Lorilei Snyder hadn’t stepped foot outside her Queen Anne apartment in three weeks. Her depression was telling her to hide from the world and never come out again, and she yearned to shrink and shrink until she disappeared. She stood in front of a mirror, looked up and told her reflection out loud that if she didn’t leave, this downward spiral was never going to stop.
So she went to see a movie.
Opening her apartment door was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but she pulled her hood on, lowered her head and walked to the Seattle International Film Festival Uptown Cinema.
Hours later, she was sitting in a packed theater after a screening of a Polish film she knew nothing about called “Man, Chicks are Just Different,” in the midst of a boisterous, vivacious crowd. They were hugging, chattering in Polish and Russian, laughing and kissing one another on the cheeks. And Snyder couldn’t help it — she was smiling.
“It was like this big, collective Polish hug,” Snyder said. “I got lost in it, and I was like ‘That just saved my life.’ How beautiful is that?’”
Snyder is one of many who has firsthand experience with the feelings of despair that can lead to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, but she also knows what it means to come out on the other side. That hope is what a team behind a project called Now Matters Now (NMN) aims to share.
Spearheaded by suicide prevention researcher Ursula Whiteside, nmn is an online public resource that teaches research-based techniques for coping with suffering to those with suicidal thoughts. Through videos, viewers hear directly from people who have experienced suicidality while learning components of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a cognitive therapy developed by Marsha Linehan.
“I want people to Google ‘I want to kill myself’ and see Now Matters Now,” Whiteside said. “While you see videos of people talking about suicide, you don’t necessarily see videos of people talking about how they got through suicide and the stories of hope and success, especially ones based in real, researched evidence.”
Behind NMN is a team of people who want to change the way society addresses suicide, and who are bucking a system fraught with stigma that often encourages people with lived experience with suicidality to stay silent or excludes them from guiding change in the health care system.
The team includes Charles Allen, a veteran who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs to help house homeless veterans; Jaeden Siler, a student studying Criminal Justice Forensic Psychology on a full scholarship who was raised in foster care and once lived on the streets; and Snyder. Whiteside and Linehan themselves, are some of the few psychologists to publicly disclose their own experiences with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Together, they have done research, successfully lobbied to require health professionals to have basic suicide-prevention training, helped Facebook integrate a suicide-prevention tool and created the NMN website.
Team members say nmn comes down to sharing a set of powerful tools that have helped them get through some of their darkest moments, as well as imparting the knowledge that someone who is suffering is not alone, nor less of a human for what they are feeling.
“It’s just really trying to validate people and their experiences,” Siler said. “It’s trying to give them a pathway to hope and saying, ‘Things can be better: You can exist in this world and not be in pain all the time, and there are people who go through these things too. We’re all in this together.’ It’s bringing people back to each other in a lot of ways.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation. Whiteside had been working in the field of suicide prevention since 1999, and as her career progressed, she became increasingly disillusioned with the mental health system.
She said she saw people fall through the cracks, deaths she saw as preventable, dehumanizing attitudes toward suicidal people from health care professionals and deeply negative patient experiences with hospitalization.
Then, in 2012, Snyder’s son died by suicide after working as a security contractor in Iraq. For Whiteside, who had come to know Snyder through her work, it was a defining moment.
“You just get this feeling in your gut where you are like ‘This has to stop,’” Whiteside said. “It’s like something shifts or breaks.”
Since then, Whiteside has stayed firm in her conviction that suicide-attempt survivors, and those who have experienced suicidal thoughts, need to have a seat at the table for designing transformations in health care.
“We’re trained to act like we know what’s best for people, without consulting them about whether what we’re doing is helpful or not,” Whiteside said. “We help keep people depressed by assuming they are limited in ways they are not or might not be. The field of suicide prevention has been stagnant in many ways, and we need these voices to lead and move us to more effective interventions.”
Armed with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), she began cultivating a team. They met in a conference room on the 15th floor of the Group Health Research Institute, a sweeping view of Seattle behind them, to brainstorm and discuss their experiences.
Unlike most researchers, Whiteside did not require that the members be “fully recovered” from suicidal ideation. In fact, team members say it was an integral part of their healing process and one of the first places they’d found the support and trust to speak openly.
“It was probably one of the first times when I realized how beautiful honesty is,” Snyder said.
For Allen, working toward creative solutions and productive responses to suicide gave him a new sense of purpose.
