What is Live Through This?
Live Through This is a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors.
“Suicide” is a dirty word in this country. It’s a sin. It’s taboo. It’s selfish. It’s not an easy topic to discuss and because we, as a culture, don’t know how to approach it, it’s easily swept under a rug. The problem is that suicide is a pervasive public health issue (the 10th leading cause of death in the US). I get it: we’re afraid of death. But avoiding it and pretending it doesn’t exist is nothing more than willfully perpetuating ignorance.
The intention of Live Through This is to show that everyone is susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts by sharing portraits and stories of real attempt survivors—people who look just like you. These feelings could affect your mom, your partner, or your brother, and the fear of talking about it can be a killer.
Historically, suicide attempt survivors, in particular, have spoken under conditions of anonymity in order to save them from being discriminated against. The silence and shame created in that act are dangerous. Live Through This encourages survivors to own their experiences publicly—using both their full names and likenesses—and thereby works to strip the issue of anonymity and raise awareness by, simply, talking about it. It’s the first known project of its kind, exploring a world that has remained a taboo for far too long.
Why Live Through This?
Live Through This exists for many reasons. Here are some of them:
- It humanizes the issue of suicide by putting faces to the statistics that have represented those who have lived through experiences of suicidal thoughts and actions for years. The survivors who share their stories here are real people who have been through hell. They are also engaging, fascinating people whose voices deserve to be heard. It asks you to look into their eyes, to see their humanity, to find empathy.
- Everybody should know the basic tenet of suicide prevention: If you’re afraid a loved one might be suicidal, ASK. The thought that asking might be putting the idea into your loved one’s head is a myth.
- Depression affects 1 in 10 people–a huge number–but stigma is everywhere. That stigma often results in shame and silence, and the severe depressions that result in suicide frequently go unnoticed. What if this was affecting your mom, your partner, or your best friend?
- The media sensationalizes suicide for stories. You’ve inevitably heard of Aaron Swartz and Tyler Clementi, but how often do you hear about suicides that don’t come with a snappy headline? How often is a story on suicide presented with a sympathetic view of mental illness, or information on warning signs and strategies? Not often.
- Each death by suicide affects 115 people. That’s 1 million new people affected every year. I have lost dear friends to suicide. Have you?
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, and it’s on the rise. And here we are, afraid of it. I’m convinced that the simple act of getting people to talk about it will save lives. It’s a serious public health issue, and one we can do something about if we can just set our fears aside.
How does it work?
The meeting is broken down into two parts: the story, and then the shoot.
First, the survivor tells their story. I let them go at their own pace and include only the details they wish to share. I try not to interrupt—I prefer it to be as purely from the survivor’s perspective as possible and don’t want to throw it off course. I do often ask questions at the end, but it’s more of a conversation than an interview. There is no structure, and the content of the questions comes from the story. Everything is recorded.
Afterward, while the survivor is still in that experiential head space, we make a set of portraits. Again, my direction is minimal. My only request is that the survivor look directly into my lens. The entire process usually takes about an hour and a half to two hours.
Each portrait is then presented on the website with a curated snippet of the survivor’s story: something poignant or a unique perspective. When paired in this way, the portraits and stories work to de-stigmatize suicide as a topic unworthy of everyday dialogue and to serve as proof of life on the other side of a suicide attempt.
It should be noted that the current turnaround time from interview to publication is approximately 2 years.
What is the end goal?
The portraits and stories are the main product of Live Through This, but the website is the vehicle, and the accessibility of that is incredibly important. It is intended to provide comfort to those who are down, insight to those who have trouble understanding suicidal thoughts and actions, catharsis for those who have lost a loved one, and the importance of lived experience to behavioral health providers and policymakers.
In March 2013, I completed a fundraising campaign via Kickstarter that allowed me to take the project on the road. I’ve been doing that ever since. As of June 2017, I’ve met with 180 attempt survivors in 33 US cities. There are hundreds more who want to share their stories, and I have every intention of meeting every single one of them.
