Helping the Suicidal Person: A Conversation with Stacey Freedenthal

I spoke to Stacey Freedenthal, a social worker and psychotherapist whose specialty is working with people who are suicidal. Her book on the subject is coming out in September; it is entitled, in fact “Helping the Suicidal Person”. (https://www.amazon.com/Helping-Suicidal-Person-Techniques-Professionals/dp/1138946958/ref=sr_1_1)

What stood out for me was that in her Op-ed in New York Times, “A Suicide Therapist’s Secret Past “(May 17, 2017), was exactly the subject matter in the article that the title points at. Ms. Freedenthal had been keeping as much of a secret (let’s say under the radar) as she could, of one of the issues entangled in the larger arena of working with suicidal persons-- namely her own history of suicidality.

What follows are some questions and thoughts and Stacey’s thoughts on the subject, after I introduced myself and some of my key concerns.

CS: How did you come by depression, even more being suicidal?

SF: I had my first thoughts of suicide when I was 12. There was a time early on that it was with me as a thought or possibility. When I was in high school two people died by suicide in my grade within five days of each other. One was a boy who was a friend. I was a guest at a party where he seemed pretty emotional. We thought it was the alchohol but there was something more. He killed himself a couple of hours after the party.

When I was 12 I was at camp and I felt really down. I was crying and thinking about killing myself. I decided to tell the director, but what happened afterwards was pretty terrible. She apparently was fired soon after that and the next day she was gone. I think that kept me from talking; after I did I felt even more alone.

CS: A propos of talking about it, how was your communication generally?

SF: Well, I wasn’t very communicative in fact. My Dad was not the most emotionally connected person. He didn’t like it when I cried and I was pretty emotional, I’d say quite sensitive. He tried to get me to stop crying, which only made it worse. I had lots of late night conversations with my Mom. But you know it’s a pretty embarrassing topic.

CS: What is so embarrassing about it in your experience?

SF: You know (and I do, CS), it’s considered a sign of weakness and instability, of being crazy, even though I think the word “crazy” is objectionable to many.

CS: Actually I think the word “crazy” is great and that it’s more the way the word is used that becomes the problem. We can all be crazy sometimes, and it doesn’t have to be an insult. I think we culturally are in favor of the extremity of emotion when it comes to athletes and even fans, as one example.

SF: I agree. Being crazy in love is considered attractive. But it’s this instability that seems worrisome, and makes it a problem to talk about.

CS: What drove you to become a psychotherapist, and do you feel, as I do, that it has had something to do with your own past?

SF: Definitely. I had been a journalist, and developed carpal tunnel syndrome. In addition I was interviewing people in very dire circumstances, observing them without being able to offer any help. I thought of being a teacher and even a doctor and then I realized I really wanted to help the troubled kids. So it seemed that social work fit, and my mother has been a social worker as well so I knew something about it. I think I was drawn to give kids a feeling of being known and seen, and helped in ways I would have liked to have experienced earlier on.

CS: I get that, and feel much the same way. How is suicidality a specialty of yours?

SF: It’s not the only thing I do but I’d consider it some of my best work.

CS: What especially do you feel you bring to this field?

SF: People in the suicidal person's world tend to have many unhelpful reactions -- the stigma you have, and also the urge on the part of the listener to give advice, persuade, fix things, even to guilt the suicidal person ("How could you do that to your children?") Often, too, the suicidal person ends up trying to help the other person feel better - "yes, I'm safe," "no, you don't have to worry about me," "sorry, didn't mean to frighten you," etc.

It means a lot to me to be able to sit with someone who is suicidal and to provide a space for them to say (and not say) what they can't with others, and to try to understand and reconnect hope in a way that respects the person's pace and pain.

CS: I think it’s crucial that so many people feel an inner need to please or appease the other person, even if that’s a therapist.

SF: I so agree.

CS: I hear you saying that a fundamental issue is the respect and dignity for someone in that amount of pain.

SF: For sure.

CS: How did it feel to publish your story, out loud so to speak?

SF: Well it was anxiety provoking, particular in the few weeks before. But after it was a real relief. I’m actually thinking of writing a memoir about my experiences, but that seems daunting.

CS: I’d so look forward to reading that as I think would so many on various sides of the therapy situation, and also people who are overwhelmed by the subject.

You had mentioned something about your cover for your upcoming book.

SF: Yes. The cover photo for the book is of a winding staircase leading into darkness. I picked this photo because, to me, it represents the work a therapist needs to do with a suicidal person - we need to go into the darkness to meet the person where they are.

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