When a Suicide Prevention Hero Dies by Suicide

Photo by Kate Elizabeth. Creative Commons.

Untold thousands, maybe even millions, of people embraced Amy Bleuel’s symbol of passionate resistance against suicide: a simple semicolon. Tattoos, jewelry, and art feature the period floating above a comma, not for punctuation, but for an expression of hope. 

That delicate punctuation mark, Amy would tell people, meant that the writer still had more to say. And the same is true for suicidal people: “Your story isn’t over.” 

Yet Amy’s story ended last week, at the age of 31. She died by suicide.  My heart breaks for her and her loved ones. It also breaks for the many strangers whose lives she touched.

Once, she wrote in the mission statement  for her organization Project Semicolon, “The vision is that people see the value in their story…The vision is that suicide is no longer an option to be considered…The vision is hope, and hope is alive….”

How do we reconcile those words when the writer not only considered suicide, but died by it?

Amy’s message was made all the more powerful by what she had overcome. Her father died by suicide when she was 18. It was only one of many traumas that she faced in her life, including physical and sexual abuse as a child, and multiple rapes in college. She had attempted suicide five times.

Still, she had said, “The vision is that suicide is no longer an option to be considered…The vision is hope, and hope is alive….”

The vision. Tragically, it was only a vision, a hope, a longing for her – as it is for so many others. Not a reality.

What Now?

Poster by Dese’Rae Lynn Stage

I am afraid. I worry that, for some, Amy’s suicide will diminish the power of her message, that the legions who believed in her will now feel deflated, defeated, and perhaps even more suicidal.

Several years ago, a psychotherapist, Bob Bergeron, wrote a book titled, The Right Side of 40: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. It was a feel-good book, extolling the possibilities for happiness and growth even after the vibrancy of youth has faded.

Shortly before the book was supposed to go on sale, the author killed himself. He wrote a suicide note on the book’s title page. “It’s a lie …” he wrote, with an arrow pointing to the name of the book.

The book was never published. I imagine the publisher pulled it because the author lost credibility. If someone writes a guide to happiness and then dies by suicide, can the guide be trusted?

This question torments me. Does Amy Bleuel’s death cancel out the wisdom, solace, and inspiration that she imparted to so many?

The answer is NO.

Life is not all-or-nothing. Amy’s suicide does not cancel out all the inspirational and true things she said against suicide. Her death does not erase her tremendous wisdom. It does not taint the countless lives she touched.

If anything, her death makes her work all the more important. It shows the power of suicide – and the need to fight it.

If you’re suicidal, get help. Reach out. Talk to others. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 (TALK), or check out the Resources page to learn of many other places where you can get help by phone, email, text, or online chat.

That’s the real message. Don’t be alone with your suicidal thoughts. Dese’Rae Lynn Stage, who is active in suicide prevention and created the website livethroughthis.org, puts it especially well in her Facebook post about Amy. She writes:

“We lost a powerful advocate in Amy, and I know the rest of us who do this work are really feeling that loss today. If you’re one of these people, please don’t lose sight of yourself in the work. We need you—and we need you thriving, not just surviving—so that when you hold your breath and you dive deep, you pull two people ashore: yourself and the person you worked so hard to save. And then you send up a flare to let the rescue boat know where you are, and you wait and you rest and you breathe.”

The takeaway, then, is that Amy’s death brings even more meaning to her work, not less. It shows all the more that people need to fight hopelessness and despair, that people need to take care of themselves and each other, so that fewer people finish their story prematurely.

The message remains true, the message remains important, even though suicide took the messenger.

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  1. paul says:

    I know there is help for many in this world. However, due to our country and others that worry more about addiction than people getting the medications that they need there is at a point I am faced with a choice do I buy drugs from a drug dealer or commit suicide when I run out of the pain medication that I take everyday. It is one of the few things that makes life worth living. Pain of not eating is nothing compaired to the pain from spinial stinosis, migranes, and chronic sinusitus. I am fine for now but to me it seems quite insane to limit people to a 30 day supply. I have never used heroin but I will have to choose that or suicide quite likely if not this year one close.

