Appearances matter (to some).

There have been many things my lived experience has taught me but I want to share with you one thing in particular. Let me start with a story.

After spending my early 20s battling with suicidality, I finally found myself on a career path I was happy with. I obtained an entry level position after a career change that meant I once again had to start from the bottom and work upwards. I was 29 years old and had more than 10 years work experience behind me, as well as a new university degree which I obtained as a mature aged student. I was a very competent employee and had achieved much in the last 10 years. Despite this, I was now a junior, female employee with a young, hopeful face.

In a discussion with an older male senior executive, I excused myself from the conversation on the basis I had to get home to make dinner for the kids. He looked surprised and stated “you look too young to have kids”. That statement told me a lot about why I was having trouble securing a promotion from this man, despite my (I thought) obvious competence. I had been stereotyped and put in a box of being young and naive.

In that same work team, a female colleague had seen the expertise I possessed about suicide prevention. She had gotten to know me and my insights and experience. I became a key partner on a research project looking at rates of self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children. She advocated for my career progression because she didn’t take me at face value and saw my talents.

There are plenty of other examples of times that I have been assumed to have a certain skillset based on my lived experience of suicide. When I first became involved in using my lived experience for suicide prevention, I made sure to keep my professional life separate from my advocacy life because of the way that I was treated when I identified as having a lived experience of suicide. I believe that it was even more compounded by the experience I had of surviving a suicide attempt and experiencing suicidal thoughts, as people saw me as possibly volatile and sensitive. Or maybe that was what I believed.

There are some people who are very uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. Simply bringing up the topic can be a barrier to having a deeper conversation. Over dinner one night, I was having an intimate discussion with a couple that were involved in the same interest group that I was involved in. Neither of the pair knew about my lived experience or advocacy work. I mentioned that on the weekend I had study to complete and was asked about the course I was doing. I spoke about the Master of Suicidology I was completing and how the assessment was based on cultural understandings of suicide and suicidal behaviour. There were some gasps and grimaces and then the conversation fell flat until the topic of conversation changed.

This is where appearances can get in the way of getting to know someone and celebrating their talents, interests or motivations. I see that there are three things at play here, in both of these examples. Firstly, as in the case of the senior executive at work, it is easier to assume things about a person than to spend the time getting to know them. Secondly, fear can get in the way of maximising strengths and recognising expertise and thirdly, suicide is an uncomfortable, fear inducing and inconvenient topic. It is the first that stops us understanding and connecting with others and the second two that perpetuate the negative attitudes and beliefs about experiences of suicide.

Through my experience as a suicide prevention advocate, I have found the strength to talk about suicide despite it making even me feel uncomfortable and people are grateful for it. For every conversation like the one I had at dinner, there are five more that appreciate me having the courage to talk about suicide. People just don’t get the chance to talk about it very much and when you give them permission to do so, it is a great relief and comfort. There has never been a time where I have shared my story and someone has not come up to me afterwards and said a personal thank you.

By having the courage to talk about suicide, you make it ok for others to do the same. When we openly talk about suicide, we increase our understanding and make it a little less scary. Yes, those who have thoughts of suicide can be sensitive and volatile. I never know when my mood will plummet and I will find myself thinking of suicide. But those who have thoughts of suicide are also extremely resilient and stubborn in the face of challenges. By saying “not today” to suicide and living to see another day, those people show extreme strength and that should be recognised and celebrated. If we change the way we talk about suicide, we change the way we think about suicide and those first impressions change from one of fear and discomfort to one of celebration and admiration. Imagine if your first thought about someone who had been suicidal was “oh, you must have some pretty solid self-care strategies” or “wow, tell me what else you are good at” instead of “are you ok? Do you need help?”.

We all have a responsibility for both sides of this coin. When you meet someone or when you work with someone, don’t assume, ask. Get to know the people you come across in your day to day life and share stories that enable connection and understanding. Storytelling is as old as humanity, it is how we pass on knowledge, inspire others and basically get anything done in society. Take the time to talk to others and break down those stereotypes. Try hard to remove judgement and listen to others openly and earnestly. I promise that you will grow and be a better person for it.

On the other hand, if you have a lived experience of suicide, don’t let those first impressions tell you who you are and what your value is. You have the choice to dismiss those impressions, those comments and those reactions and to listen to those that celebrate you. It takes courage to be open about your suicide experiences, whether you have been suicidal, supported someone who has been suicidal or been bereaved by suicide. But I believe that you have what it takes to change these impressions and encourage people to see who you really are, instead of who they think you are. You are valuable and you bring so much to the community.

Hayley Purdon