An intimate conversation with Lisa Klein on her film The S Word and suicide survivors

An intimate conversation with Lisa Klein on her film The S Word and suicide survivors

Lisa Klein joins us to discuss her new film, The S-Word, which follows suicide survivors on their inspiring, and at times, tragic, road to regaining their lives. In an intimate discussion, Lisa discusses her own personal experience with this tragedy and shares her advice for the steps we can all take to help our troubled loved ones. She also touches on the importance of mental health care, the relationship between survivorship and the #MeToo movement, and how critically important it is for all of us not to shy away from tough conversations. Interview conducted by Sean Steinberg.

What kind of audience are you trying to engage with this film?
When somebody asks, “Who’s this film for? Who do you want to see it?” I’m real specific – I want everyone to see it. Because, yes, we do want to preach to the choir: people who have attempted suicide, people who have lost people to suicide, psychiatrists, psychologists. Sure. But we really want to appeal to people who may think think they don’t know somebody who’s gone through this. It’s rare that somebody under the age of 20, 21 – it’s getting younger and younger – doesn’t know somebody, and that’s sad. Because everybody, unfortunately, is going to encounter this in some way.

How do you see this film being applied by educators and at schools?
We want to aim it toward kids for sure – kids as young as 8 or 9 have attempted – so we would like to screen The S-Word to the parents of elementary and middle school kids.  And we want to show it to high school kids and college students – because we’re talking about a topic that has been shrouded in silence for so long. We want the film to talk to these kids. We want them to know that they’re not alone. We want them to know that there are resources. We want them to be able to talk about what’s going on with them.Educationally, we hope it’ll be used as part of psych programs. And in regards to film programs, we can speak to the documentary side of it and how we got access and the interview process in dealing with a topic like suicide. But in terms of the topic, we really want to show that it isn’t just about, “Okay, you’re feeling suicidal, we’re going to call 911 immediately,” or “You immediately need to take your meds.” There are other things going on: peer-to-peer and counseling and so many other resources.

There’s a big emphasis on opening up lines of communication. While many people may realize how beneficial something as simple as a shoulder to cry on can be, are there any less obvious remedies they should be aware of?
Oh, there are so many. You’re talking about voicing your concerns, but storytelling in general – being able to tell your story, even if it involves standing up in front of people and telling your story – it can be cathartic, while helping others at the same time. Art, too– whether you’re a painter, or a sculptor, or a filmmaker, or whatever – again, you’re still telling your story. You’re dealing with whatever’s going on in that way. The other thing that I’ve noticed to be helpful is advocacy and activism. In the film, one person, she’s photographing other people who have attempted suicide and interviewing them. I don’t know if you want to call it “paying it forward,” but it’s taking your grief, your sorrow, your pain, and turning it into a purpose.

Where have you seen progress in terms of suicide awareness and prevention, and where is there still work to do?
For so long, the discrimination, the shame, the stigma was so prevalent. I think that’s changing a little bit. People who have attempted suicide and survived are finally being heard. Like, before, they wouldn’t let them get together in a group, like they’re time bombs waiting to go off. We’ve got somebody in the film saying sarcastically that they’re “gonna trade suicide recipes.” But really, they’re human beings, and by telling their stories – there’s hope in that. So I feel like we’ve come a long way in that way, but I feel like we’ve also taken steps back. And I’m not at all going to blame social media, because bullying’s been going on since the beginning of time – but it’s amplified now.

We have these new tools – that aren’t that new anymore – but we still haven’t totally figured out how we’re going to move them forward. We need to figure out how to use it better – how to use it for good. Because it is being used for good. I mean, something like “Live Through This,” where there are Facebook groups and things like that where people are telling stories – that’s great. But when people are saying, “Why don’t you just kill yourself?” – not so great. And the media? Good and bad also. Because when you report a story about somebody dying by suicide, and you talk about it responsibly, it really helps. It helps people feel less alone; it helps people understand – it helps in so many ways. But when you report it in a salacious manner – like, you talk about the method, how they did it, what they were drinking before – not so good.

What misconceptions have you found most people have about suicide?
There are so many. When I was in college and I lost my brother and my father to suicide – for me, to be able to talk to my friends was scary, because I thought they would think, “Oh god, what’s wrong with her,” you know? Because I couldn’t save them. Because it isn’t like I’m going to go say, “Alright I don’t want you to die,” and the person’s not going to…it isn’t that simple. None of this is simple.Another one is when people think that suicide is all mental illness based, for example – that it has nothing to do with trauma or all these other things. It can stem from many, many factors, and it’s really complex. And also, another big misconception is that if you talk about suicide, then someone’s gonna do it. That’s a big time myth. People who have attempted suicide and survived, they are human beings, you does not have to be scary. Because if you talk about it — especially responsibly — it’s certainly not going to hurt, and it’s only going to help. 

For those of us who aren’t professionally trained, how do we make sure these conversations are responsible, productive, and safe?
You know what a big part of it is? Listening.That a huge, huge thing, to feel that somebody actually gives a damn and is there to listen; if I can just actively listen to you, and forget about my own agenda or my own thoughts, and not say, “Oh, but if you do this, then you’re going to be better. Go do yoga. Go run. Go take Vitamin B and D, and you’re going to be fine.” There is a fear, it’s like, “Wow, this is big, and I don’t have a psych degree.” I’ve had a lot of people call me – sort of on the edge – and I’ve taken those calls. And I’m not trained in crisis intervention, I’m not a psychologist; I’m a filmmaker – and I tell them that at the beginning of the call – but I am here to listen. It always surprises me to realize how pervasive suicidal tendencies are, even among those who appear to be the pinnacle of “well-adjusted and happy.”I think society is breaking down in so many ways, like, when you say, “Hey, how are you doing?” A lot of people say, “Hey” and walk away. It’s like: ‘Do you really want to know?’ It’s our collective responsibility to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. It just is.

One of the characters in the film discusses how attitudes toward suicide in her predominantly black community differ from mainstream society. Can you talk about that, and in general, how these attitudes can vary across cultures?
Yeah, I think what she was talking about, “You have to be the strong black woman. You have to be the one who’s going to take care of everybody else.” And often, when they’re taking care of everybody else, they’re forgetting self-care – it’s like how on the airplane, you put the mask on yourself first before helping others. And when you ignore that – when you don’t take care of yourself – it’s just going to fester. It does vary, culture-to-culture. When we first started, I researched suicides in Japan and Latin America. In Japan, I believe, it’s a little more revered because you’re not bringing shame to your family with mental illness. And often times, if you’re talking about a community, whatever their communities may be –religious communities or cultural communities or whatever – the suicide rates are often lower because they do feel less alone.

Besides worrying about his own personal crisis, one of the survivors portrayed in the film, Craig, also had a wife and kids to care for. Can you talk about how he balances self-care with familial responsibility?
He really understands self-preservation, so he has his coping mechanisms. He does these things where he’ll take time off – and his wife understands – for, like, five days, and he’ll go camping; or he’ll go away for three days and take photos. You can’t let somebody else dictate what’s going to make it okay for you – how you’re going to get through this. And that’s the other thing: it isn’t just you; people who love you, people who are in your life, they’re dealing with it, too.