  2. Jo says:

    Yes. Her words are still true. More so than any others as she understands the issues. Suicide should not call your work into question. It is apart from that internal discussion.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Jo,

      I like how you put that: the work that Amy did was “apart from that internal discussion.”

      The reality is, Amy knew better than most people how powerful suicidal urges are and the damage that suicide can wreak. Her death, and the outpouring of private and public grief that has followed, are a testament to those truths.

      Along the same lines, someone with brain cancer has a special expertise in the experience of brain cancer. And when that person dies of brain cancer, it does not diminish the person’s expertise, experience, or wisdom in saying that we desperately and fervently need to tackle this deadly problem.

  3. Stacey, thank you for the work that you do.

    It matters.

    I missed hearing about Amy Bleuel’s death but do remember hearing about Bob Bergeron’s.

    It saddens me that the world has lost these two bright lights and their hard-won wisdom.

    I appreciate you addressing the question that many in the fields of mental health and suicide intervention ask – not because it’s a question that anyone should even have to consider because, of course, they shouldn’t.

    The only reason it’s a question at all is because of the stigma and shade that is cast upon those in this society who must consider suicide at all.

    The extent to which credibility is called into question due to an individual considering / attempting suicide is simply a reflection of the work that we still have to do to eradicate that stigma.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you, Tamara, both for your kind words and for your insightful reflections.

      I agree with you about the stigma. There is still so much work to do!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Preventing someone from taking their own life is very hard. My sister killed herself because she thought she could never get off of drugs. She was admitted 3 different times but never of her own volition. It’s not going to work until you can really make them think they can kick it!!!!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Anonymous,

      I’m so sorry about the loss of your sister. I’m actually in the process of writing a post about how illogical it is to say that suicide is always preventable. Sometimes, friends, family, and professionals do everything in their power, and still a person dies. I wish it weren’t so.

      I hope you will check out the resources for people who have lost a loved one to suicide.

  5. James says:

    I am a survivor of myself had it not been for another person I wouldn’t be here life is still tough because of my choices but I know what it’s like to actually want to die please don’t we all have a purpose here on this earth a purpose we ultimately don’t have a say in but whatever purpose is better than wanting to kill yourself obsessing with suicide

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi, James. Just now seeing your comment. Not sure why I couldn’t see comments when I dropped in a few days ago. Just wanted to say it’s good to hear from a survivor that you know that there’s a purpose for you to be here. Life is tough sometimes because of our choices or sometimes just because of circumstances that are beyond our control. Either way, what I know is that those awful places we sometimes visit are not permanent and that each of us matters and can make a difference in the lives of others on this planet. Your words make a difference. Thank you.

  6. MaryBeth Palm says:

    Is anyone immune from suicide? My heart is full of gratitude for Amy. How hard it must be to be a heroine to so many- adding a weight to her own daily living struggle. I will celebrate her life as she would celebrate mine.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      MaryBeth,

      Amy’s death reminds us that, no, sadly no one is immune from suicide. I’ve read of other suicide prevention advocates who die by suicide, as well as many people who to those around them seemed content and well. The scary thing is that suicidal urges can come to anyone (whether they admit this or not), and it makes it all the more important that we as a society learn to talk more comfortably about suicide so that we can ask people how they are, and really want to hear the answer.

  7. Louisa says:

    I attempted suicide in November last year. I’m in Australia and have become involved with Suicide Prevention Australia but only by email and surveys. I read about Amy last week and I understand what happened to her, her own self experience. I don’t know what will happen to me but I don’t think my ‘involvement’ is real in suicide prevention. I don’t have Amy’s semi-colon tattoo, and yet I still don’t have a tattoo about my brain aneurysm or my stroke 3 years ago. My life is different. So is everyone elses. So what is going on for me? I live alone, I can’t work, I feel dead while I’m alive. Is that what I do to die? I need someone to talk to.

    • Anonymous says:

      You are not alone. Contact your local health care. You have to talk to somebody. You are as amazing person. Call somebody now 🙂

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Louisa,

      The Resources page contains a lot of places where you can talk to someone by phone, email, text, or online chat. I realize you’re in Australia, so many of the places aren’t accessible to you, but there are some (such as the Samaritans’ email and the international listings of hotlines). Also listed on that page is the Online Suicide Wiki, which has a long list of places you can get help online. I hope you will check them out.

