Metro, Arts, Boston

Photographer Looks To Quell Stigma Surrounding Suicide

Talking about suicide is taboo. It is uncomfortable. It is to be avoided. It is to be hidden. These are the stigmas surrounding suicide that Dese’Rae L. Stage discovered during her own attempt to take her own life.

Stage is facilitating conversation about suicide and other facets of the issue with her photography series,“Live Through This.”The project is a series of portraits of suicide attempt survivors, whose pictures are snapped immediately after each individual recounts his or her own story, in order to capture the confusing mixture of pain and triumph each had just relived.  Stage’s goal for the series is to help those who have attempted or contemplated suicide by preventing them from feeling ashamed or alone.* She hopes that others will come to understand the struggles that people in her photographs have faced.

While the series is not yet displayed in galleries, it is displayed online, where she posts a new portrait and story each week.* Currently, Stage travels around the country, stopping in cities to interview and photograph attempt survivors. “I wanted to focus on…meeting as many attempt survivors as possible,” Stage said. She will be stationed in Boston from April 4 to 6 to conduct interviews and photograph suicide attempt survivors.*

While Stage’s project commenced in late 2010, the journey leading up to the project began long before then. Stage told her story to an audience at a series called Story Collider in Brooklyn, N.Y. last week. The series was interested in Stage’s story because she had so much trouble obtaining approval to study suicide while earning her Bachelor of Science in psychology-she was eventually accepted into a Ph.D. program directly from her undergraduate program.* Stage began her speech by telling the audience about uprooting herself to follow her partner to Tennessee. She revealed how her tumultuous relationship took a toll on her well-being as it turned abusive.

When she finally attempted to end her life, her mother encouraged her to make her stay brief, so as not to have mental health issues on her record as she pursued a career in mental. According to Stage, the mental health field is surprisingly full of the stigmas that she is trying to quell.*

Stage revealed in her Story Collider speech that she was interested in psychology because she “wanted to understand what makes people want to die and how to prevent that.” Stage set out to study suicide in the hopes of one day turning her research into aid for people who had been through traumatic events. Stage was repeatedly disappointed, however, after many advising professors turned her down when she proposed researching suicidal patients-except for one, Dr. Chris Dula at East Tennessee State University.* As she began her research, she realized that there were few outlets or resources for suicide attempt survivors, and she recounted feeling alone.

In the beginning of the project, Stage recalled that she came into contact with most survivors through advertising on craigslist. Most of her posts, however, were removed from the website for being flagged as inappropriate due to the presence of the word “suicide.” She was able to complete just enough interviews and portraits through craigslist to get her project off the ground.

Interest in the project grew more, however, when Stage ran a Kickstarter campaign in early 2013, which raised $23,000, allowing her to make the project mobile so that she could collect stories from across the country. When the Associated Press covered the project, Stage began receiving more emails from people who were willing to be a part of her project.* Stage points to the fact that a few friends even approached her about the project after hearing about it to tell her their own stories-friends she never knew had ever attempted to end their lives, highlighting for her the fact that mental illness and suicide remained a topic kept in the shadows.

Because of the shameful stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness, Stage said that she felt extremely isolated in the time when she needed understanding the most.

After discovering the striking lack of resources for suicide attempt survivors and people struggling with mental illness, Stage was inspired to share her story, hoping that it would bring companionship to others sharing in her struggles. By having other survivors share their stories, she hopes to draw attention to the public health issue of suicide, the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. By getting people to talk about the issue and reminding the public that suicidal people are human beings too, Stage hopes to help society understand the issues surrounding suicide and to provide support for those experiencing the pain brought on by mental illness.

The survivors’ portraits vary greatly, except for one detail-the survivors are looking straight into the camera lens. Stage explained that, throughout history, if people spoke out about their struggles with mental illness at all, they would do so anonymously. Stage hopes that having the survivors look straight into the viewers’ eyes will achieve a “transfer of empathy.”

By reading the victims’ stories beneath the picture, she hopes to drive the point home that anyone could be a suicide attempt victim-a brother, a friend, or a neighbor.

*Corrections: An earlier version of this article said that Dese’Rae Stage studied suicide in a masters and Ph.D. program. In fact, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and was accepted into a Ph.D. program directly from her undergraduate program.

The earlier version of this article said that Stage’s mother encouraged her to tell doctors that she was not in need of any medical attention. Her mother only encouraged her to make her stay in medical care brief.

The earlier version of this article said that every advising professor rejected her requests to study suicide patients. In fact, one professor, Dr. Chris Dula of East Tennessee State University, agreed to work with her.

The earlier version of this article mischaracterized the mission of Stage’s series by referring to it as one meant to assist “people struggling with depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.” In fact, Stage recognizes self-harm as an important but separate issue, and her series is designed to help those who have contemplated or attempted suicide.

The earlier version of this article suggested that Stage’s series could not currently be viewed. In fact, her series is available online.

The earlier version of this article once referred to suicide attempt survivors as “survivors of suicide.” This is inaccurate and has been changed.

The earlier version of this article said that Stage’s series became popular by word of mouth after finding its start through craigslist. In fact, the series found traction after Stage launched a Kickstarter campaign in early 2013 and the Associated Press wrote an article covering the project.

March 19, 2014