At 6:00 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2016, my daughter, son-in-law and I went to join our American Foundation for Suicide Prevention colleagues and supporters to appear on “Good Morning America.” We were all excited, dressed in our lively bright blue “Be the Voice #StopSuicide” shirts, with smiles on our faces, ready to talk about saving lives. Our sea of bright blue dominated the color palette of the rope line. People who hadn’t come with us reached out, let us know they supported us and in some cases revealed they had a personal connection to suicide loss themselves. Many gladly took a free shirt and put it on in solidarity. We’d been told that probably between 7 and 8 a.m., someone would come out and interact with the crowd. We were psyched and ready.
I was crushed when we were asked to step aside, take ourselves and our National Suicide Prevention Week signs out of the camera’s view, and given the explanation that, “It’s the top of our morning show. We don’t want suicide on the brain.”
I now feel more passionate than ever.
It’s not the fault of “Good Morning America” exactly. We know we had supporters inside the building. They knew we would be there, and wanted to feature us. Probably, one executive made a snap decision, not realizing that suicide is a health issue, that it is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and that it can be prevented. But only if we talk about it. And only if we educate people about what to look for in order to recognize the signs and get people help.
Thirty years ago, when I started working to prevent suicide as a researcher and clinician, no one wanted to even use the word “suicide.” In fact, I got into the field as a new psychologist because no one in the psychiatric department I joined wanted to focus their work on adolescent suicide. Lately, though, I have been heartened to notice a shift in the conversation. According to a Harris Poll, nearly 90 percent of people realize that mental health is as real as physical health. I now regularly hear people discussing their mental health and even their experiences with suicide just as they would talk about diabetes, appendicitis or a cold. Media has also begun handling suicide prevention from a more enlightened perspective. It’s a slow process, but progress is happening.
I am familiar with people being uncomfortable talking about suicide. Often, suicide presentations at conferences are slotted for the last day at the last hour. Yet when people attend, they feel it was time well spent because they realize they can make a difference. I am no longer stopped in the ladies’ room by people wanting to share their personal experiences about suicide; instead, I am approached in the open, in front of others and the discussions are often lively.
Thanks to all of our research, we know that suicide can be prevented: one life, one moment at a time. We know about risk factors like mental health conditions, early trauma and abuse, head injury, chronic pain and chronic health conditions. We know genetics plays a role, particularly in terms of sensitivity to stress and one’s ability to “bounce back.” Most people with mental health conditions or major life stresses do not try to kill themselves. We have methods we know work to help people to manage suicidal thoughts without acting on them. All that needs to be done is to spread awareness and knowledge. Like the name of one of our educational programs, talk save lives.
The incident at “Good Morning America” just happens to be the latest reminder there is still work that needs to be done. We were in such good moods, standing there in our colorful shirts: far from a dour image that would have brought any early morning viewers down. We were ready to happily answer questions like, “What can we do to prevent suicide?” and, “How can you start a conversation with someone you’re worried about?” Simply giving people the answers to these questions saves lives. We just need to spread the word. Some of the bravest people I know have faced suicide and survived. But we can’t bring people who need help out of the darkness if we’re pushed into the shadows for fear that it’s a sad topic. Our message is a hopeful one!
Before the camera turned to the people outside, Elizabeth Vargas sat inside the studio, being interviewed about her recovery from an alcohol use disorder, and the book she’s written about her experiences. Years ago, people didn’t talk about that. They didn’t even talk about cancer.
It’s time to talk about suicide prevention. We can’t be pushed aside. Talk. Saves. Lives.
Editor’s note: The Mighty reached out to “Good Morning America” for a comment, and have not heard back.
By: Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman