Erica Kitzman interviews Juliet Carr - "Just A Mom"
EK: Hi Juliet, Recently I attended a TedX event at which you presented Attempted Suicide: Overlooked & Under Served and I’ve read your book, Attempted Suicide Help: The Essential Guidebook for Loved Ones. Because of your work, I have come to understand that certain demographics affected by suicide spectrum behaviors have not been heard by the traditional suicide prevention community nor considered in mainstream suicidology research. Thank you for your continuing devotion to the unique needs of family members and friends of suicide attempt survivors.
JC: You are very welcome. It is all I know how to do with the information I have, and I only hope it will help others.
EK: When did your journey to advocacy begin?
JC: My journey to advocacy began 12 years ago.
EK: What happened that began your advocacy journey?
JC: What prompted my research and professional work was a family member’s multiple suicide attempts. After the attempts I was desperately seeking resources and was told, "When your loved one kills themself you can join our group. Until then we have nothing for you." I was treated dismissively by professionals, suicidologists, and others which fueled depression, shame, anger, rage, and fear. Then came action to make the world a better, safer place for people who have suicidal thoughts, intentional self-harm actions, attempted suicide and for those who care for them.
EK: I was happy to see your TedX talk made public last week. Why did you decide to audition for TedX?
JC: Ted is a respected platform and I knew the research I have done belonged on that platform for the best of humanity. I think the stories of people who have been affected by suicidality are important and I wanted to share them. I think that the field of suicidology needs to awake to the possibility that certain practices may actually be feeding the suicide epidemic. Examples of this are: comparing suicide loss survivors with suicide attempt family members experiences as not being as valued or important; dismissing those with lived experience; telling people they are “not suicidal enough to get help”; examples like these make the humans who are seeking help or asking questions feel dismissed, invalidated and if they are in a dark enough place gives them a reason, or several to consider suicide as a valid options. I want people who are in the situation I was in to know they are not alone. The hurtful things I was told, such as “What did you do to cause your loved one to try to kill themselves? Why didn’t you call the police? Why didn’t you stop them? Did you even try to get help? What kind of a spouse, sibling, or child are you? You should be ashamed! You don’t understand suicide,” have been said to others. I wanted to be a voice for the people who don't want to talk above a whisper about this. I want people to know life is freaking difficult but that we can survive it and thrive on the other side of difficulty. I want to help be a positive change to the human race and I want to help in creating better options than suicide for the human race. All of those and many more reasons are why I auditioned for TedX. The first year I didn't get an audition, the second year I did get an audition and was accepted.
EK: How did you decide to interview the families and friends of attempt survivors?
JC: It began out of a desire to find commonalities and differences in our experiences. I couldn't understand how there were absolutely no effective consistently used researched resources for anyone in our situation. When I found the statistics on the number of suicide attempts compared to suicide deaths (an estimated 30 (1) - 200 (2) suicide attempts for every suicide death) I was even more confused and frustrated. I wanted to know what other people experienced, hoped for, searched for and needed when their loved one attempted suicide. I wanted to know what they learned, if they ever healed, what they told children, how they supported the person who attempted and if it was possible for me to heal and ever feel peace and joy again. I wanted to know if I was the only person who wanted resources, because if I was then I wasn't going to waste my time and energy creating things that were not useful to other people.
EK: What made you decide to found Attempted Suicide Help (ASH) and write your first book?
JC: I founded and created ASH because I wanted a website when I was looking for resources. As I interviewed other family members, they had looked for the same thing, so I knew it would be useful. I wanted something people could find that would provide answers in a timely manner to the questions they had like, "What do I say to someone who has attempted suicide?" People can't wait for weeks to find the answer to that question. They need that answer as soon as an attempt occurs. The book happened because I love books and having something physical to hold, highlight, make notes, and dog ear pages was very important for me. I want to provide resources for people and meet them where they are. We are all different and there isn't just one answer to any of our complex problems.
EK: Did you ask all the same questions of the people you interviewed during your research?
JC: I did ask every person I interviewed the same questions.
EK: How did you decide which questions to ask?
JC: I asked the questions I wanted answers to. I asked questions other people wanted answers to. I wanted to know if I was the only person on the planet who had become unhealthy and unhinged by a loved one’s suicide attempt and wanted resources. I wanted to know why there weren't resources and how people continued to breathe in and out and get out of the bed every day.