I am currently focusing on:
- Building the catalog of the portraits and stories of attempt survivors who have participated in Live Through This;
- Traveling nationwide to give talks at universities, conferences, and suicide prevention events that focus on my own struggles with suicidality, as well as the genesis of the project and lessons learned. I also give workshops on social media—specifically, how I apply a social media strategy to Live Through This—and storytelling;
- Scientifically, Live Through This is the largest data set on suicide attempt survivors to date. Based on that, I have partnered with researchers at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville on a qualitative study on meaning-making after surviving a suicide attempt (in progress);
- Educating journalists on best practices for reporting on suicide;
- Consulting with members of the entertainment media on realistic, honest, and hopeful ways to portray suicidal characters in TV, film, and literature;
- Writing a memoir about my experiences with suicidality;
- Creating a companion guide for those using Live Through This as a teaching tool in graduate programs.
Bring LTT to Your Campus or Event
To inquire about availability for speaking engagements, please contact Ben Anshutz at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more information here.
Meet the Photographer
My name is Dese’Rae L. Stage. I’m a photographer, writer, and suicide awareness activist.
In December 2005, I completed my Bachelor of Science in Psychology at East Tennessee State University, where I was an undergraduate research associate in Dr. Chris Dula’s Applied Psychology Lab. I’m trained in various crisis intervention techniques. And the camera? Self-taught.
I struggled with self-injury for nine years, and survived a suicide attempt catalyzed by an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in 2004. It is these experiences, coupled with the loss of friends to suicide and a lack of resources for attempt survivors, that prompted me to start working on Live Through This.
In February 2013, I raised $23,000 via Kickstarter to take the project on the road. As of August 2016, I’ve photographed 166 suicide attempt survivors in 28 US cities.
Live Through This has been covered by the New York Times, Associated Press, Upworthy, NPR, and more. I’ve spoken about the project at universities and conferences nationwide. I’ve provided commentary on various radio and TV programs (including the Glenn Beck Program). Recent achievements include winning the inaugural Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest and being named New Yorker of the Week by NY1 News. I’ve even told my story onstage to a room full of science enthusiasts while violently ill.
You can download my full CV here.
I live in Philadelphia with my wife (a fellow Miami native) and various furry creatures. You can see more of my work at deseraestage.com.
PS: That is, indeed, a rat on my shoulder. Ratter Garcia, in fact. She left us in the summer of 2014. She was a great pet (rats are kinda like dogs—are you surprised?), and we miss her dearly. Got your attention, didn’t it?
I learned today that Amy Bleuel, founder of Project Semicolon, died by suicide last week. I’ve been sitting with the news for a few hours now, trying to find some clarity, and I keep thinking of my colleagues. Suicide prevention work is done almost exclusively by people who have lost someone to suicide or who have experienced their own suicidality. Often, the calling to suicide prevention comes close on the heels of a near miss with an attempt, or the suicide death of someone we love, and it comes with urgency. In that way, it puts many of us in a precarious position: we so desperately want to save others from suicide that we forget to save ourselves. (I have bolded the comments that I thought were beautifully written and that are very important messages for myself to remember as well as everyone reading this… Sue)
We dive in with our life raft before we learn to swim. (Love that… Sue)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned collecting stories for Live Through This and traveling the country sharing my own story, it’s that the most important thing we’re doing when we share is giving others permission to share—and what a gift that is to bear witness to. But it’s also a burden. It can be a heavy load, and if you’re struggling with your own mental health, if you don’t have the supports, if you haven’t mastered self-care, that load can crush you.
It’s no secret that we often clashed in our opinions, but when we were first introduced, Amy shared how she still struggled with thoughts of suicide, how isolated she often felt, how adrift. I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately, and the news of Amy’s death shook a memory loose.
