting seemingly intolerant of personal intrusions into professional space? A setting in which suicidal despair is reserved only for the patients described in “case studies”? One in which the “us/them” distinction is alive and well? Or a setting that values and respects the voices of those with lived experiences around suicide? I believe that Austen Riggs is one of these rare places.
In summary, I’ve learned that being able to integrate, not hide from our vulnerabilities promotes growth and resilience, and that speaking out about our stigmatized experiences (to the extent that this is heard without further judgment by others) can promote healing, integration, and education for ourselves and others. And I have profound gratitude to all of those who have been brave enough to speak out and share their stories before I have. Their voices have given me the knowledge that I am not alone, and the bravery to bring my own secrets to light. By speaking out individually, and by bringing our voices together, we can bring our knowledge, our integrity, and our humanity together to break the silence and the stigma around suicide and other types of distress. We can make it more possible for those suffering to know that there is hope and an understanding community for them. And, ideally, we can help those in the “helping professions” be more likely to offer what people in suicidal distress need in order to feel understood and to create lives worth living.