“I needed a way to make my suicide attempt have some meaning,” Allen said. “To participate and address the shortcomings in response to people who are suicidal, and to be able to take my hurt and turn it into something good — not only for myself, but for others.”
When the time came to make the videos for the website, team members were able to tell their stories unscripted, in a raw and real way.
“We just talk about it,” Siler said. “We just say ‘I had this experience. I felt this way. I wanted these things.’ And we just let it be.”
More than tools
In one of the videos, Siler tells viewers to “get a cat with problems.” It’s a line that elicits bouts of laughter at conferences, but it’s grounded in very real strategies for regulating emotion and suffering.
Developed in the ’80s for chronically suicidal people with borderline personality disorder, Linehan’s DBT has been shown to be effective for a wide range of disorders and reducing suicide attempts. It is rooted in the Zen practice of mindfulness, or learning to be fully aware and present in the current moment.
In the videos, team members teach simplified DBT components such as paced breathing and opposite action — what Snyder did when she went to the movie that day despite her emotions telling her to stay inside.
Though the videos are not meant as a replacement for seeking treatment, team members say that training to create small shifts in their thinking can be exactly what it takes to get through a period of hopelessness, even if it’s simply the ability to “be okay with not being okay,” as Allen described.
“I want people to walk away with something that helps them get through the next moment,” he said. “And to see that there are lots of other people out there with shared experience who have developed a way of getting past despair and pain, or at least enduring it long enough that it eventually goes away.”
The DBT work builds off the assumption that some people are hard-wired to experience strong emotion more frequently and more intensely, a departure from the stigma that suicidal individuals are weak or selfish.
“It’s about not meeting people with such a harsh eye, as we tend to do for people who experience things in a very visceral way, and who can’t shut themselves off to the intensity of this human experience,” Siler said. “There’s not a lot of support for people like that.”
The concept of mindfulness and learning to observe thoughts and feelings without judgment has been transformational for Siler, who remembers feeling a sense of inner peace for the first time at age 21.
“I thought someone had drugged me,” Siler said. “I had no idea what it felt like to be calm on the inside. I never sought a peaceful existence because I didn’t know what it was.”
And by presenting the skills through the voices of people who have been there, team members want viewers to recognize that they are not alone.
“You feel like there must be something wrong with you because you look at these shiny people who seem fine and think, ‘How do they do it? And why can’t I?’” Snyder said. “It would have given me hope that I wasn’t some oddity, and that it’s okay to ask for help and to talk about it.”
Ink in the water
Suicide is complex, with a number of genetic, psychological and environmental contributing factors. Research has shown that at least 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder and are frequently experiencing untreated depression.
Still, according to the AFSP, funding for suicide-prevention research is lacking compared to other illnesses, partly because of the surrounding stigma.
To this day, team members hesitate to speak openly about their experiences; Snyder has even been advised to remove suicide research from her resumé. But they imagine a future where people can be candid about suicidality without fearing professional or personal consequences, and where the response to human suffering is one of compassion, not judgment.
Ultimately, they arrive at the same conclusions that led them to join the team in the first place: that staying silent is part of the problem, that if they don’t tell their stories, no one else will, and that it shouldn’t be a choice between being visible and having a successful future.
“It’s like any change in a massive system of wrongness,” Siler said. “It starts small and the ideas spread like seeds; it gains momentum and spreads to more people. It’s like a drop of ink in the water.”
Even as a private version of the nmn website undergoes trials to test its efficacy at preventing suicide attempts, Whiteside works toward fulfilling a steady stream of new ideas. She imagines adding more diverse content, weaving in a certification program for peers to coach others in dbt skills and partnering with the Crisis Text Line so those who visit the site can be connected to live help.
Her ultimate vision is that nmn blooms into a vast, online network of people with shared experiences who use social media and digital technology to support one another — what Whiteside calls an “army of peers.”
As for Snyder, she said she hopes to become a peer support specialist one day, someone who provides support around an illness. It’s a component, she said, that was severely lacking in her own treatment.
“As I’m talking to you right now, there’s someone sitting there, going through that,” she said. “I’d like to be a person who can go there and help. That would be a livelihood I could be proud of.”
Today, when Snyder thinks about sitting in the midst of that joyous, movie-going crowd, it still brightens her mood. She smiles, shoulders back, and says, “Look at me. I’m different even just talking about it.”
For immediate help with suicidal thoughts or crisis, please call the National Suicide prevention lifeline, 24/7, at 800.273.8255 or text "START" to the Crisis Text line at 741-741