EK: Recently I've become aware of Critical Suicidology, a new area of scholarship which advocates for drastic changes in research methods about suicide spectrum experiences and mental health treatment related to suicidality. Would you consider yourself among traditional suicidology researchers or among the critical suicidology group?
JC: I would consider myself among the critical suicidology group.
EK: During the past couple of years, I’ve been happy to see that both the American Association of Suicidology and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have expanded their focus to include lived experience and postvention. Do you have anything to say about these changes? And, are there additional changes you'd like to see?
JC: Traditional postvention does not apply to my demographic. The conversations and organizations I have contacted while finding my way have been focused on the death of a loved one have not been helpful to my work’s purpose. Postvention is necessary but it is not the only thing, and that is where the focus has been; on the loss of life and helping those left behind. There is an urgent need to focus on upstream suicide prevention. My questions have always been: What about the people who are living with suicidal thoughts and self-harm actions? What is being done to assist them? What work is being done to support them in staying alive? Why has research consulting suicide attempt survivors and their support systems been completely overlooked? What is the postvention for family members, first responders, friends and acquaintances of people who have attempted? How do we help? How do we not cause harm? How do we find our way back to health? It appears to me that suicidology has continued to be focused on waiting for someone to end their life, studying the dead human and consoling the family left behind.
The changes I would like to see are as follows: Upstream suicide prevention needs to be a focus. Creating human connections needs to be a focus. Addressing mental health in elementary school needs to be a focus. If we provide tools to youth, they will learn to use them. When we wait until high school, or college, habits are set. Teaching breathing and meditation techniques in pre and elementary school needs to be a focus. Postvention after suicide death needs to not be the only focus of postvention organizations. I would like to see the people involved in the boards and organizations look at suicide from many different viewpoints and get curious about the experiences of others as opposed to being so rigid in standard beliefs and education and thinking how they are managing it is the correct and only way.
EK: I've seen audiences respond strongly to your message and then wait to speak with you afterwards. What kinds of things do they say?
JC: They share stories of suicidal thoughts, actions, attempts and death. They thank me for being able to be a voice for their experience(s). They are grateful someone is finally saying the words out loud.
EK: Have you faced negative responses as well? If so, from whom?
JC: Yes. The most negative responses I have faced have been from people who have lost a loved one to suicide death and from suicide prevention organizations.
EK: Does the context of the situation change the tone of the response to your work? (i.e. with suicide prevention experts, mental health providers, public health entities, nonprofits, suicidology researchers, private individuals, suicide loss survivors, suicide attempt survivors, families and friends of survivors, etc.)
JC: Yes. People who are entrenched in their ideas of being right are the least open or willing to hear facts. Suicide attempt survivors are the most open and responsive. They are the ones who are wanting to change society, change the system and change how people who live with suicidal thoughts and actions are treated, and mistreated. Followed by that the next most open are the family members and friends of attempters. They are more guarded because they do not want to cause any harm or damage to the person who attempted. I am learning how to deliver the research results effectively and that does change with my own growth, empathy and self-awareness.
EK: How does your message compare to advocacy on behalf of caregivers of other maladies?
JC: I think the message is similar. I know I am more empathetic to people who are caring for ill, injured, and elderly people because of this experience. A human's grief is similar for all of us. However, some judge what is worthy of grief and how long you are allowed to grieve. It almost felt like there was some menu I wasn’t aware of that says: if your house burns down you can be sad and grieve until you have a new house and most of your items replaced; if your marriage ends you can grieve for twice as long as your relationship was; if your parent dies you are allowed less time to grieve because they lived a longer life than if your child dies. Grief needs time, an open heart and mind, rest, patience, love, empathy, water, good food, fresh air, nature, art, music, and other therapies. Some people don't want to hear that because they believe their grief to be heavier, more worthy, or harder, but the truth is grief is grief. We should allow people the freedom and support to experience their grief the way they do.
EK: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change in mental health?