It seems like suicide isn’t just as a one-off event, but rather, a lifelong affliction.
Yeah, absolutely; it’s like if you have something like diabetes, or a heart condition – that may not go away, but how you choose to deal with it is up to you. So with something like suicidal thoughts, when they come into your head, there are different ways to deal with them. But Kelechi said at one point, she thought what recovery meant was,  ou’re just not going to have suicidal thoughts anymore. Boom. They’re gone. But Craig still has them, Kelechi still has them – I mean, everybody still has them. With suicidal thoughts, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to reach a certain age or a certain point and suddenly be like, “Wow, I don’t have them anymore. I feel great all the time.” Nobody feels great all the time anyway, so it really is about how you deal with it, and whether it’s, you know, running, or writing poetry, or whatever it is. When you’re in the middle of that suicide zone, that probably isn’t the best time to figure out what all your tools are, so it’s good to have a list to know what’s going to work for you; to have a safety plan. And to know that, when you’re feeling this way, it’s best to be home, and to have your favorite comforter, and to be able to go running – whatever these things that are going to work for you.It’s all about what is in their tool kits now; for Craig it’s going out and photographing, living outdoors, all of that. For Kelechi, it’s singing karaoke. And again, I can’t emphasize enough: it’s got to be specific to you.I mean, if you’re going to a psychiatrist and they give you medication and the medication works, that’s awesome. And it could take a year until you balance that medication and figure out what that is. Talk therapy works for a lot of people, too. Nobody can tell you what it is. Nobody can tell you that if you do this, then you’re going to be okay. Because only you know.

Do you see any shortcomings to treatments that focus exclusively on the professional, clinical side of things?
Because I’m not a psychologist, I don’t want to say that there’s no such thing as a magic pill, but there isn’t. I mean it isn’t like if you go to your psychiatrist and you take your medication – boom, everything’s okay. And a psychiatrist will tell you the same thing. The psychologist would tell you that, just by coming in and talking to them once a week – that’s not going to solve everything, you know? It usually is finding the cocktail – the combination of things that are going to work for you. So, rarely is it just one thing.  

What would you say to those who feel burdened by the suicide of a loved one; and feel as though they could have, or should have, done more to prevent it?
You know what? You might have been able to save that person at that time. But that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have done it the next day. You don’t know. And I hate to say this, but these are things that are going to remain in the unknown. They just are. And the only thing that I can say to that is there’s nothing that one person alone can do. It is a collective thing. I mean, I’ve been in that situation, and to ask that, that is a very common thing. You want to know why. You want to know what you missed. And generally, it’s beyond the scope of just you.When I set out to make this film, emotionally, I think that I was probably looking for answers, too. It was like, “Wow, I’m going to be talking to these people, and they’re going to tell me their stories, and I’m going to figure it out.”  

But intellectually, I knew – I will never know. I will never know the last thought that my brother had. I will never, ever, ever know that. There’s a lot you can do when somebody is alive. Like, with an attempt survivor, there’s hope. There’s a lot you can do. And there are things that you learn in retrospect. But you don’t want to turn the tense on that and say, “There’s much you could have done, if only you’d…” Because people do beat themselves up. You can drive yourself absolutely out of your mind with that. And you can probably figure it all out after. “If I had done this and this, then this wouldn’t have happened.” Great…but it did.

What advice would you give those who aren’t sure how to approach someone in a suicidal situation?
You need to say, “Are you thinking about suicide?” It’s okay to say that. It’s okay to mention that word. Because the myth is, if you bring it up, maybe they’re going to do it. No, it isn’t like: I’m walking around, life is great, and then somebody mentions suicide. “Oh, suicide. That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll do that.” So bring it up. And while don’t know what you’re going to be met with, you know your loved one – you know that person more than anything.Also, I would tell people to look for signs. If somebody talks about being depressed, or if somebody says, “Oh, I’m just going to kill myself,” I don’t care how they say it, or if it’s funny. You’ve got to take it seriously. And, yeah, I know it’s thrown around a lot. “Oh my god I’m gonna kill myself. I failed this test.”But let’s unpack that a little bit. Let’s talk about it, like, “Okay, you’re kidding. But have you ever thought about it?” Really open up the atmosphere at home. Make it safe to talk about. And then, if it gets to the point where there’s just nothing you can do, you probably do need to take somebody to a doctor or a therapist.

On a macro level, what sort of collective or political action can we take to address suicide?Number one is mental health parity. I mean, look at healthcare. We’re in an era of government deregulation. We’re just really not in a good place. Everybody should have mental health care.Suicide prevention training needs to be part of certain medical training, like, the ASSIST program. It’s all one package, and suicide needs to be part of that.

