So, how do you “come out” about a suicide attempt or suicidal thinking? And should you? We’re talking about being open beyond your immediate circle of family and friends.
Here and here are guides that explore the broader question of disclosing about mental health issues. They include lists of thoughtful questions to ask yourself when making that decision. And here is a guide for attempt survivors who are thinking about sharing their stories in public.
Here are a few comments from people who’ve come out about their experience, from interviews on the blog Talking About Suicide:
“I just made the decision I was not going to hide who I was, not be ashamed of who I was, not be ashamed of what happened to me. I’m sure there were people who judged me along the way, but it’s their loss. I wish that I had had someone who could talk to me. … I do not have ‘suicide survivor,’ ‘trauma survivor’ or ‘person who was diagnosed with a severe mental illness’ tattooed across my forehead.” _ Cheryl Sharp
“My psychiatrist congratulates me on my speaking. He says, ‘I have all these letters after my name, but I don’t begin to understand mental illness like you do. And you have such a valuable part to play because you’ve been there.’” _ Tom Greensides
“I lost a lot of friends. Maybe 75 to 80 percent just wrote me off, just like that. At the time it kind of sucked, but I saw right through it, like, ‘You weren’t really my friend anyway.’ It was good to really clean that out of my life. … The people left are probably the healthiest.” _ Joseph Olszewski
“It must have been a hell of a conversation when we met. I knew she was the one. I just told her everything, my whole story in about two hours: ‘This is who I am, where I’ve been, where I am now, what I want to do with life. What do you think?’ She said, ‘Let’s meet again and get married.’ So we got married. We’ve been together eight years, almost. And she’s 100 percent supportive of me.” _ Craig Miller
Finally, one issue that’s rarely addressed in discussions about coming out is legal protection against discrimination _ a bit odd, considering that concerns about legal protection are so strong in the mental health world when it comes to helping people who might be suicidal.
We asked a couple of lawyers who are familiar with mental health issues for their thoughts on speaking openly:
Dan Lukasik, lawyer and founder, LawyersWithDepression.com: “I’ve thought about suicide many times, many times. It’s hard for people to understand depression, but it’s an even further leap to understand suicidal ideation.”
“It’s really driven by what kind of climate you work in. Some employers are more understanding, and some are not. … I tend to think, generally speaking, it’s a case-by-case analysis. … I don’t practice that area of law, wrongful termination, but my own personal experience, when I came out six years ago, was pretty rough, very hard. People thought I was crazy. I had a very successful law practice, ‘Why would you throw it away?’ A friend of mine, a judge, said, ‘You understand, your competitors will want to hurt you with this.’ My own experience was none of that came true, and a ton of positive things came out.”
“I think maybe how people choose to come out is also important . Is it going to be a positive story or a negative story? Having read lots of blogs, I think it’s important how the coming out is done. Does it have a positive narrative or very, you know, troubling narrative, I guess. Mine came out as kind of a constructive thing. I wanted to help other people. I’m not a poster child with complete recovery, I’m still struggling, but I’m moving in the right direction. For someone who survives a suicide attempt and is trying to do something constructive, I think it’s a very positive direction.”
“I think if there’s no real reason to tell the employer, if work hasn’t been affected, maybe there’s no reason to tell the employer.”
“Many, many, many people can relate to depression. … Maybe the way to go is to come out with depression. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Lewis Bossing, senior staff attorney, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law: “Some people who may be concerned about discrimination based on knowledge of a suicide attempt may be people who are protected from disability-based discrimination under ADA and other laws.”
“Discrimination about suicide is similar to discrimination on the basis of disability. When you discriminate on that basis, it’s because an employer or a school clings to a stereotype about whether that person is likely to hurt themselves again or hurt someone else, which might affect whether they can do the job or stay in school.”
“I think schools often seem to be concerned about liability from some lawsuit later from family members or someone else at school who may have been affected, where they may have known about someone’s history and not done something. Those episodes are usually few and far between.”
“It’s a matter of going in and figuring out … what kinds of supports a person may need in being successful in school or work. … If it’s a job, a person might need to take a little time off during the day for counseling. Or they may have certain needs for flextime based on medication they’re taking. In many cases, these are reasonable workplace accommodations. In schools, it may be whether they need to take some time off and be permitted to come back after completing a course of treatment, or just taking time away and finishing the program at a later time.”
“Depending on where someone is, if it’s a workplace, the EEOC or the equivalent state agency, all those agencies accept disability discrimination complaints. … If it’s a matter of schools, each state may have statewide education agencies that process disability discrimination complaints. Also, there’s access to the federal department of civil rights, which has handled a lot of these complaints.”
“I do think disclosure is where we’re going as a society, it’s easier than it ever has been, but I’m not sure we’re there yet.”
“If readers are looking for legal assistance, there are offices in every state that have attorneys who specialize in disability law. The Protection and Advocacy Network. … I will say the Bazelon Center is the only center for mental health law I’m aware of.”
“It’s worth thinking about how and when to disclose, in what form, what context, and how long that information is likely to trail behind you as you go through life. It might not be that every disclosure is a forever disclosure, but some might be.”