In session last week, my therapist asked me, “Who do you feel comfortable being vulnerable with?”
“My wife,” I said.
“I have an incredible support system that I don’t often make use of when I really need to,” I said.
“Be careful,” she said, “You don’t want to find yourself lonely in a sea of people. That can lead you straight down a path…”
I finished her sentence for her: “…to suicide.” (very wise and important words… Sue)
We lost a powerful advocate in Amy, and I know the rest of us who do this work are really feeling that loss today. If you’re one of these people, please don’t lose sight of yourself in the work. We need you—and we need you thriving, not just surviving—so that when you hold your breath and you dive deep, you pull two people ashore: yourself and the person you worked so hard to save. And then you send up a flare to let the rescue boat know where you are, and you wait and you rest and you breathe. (I love the comments in bold… Sue)
I’m guessing Amy didn’t know how deeply she affected so many people. I’m guessing she didn’t think there was a rescue boat for her, but I think it was just a foggy night and she couldn’t see her lighthouse. (Love that sentence… Sue)
I started the #STAY t-shirt campaign during Suicide Prevention Week 2015, and I had no idea how well it would resonate with so many people.
This shirt is a physical, visual reminder for those of us struggling, for those who have struggled, and for those who care about folks who struggle: Stay. Hold on for one more minute, then one more day, a week, a month, a year. Keep holding on. Hold on until you can safely loosen your grip and just be. Stay. You’re not alone. We’re here with you.
It’s not only a reminder. It’s a conversation piece. If we’re going to change public attitudes and work toward saving the 41,000 lives lost to suicide in the U.S. every year, we need to talk openly about suicide, without fear or shame. When someone asks what the shirt‘s all about, tell ’em! The more open we can be, the more we can have productive conversations, the more we can effect change.
I set a fundraising goal of 113 shirts to represent the 112.7 people who die by suicide in the U.S. every day. For me, statistics are little more than abstract. Can you imagine standing in a room with 113 other people and actually seeing the daily cost of human lives to suicide?
I Love these t-shirts and the survivors. I want to get one of these shirts. Sue
I had to get some animals on there too…
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
All content © 2010-2017 Dese’Rae L. Stage Photography
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month
I am a numerous suicide attempt survivor. Praise God, I am still alive today.
I am a Mental illness advocate and it is my passion to educate about mental illness, increase awareness about mental illness, reduce the stigma of mental illness and the stigma associated with suicide and I want to and must reduce the alarmingly increasing rate of suicides around the world today.
I continue to make a daily post about suicide everyday throughout the month of September for Suicide Prevention month. This is post #20 and if you have missed my previous ones, please check them out on my blog. Also, continue looking on my blog for more daily posts about suicide for the rest of September.
We must always remember the many beautiful and precious suicide attempt survivors and the many people who have suicidal thoughts. We must pray for all of them and everyone with mental illness every day.
Tell people often that they matter and they make a positive impact in the lives of many people and to the world we live in. We all need to hear those words. I know I do. They are important.
We all need to do our part and do MORE. The first steps are accepting and understanding others with kindness, compassion and love. We all need to educate and learn more about mental illness and suicide and suicide prevention. Start the dialog and be a voice.
We must all make our voices heard very loud and strong about mental illness, mental illness stigma and suicide prevention. It is critical. It is crucial. Each life is priceless. We must prevent suicides and save lives.
Have a happy, peaceful and healthy day and may your life always overflow with many blessings and…
remember my loud bipolar whispers prayers for peace in your heart, mind and soul, for courage, strength, perseverance, resiliency, compassion, support, healing and love and…
remember my loud bipolar whispers the abundant love I have in my heart for all of you.
Please know you are loved and you all matter and you make a positive difference in this world every day.
God bless you all always and forever…
Until tomorrow… I hope to see you again (so to speak) as my loud bipolar whispers more words for suicide prevention…
Love and hugs, Sue