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Brooklyn photographer's project engages suicide survivors

They look intently at the camera, some impassively, some with smiles, all of them aware that they've just shared with an online audience a most personal story: Why they tried to kill themselves.

By the dozens, survivors of attempted suicide across the United States are volunteering to be part of a project by a Brooklyn-based photographer, Dese'Rae Stage, called "Live Through This" -- a collection of photographic portraits and personal accounts.

It's one of several new initiatives transforming the nation's suicide-prevention community as more survivors find the courage to speak out and more experts make efforts to learn from them. There's a new survivors task force, an array of blogs, riveting YouTube clips, all with the common goal of stripping away anonymity, stigma and shame.

Engaging the survivors"Everyone feels like they have to walk on eggshells," says Stage, 29, who once tried to kill herself with self-inflicted cuts. "We're not that fragile. We have to figure out how to talk about it, rather than avoiding it."

Such conversations are proliferating.

In January, the American Association of Suicidology launched a website called "What Happens Now?" -- described as the first sustained effort by a national prevention organization to engage survivors in a public forum. It features a blog, updated weekly, with contributions from survivors sharing their experiences and often using their real names.

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In one post, the founder of a respite home for suicidal people writes powerfully about her own suicide attempt eight years ago, involving both pills and a kitchen knife, and about the contributions that survivors can bring to prevention.

"Survivors have a unique perspective on what life's like down in the deep, dark hole," writes Sabrina Strong, executive director of Waking Up Alive in Albuquerque, N.M. "We found our way out . . . We're not afraid to crawl down in the dark hole with someone else."

Seeking to encourage those types of contributions, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention -- a federally funded public-private partnership -- has formed a first-of-its-kind task force composed of prevention experts and survivors.

It plans to issue recommendations this fall for how practitioners and organizations in the prevention field can "engage and empower suicide attempt survivors." One of the task force co-chairs is psychologist John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of centers that field calls from emotionally distressed and potentially suicidal people.

According to studies cited by Draper, about 7 percent of survivors later kill themselves, a far higher rate than for other groups.

"Yet that means 93 percent go on to live out their lives," he said. "We've got to talk to them, engage them, find out what is bringing them hope and keeping them alive." The other co-chair is Eduardo Vega, the survivor of a suicide attempt who is now executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.

"Nobody can speak to the issues, the sort of agony, even the decision-making that goes on when you're actively suicidal so much as somebody who's been there, and can relate to all that's going on in a nonjudgmental way," Vega says in a recent video.

Sharing their experiences

Over the years, individuals who had attempted suicide would surface occasionally, writing books or going on the public-speaking circuit to share their experiences.

Kevin Hines became a prolific writer and speaker after surviving a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. A survivor in Canada, David Granirer, has carved out a specialty as a stand-up comedian whose monologues address depression and mental illness.

Among Granirer's routines is a feigned phone conversation in which he unsettles a smarmy telemarketer. "I'm so depressed," he says. "If you hang up, I'll kill myself."

What's new in the past couple of years is a broader phenomenon -- a surge of collective projects by survivors, corresponding with a keener and more systematic interest by prevention experts in their potential contributions.

"They know what hurts, and they know what helps," says Karen Butler Easter, president of National Association of Crisis Center Directors.

"We are willing to speak truthfully, even if others are afraid to," writes Sabrina Strong in her recent blog post. "We understand that we do others a disservice by providing generic and whitewashed advice from the school of magical thinking -- 'Things will get better.' 'Everything's all right.'

"Sometimes things don't get better, at least not right away."

Prevention experts say many therapists lack specialized training in how to deal with survivors and balk at treating them because their above-average rate of eventually killing themselves prompts fear of malpractice suits by their families.

Among those serving on the new task force is Heidi Bryan, 55, of Neenah, Wis., who survived a suicide attempt in the 1980s. Active for more than a decade in suicide-prevention initiatives, she has observed notable changes in how experts view survivors.

"I remember sitting at a conference when speakers were talking about survivors -- it was like we were lab rats," she said. "Now they're finally realizing maybe we should be brought in on this."

Even amid the excitement over changing attitudes, prevention experts caution that many survivors are likely to remain wary of going public, notably for fear it might hurt employment prospects.

"There are still clear consequences for talking about your mental health history," said Jane Pearson, a suicide prevention expert with the National Institute of Mental Health.

Stage began taking photographs for "Live Through This" in 2011. She's ready to spend another year or more on the project, eventually crafting the material into a book.

"I'm convinced that the simple act of getting people to talk about it will save lives," she writes.

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