Discover more from Sarah Fay
Who Gets to Survive?
Note: This post is in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month and mentions suicide
Reading time: 4 min.
The day I learned that many people don’t consider me a suicide survivor, I sat at my desk writing a chapter in my memoir Pathological. My one-room apartment was lit only by the glow of my computer monitor and the light coming in the windows from an overcast sky. I typed suicide survivor to describe myself. Something about my use of the term didn’t feel right. I tried to rationalize it: Hadn’t I survived several suicidal episodes—excruciating, interminable moments that someone who hasn’t experienced them could never understand? Didn’t suicide survivor apply to me?
The answer: Rarely.
The term suicide survivor refers to someone affected by another person’s suicide, particularly a family member. This use of the word became commonplace among those who treat, study, and research suicide in the 1960s and 70s. Families and friends were first called survivors in suicidologist Edwin Shneidman’s 1965 lecture “Some Reflections on Death and Suicide” and psychologist Albert Cain’s 1972 book “Survivors of Suicide.” Even the Samaritans, a charity founded in the U.K. in 1953, reported by some to be the first to offer a hotline for those in crisis, defines “suicide survivors” as “those who have lost a loved one to suicide.” So does the Harvard Medical School website. As does the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). As does the World Health Organization (WHO).
Of course—and this goes without question—families and friends of those who ended their lives by suicide deserve the term survivor. Their suffering is unfathomable. And in that suffering, they somehow find the strength to help prevent suicide by raising awareness.
I just wonder about the harm caused by depriving us of the term—or something like it. It wasn’t until 2014 that any suicide-prevention organization acknowledged those of us who’ve survived suicide and then only with the secondary designation “suicide attempt survivor.” (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) now refers to family and friends as “loss survivors.”)
It isn’t just semantics. In our algorithmic age, words matter. If, on one of those nights in my apartment or that day at the lake, I’d tried to get help and googled “suicide survivor,” I wouldn’t have found stories of people who’d been where I was. The top result would have been from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline telling me that I wasn't alone if I’d lost someone to suicide. If I’d scrolled down, I’d have been confronted with NAMI’s and Harvard Medical School’s websites echoing Wikipedia’s definition of a suicide survivor: “one of the family and friends of someone who has died by suicide.”
I wouldn’t have discovered the talks, interviews, and panels of those who’d experienced what I was experiencing, telling me to get somewhere safe, call 911 or go to the emergency room or to someone who can be with me and protect me. I wouldn’t have come across groups like Connections, a peer hotline organized by save.org; livethroughthis.org; talkingaboutsuicide.com; or attemptsurvivors.com. I would have had to journey deep into Google’s nether pages to find David Rosen’s 1975 article that acknowledges that survivors of suicide are those who’ve come near it.
It’s not that I want to deprive anyone of being the survivor they are; I just want those of us who’ve survived suicide to be proud and serve as an example for those who may be in that place. I want us more visible, each survivor broadly wearing a T-shirt with suicide survivor emblazoned across the front. Because we are here, waiting for those who may be in that dark place to join us—a band of proud survivors.
Must-read: Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses (HarperCollins)—Sarah Fay’s memoir of and journalistic investigation into the validity of mental health diagnoses
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