When you follow Dese’Rae – the photographer in her film, she’s undertaking a project she captures the portraits of fellow survivors. There’s a point where some says the real value of her work is to serve as a gateway – to help create a sense of community among this group. Do you feel like this sentiment can be applied to the film, as well? 
I very much want the film to help people do that. I never want somebody to walk away and not have at least two phone numbers or email addresses or websites or whatever. I want people to feel connected. When Dese’Rae said that in the film, she wasn’t necessarily looking for a community, but that is exactly what she found.

Based on your own experiences with suicide, I imagine the process of making this film must have been a very personal and intimate journey for you. What was that like?
People have asked me if it was cathartic or whatever. I would say no, not necessarily cathartic, but yeah, very much personal. When Craig was on his book tour, somebody came up to him; they had his book and threw it at him and said, “If you’re such an expert on suicide, why are you alive and my husband’s dead?” For some reason I didn’t have that feeling. It was more like, what can I learn from them, in terms of their feelings and their experiences, more than anything else.I went into this as somebody from the viewpoint of loss, and what I found was this thriving community of people who had attempted suicide. And hearing from them – from these people who have been there – that was huge for me. And I’m friends with everybody from the film. It’s like, “Wow,there are other people.” We are a community. I’m sort of in this now. I joined AAS – the American Association of Suicidology. I never was in a support group or anything, like “Survivors of Suicide Loss,” and I’m still not, but I feel like I kind of have one now, you know?  I don’t know if you’ve ever been through something, where you’ve thought, “I’m the only one who’s had their heart broken,” or whatever. On one hand, it’s great – it makes you feel unique and all that – but it sucks, you know? It’s a tough thing, because you don’t want it to be like, ‘Misery loves company,’ but you want it to be like, “Wow, somebody’s going to understand me as much as they can, even though our experiences are different.”

Social media often gets a bad rep, especially when it comes to suicide, because of things like cyber bullying, but it’s also done wonders for helping isolated people find communities of like-minded people – to help them realize that they’re not alone. I look at it as the ultimate double-edge sword. If you look at the transgender communities, and all of these communities – the progress that we’ve made by feeling like we aren’t alone. Look at #MeToo – perfect example. And the Arab Spring. There are so many things that it’s done that are so positive. That’s why I’m hopeful. Because I think, for something like suicide, there’s a lot of good that can come out of this community platform –sharing, storytelling, all of that. But wherever there’s use, there’s going to be abuse. It’s human nature. But if we can amplify the good stuff, I think we can make a lot of progress, including in suicide prevention.

I gotta warn you: this next question is a little more broad. What is “strength,” both within and without the context of this film?
[Laughs] A little more broad? 

Just a bit.
In the context of this film, I think being able to ask for help is strength, not weakness. I think when people are afraid to ask for help, they’re afraid that they’re going to come across as weak. To be able to just take everything you’re feeling and experiencing, and not worry about what this person’s going to think of you, I think that’s absolute strength.And in general, just being able to be who you are, to express whatever it is you need to talk about, without worrying about, “How are they going to perceive me?” I think that’s strength.

Are there any resources you can recommend for those who know somebody who may be suicidal, or may be suicidal themselves? 
So on our website – – we have this very long list of resources – for veterans, general crisis lines, teen line – places to start, you know?  Talking to your friends, talking to your family, all that – it’s great, too. But, yeah, I think people do need to reach out and talk.

Any final notes you’d like to leave us with? What haven’t we covered?
We covered a lot.

Yeah, you were pretty thorough. 
I would never say this this film is the end-all, and this film is going to prevent suicide. But I do feel like we’re part of the conversation, y’know? We’re a cog in a very big wheel of people who have been doing this for years and years and years, and we’re here to amplify their messages and get the word out. This is something that I’ve lived with for years, and I’m just trying to get that story out there.