JC: I would ban mental health holds because the people I interviewed who had attempted suicide reported they would never self-report again or ask for help because of the way they were treated because of that law. Often people are handcuffed and transported in a police car to a hospital or jail for the mandatory 72-hour mental health hold and then are released without a wellness plan. They have told me that their self-reporting did more harm than good, so they won’t self-report again. I would change mandatory reporting laws by providing professionals the ability to use their common sense to know what to report. Yes, mistakes may be made, however people are not asking for the help they need or being honest about what they are experiencing, or how they are managing their symptoms. They fear losing their freedom, their job or custody of their children, and this fear impedes them receiving proper care and help. I would want access to affordable effective treatment and affordable effective medication in a timely manner. I would want mental health to be equal priority as physical health. It is unfair that people are forced to wait 11 weeks for a mental health appointment while treatment for a broken bone or pneumonia is normally accomplished within 24 hours. I feel that the mental health industry, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health centers, continue to feed the stigma surrounding mental illness by the system in the frequent inability to provide timely care to people in crisis. An example of this is there is rarely room left for crisis in daily schedules. Other medical professionals leave room in their daily schedules to accommodate walk in or acute patients, I have not seen this taken into practice by the mental health industry.
EK: I've heard you say that you're working on the second book in your series. Are you asking similar questions?
JC: The first book is a guidebook for loved ones. I asked loved ones of people who had attempted suicide all of the same questions and found our similarities and our differences and published those findings. The second book is Answers from People Who Have Attempted. I asked the same 16 questions to people who had attempted suicide and am publishing their similarities and their differences.
EK: Do you make your data available to other research entities?
JC: I would happily work with other entities.
EK: Have you experienced lasting health challenges as a result of being affected by suicide attempts of loved ones?
JC: I would say yes. 12 years ago, that made me terribly angry and did even more harm. I felt victimized and was SO angry my life had to change because of someone else's choices. However, there has been good that has come from the experiences as well. Some of the good things are that my children are aware of their own mental health, and the mental health of their peers and peers’ parents, and they know how to get help and how to advocate effectively for themselves and others. The lasting health challenges are possibly that I am more aware of how my mental health affects me physically. I did suffer a breakdown 2 years after my family member’s second attempt because no one told me it was OK for me to need help. Friends and professionals I spoke with said, "You should get over it,” “No one died." I also endured depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It took a lot of courage to finally go to a medical specialist and get properly diagnosed.
EK: How do you balance your public advocacy with your personal wellbeing?
JC: It has been difficult. I am highly sensitive and passionate about this subject so have been deeply hurt many times. I have stepped away from some people and organizations, not because they aren't doing good work, but because it is more harmful to my mental and physical health to be a part of it. Myself and my family are my highest priority. When I am asked to be a part of something, I now weigh what affect it will have on the whole of my life and if it isn't a "hell yes" it is a no.
EK: Is there anything you'd like to add?
JC: Not engaging in self-harm or attempting suicide is the best form of prevention we can advocate for. I know that widespread suicide can be solved. The solution is destigmatizing and decriminalizing suicidality. It is listening when people tell us how they have been treating their illness by their own misuse, nonuse, or overuse of chemical altering substances so we can understand and then move forward with honest information. People need to feel empowered to be honest so they can get proper help. Right now, when people are honest when seeking help, they fear losing their freedom.
EK: How can people contact you?
JC: People can reach me at Attempted Suicide Help
(1) U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. n.d. "Suicide Policy Brief: Preventing Suicide in Rural America." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/ruralhealth/suicide/policybrief.html.
(2) Cobain, Beverly, and Jean Larch. 2005. Dying to be Free: The Essential Guidebook for Families After a Suicide.
i. I recently discovered the topic of Critical Suicidology while viewing a YouTube video on [mental health related] knowledge production, followed by a recent suicidology conference which made their offerings available to the public via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Jess Stohlman-Rainey, with several other activists, presented on three discrete areas of Critical Suicidology at this conference. (clicking on her name will take you to her twitter post which provides links to the conference video presentations as well as the presentation materials).
ii. In my search for attempt survivor voices, I found the work of DeQuincy Lezine, PhD, developer of Post Suicidal Growth theory and founder of the Lived Experience Academy. I have been deeply affected by Dr. Lezine’s first-person observations as a working suicidology scholar who is also a suicide attempt survivor, primarily because I would never have been able to comprehend the deep despair so often involved in waking up alive after a suicidal crisis.
iii. For those interested in researching Critical Suicidology and Critical Psychiatry, I recommend looking through the resources at the Critical Suicidology Network and Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry, and Social Justice.
iv. After my one-month foray into the world of suicidology researchers, I am determined (and relieved) to resolutely turn my own thoughts back toward children’s literature. Suicidology is not an area of study for the faint of heart - which I have found myself to be in this arena. I admire and thank all suicidology researchers, past and present, traditional and critical, who have made curing death from intentional self-harm their life’s work.
v. Juliet Carr’s business card lists “badass” as a personal asset and I concur.