  8. David maclean says:

    I suffer from chronic depression . There are many days I sit and wonder why am I still doing this. My faith says it’s wrong. What would it do to my son? Still some days are so bad I tend to not care as much. Dr changes meds and you feel dumb inside or you lay and cry or am angry at the world. I understand why they would do it. The pain would be gone.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      David,

      I’m sorry you’re suffering. I hope you will look at the Resources page on this site for places where you can talk with someone (for free) by phone, email, text, or online chat. There is hope for feeling better, even if it doesn’t seem that way now.

  9. Multiple suicide attempts says:

    As a person who has attempted suicide many of times one just being March 18 2017 I’ve always struggled with suicidal thoughts to me there is a difference between suicidal thoughts and acting on them. Just because I have suicidal thoughts does not mean that I am going to act on them. We do not have enough resources for mental health. I live in a state were A LOT of mental health resources are being cut.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Multiple suicide attempts,

      These are all good points. There are a lot of different degrees of intensity to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. And it’s tragic how hard it is for people in many places to get help with mental health problems.

      If you want to talk with someone by phone, email, text, or online chat, the Resources page lists a lot of places where you can do so.

      Good luck to you, and thanks for sharing.

  10. Allistair says:

    This article is a decent “closure” to Amy’s life. Her death is a significant loss but it doesn’t negate what she did at all.
    I’m a perfectionist. I tried suicide three times. After the third time I decided I wasn’t any good at it or I would have succeeded. I’m not THAT big of a failure. I lived through a subsequent sexual assault by a cop, PTSD, the torture and
    death of my husband by pharmaceutical malpractice. But I never tried suicide again because I’d tried it several times and, obviously, I wasn’t any good at it. Maybe I was not meant to succeed. In the bad times I tend to live in benign fury and revenge.
    one time my husband told me: Don’t kill yourself. You’ll just be giving “them” what they want. When I’m broken, I remember what he said. My fury gets me through. I’ll leave this life kicking and screaming. I will never give suicide what it wants.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Allistair,

      What a beautiful, inspiring response to the traumas that life has handed you. Talk about resilience! I love your fighting spirit, and I suspect that it will resonate with many readers who especially need to witness that spirit right now.

      Thank you for sharing!! And good luck to you.

  11. "Dr Kübler-Ross" says:

    Sorry for hiding behind a prominent lady, but I don’t dare to use my name; yet write I must, or I may harm myself, I need to type this to distance me from my dark side, to have a critical look at it;
    Amy’s suicide certainly does not devalue project “;” her story, so dry and factual on Wikipedia, is heartbreaking, and it made me reconsider my ‘problems’ in the light of hers, and get going, resume doing things, and rather think of making this world a better place than leaving it;
    I guess I still can fail: my efforts may be misguided, my emotional unhappiness may come back with a vengeance, and I may snap; but not today; and there of course are other reasons keeping me alive (kids, parents, sun, grass, people, books, music, Pilates, shoes, bicycles, watches …);
    However, a certain romantic interest remains quite a bit of a problem; it is not her fault, each of us is just a person he/she is, with not much willingness to adapt, I’m afraid; yet it is me acting way too much like a ‘Young Werther’ / nauseating adolescent; and something is profoundly wrong in this, unsaid and withheld things, and at times I have a notion that nothing will come of it, and that can be excruciating;
    – should I sever all contacts?? I have no heart to do that; so I am really lost in darkness at times.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      “Doctor,”

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings, which are at once inspirational and also frightening. I hope you will not stay alone with your experience. Isolation and severance only do harm.

      If you’re not already in therapy or talking with friends and family about what you’ve written here, please consider reading out by phone, text, email, or online chat to any of the places listed here.

      Your life sounds full despite your longings, so I hope you will remember the light outside the darkness.

