Sharing the stories of suicide attempt survivors, an artist hopes to reduce stigma

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Dese’Rae L Stage: Live Through This

Coralville Center for the Arts — Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.

Photographs from the “Live Through This” project by Dese’Rae L. Stage.

As part of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the Crisis Center of Johnson County is hosting a presentation by Dese’Rae L. Stage, creator of a nationally recognized art project in which suicide attempt survivors tell their stories. “Live Through This” publishes those stories, along with portraits of the survivors taken by Stage.

The Philadelphia-based artist began the project in 2010.

“Since I started, I’ve interviewed 186 attempt survivors in 36 cities, from Florida to Alaska,” she said. “I started it because I’ve had various experiences with suicide, from the loss of friends to my own suicide attempts.”

Almost 45,000 Americans lost their lives to suicide in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in June. According to the CDC, nearly every state saw an increase in its suicide rate between 1999 and 2016. The report noted that while “mental health conditions are often seen as the cause of suicide,” it “is rarely caused by any single factor,” and 54 percent of people who “died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition.”

It’s a complicated topic, and one that people avoid discussing.

“It’s certainly not a household conversation that’s easy to have,” Stage said. “I think we’re in similar situation to how cancer used to be treated.”

“It was really hard to talk about cancer back in the 1950s. We didn’t know much about it,” she explained. “With cancer, we’ve moved from talking about it as the ‘c’ word, not knowing much about it and not having enough funding to study it, to having it be an intensely researched illness with well-funded treatments, and we can talk about it easily. I’d like to see something similar happen with suicide.”

The reluctance to discuss suicide made it difficult to find people willing to participate in the project in the beginning.

“I found a couple of people through Craigslist at first,” Stage said. Word-of-mouth brought others into contact with Stage.

A successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign brought more attention to the project. Awards followed, including recognition from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the American Association of Suicidology.

People now regularly contact Stage to participate in the project.

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When Stage meets with a suicide attempt survivor, they begin by discussing the person’s story.

“I think for a lot of people there’s a little bit of a catharsis that happens with telling their story. Especially when it’s somebody who has never shared before,” Stage said. “Usually people have never shared their story at length before are a little nervous when they come in. Then we have our conversation, and often by the end, we’ll be laughing.”

“Then I say, ‘we’ve got to do the portrait,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh God, this is the hard part.’”

The way Stage presents the project’s interviews has evolved over the years. At first, she was concerned about participants potentially facing negative reactions from the public.

“I wasn’t sure that [members of the public] were ready to have an honest conversation, so I limited the amount of information that I shared — a sentence or two from each person,” she said.

But the public reaction has largely been positive, and now the narratives that accompany each photograph are much more detailed, with some dozens of pages long.

“I found that the project actually resonates with more people than I initially thought it might,” Stage said. “I thought originally, I was doing this for other attempt survivors to show that we’re not alone.”

In addition to reaching an increasingly wider audience, the project has also become a resource for researchers and educators engaged with the issues surrounding suicide.

Stage’s presentation at the Coralville Center for the Arts is being sponsored by University of Iowa Health Care, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Lensing Funeral & Cremation Service. The event begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20, and is free and open to the public.

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