  12. Debra says:

    Amy is now at peace. Her message has even more meaning to me now. I am grateful to Amy for raising awareness and will continue ;;;

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Debra, I’ve heard from many others, too, that Amy’s death intensifies her message, in the same way that someone’s death from cancer or AIDS shows all the more urgently that we must find a cure. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Alex says:

    Thanks for writing this. She saved so many ;;; RIP

  14. Josie says:

    Everyone has pain, and no one HAS to be strong or push on for someone else or some agenda. I understand her struggle, and I’m saddened by her decision, but she was just a normal human, slogging through life and its miseries and occasional joys. Joy is hard to embrace when your misery end of the scale is overloaded, but she tried to do some good in the world, and that should never be diminished.

  15. It speaks volume to how pain is concealed. No one is exempt from suicide and definitely attempting to create an alternative outlook is not an exclusive saving grace. The sad part is had she revealed her internal struggles and fears that culminated to this point, it would have been met with indifference. She would suffer the criticism and reality that her pain is discounted and now her entire character and stance is considered fraudulent and unworthy. Simply amazing that her worked seemed to help heal others even if it didn’t heal her and now there is a question of how could she inspire! How foolish! Place her books back on shelves and let people sit with the reported happiness which conflicts with her internal dilemmas; Life is like that sometimes.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      LaQuita,

      You are absolutely right. Nobody is immune to suicide, and there’s probably a special burden to being a suicide prevention advocate because of the fear of being considered, as you note, fraudulent and unworthy. It’s so sad, all the way around.

  16. Tammy says:

    My heart Is breaking for Amy her family, friends, all the lives she has touched. My fourteen year old is back in the hospital again 8 times she has tried. This is a daily battle and a family illness. Please everyone love each other help each other and never ever give up the fight. I pray that Amy is at peace.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you for sharing, Tammy. I hope that your daughter receives the help she needs. Perhaps some of the resources for family members listed here can be of help to you.

  17. People tend to think mental health advocates have the answers and have conquered, but we’re really still in the battle with them.

    We’re navigating the same waters, but don’t necessarily have a lighthouse in sight, a life jacket, or even know how to swim in uncharted waters…we just know we’re called to help others.
    Sometimes in helping others, our own self care takes a backseat; sometimes because it’s easier to focus others’ problems, sometimes because we get caught up in what we do, and other times because we just don’t see that we have that same safety net we try to be.

    When an advocate dies by suicide, people wonder what will happen to those they reached out to.
    Will they feel “cheated” or abandoned?
    Will they lose hope and give up?

    Such a loss does not invalidate the message or their work. It makes it more important.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Selena, your words are so very true, and inspirational. Thank you for sharing.

    • Selena, I love that you recognize that all of us are “navigating the same waters.”

      For me, though, I feel like Stacey’s blog here really is a “lighthouse in sight, a life jacket” for many who might otherwise drown.

    • I agree, and the conversation here is so important! What I meant is not that there may not be a lighthouse, but that with our vision clouded by deep depression, we may not see it for the safe harbor it is. <3

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Tamara,

      What a lovely sentiment. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Malinda says:

    Whatever made Amy die by suicide must have been a tremendous weight for her. I believe she is at peace now and sees that her death only makes so many fight harder. I believe in the semicolon project and will continue to fight my battles and continue to help others as much as possible.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Malinda, I’m grateful that you and many others feel that way. It’s true: Her death shows how very much people need to believe – truly believe – that their story isn’t over. Amy’s story isn’t over, either. Her work continues to help people stay alive.

  19. Trecia Hill says:

    She was human too and fought her own thoughts while helping others. So courageous.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      So true, Trecia. I can’t imagine the weight of the burden she carried, suicidal while helping others to stay alive.

  20. Cynthia Naquin says:

    I lost my youngest son to suicide and it’s the most painful thing imaginable….Well almost…Imagine your loved ones pain that caused them to take their life.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Cynthia,

      What a tender, empathetic way to look at what drove your son to suicide. So many people are quick to criticize people who die by suicide, which reflects a lack of compassion for the tremendous pain that they endured while alive.

      I’m sorry for your loss and want to point you to resources for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, in case you’re not receiving support already. You can find those resources here.

  21. SQLWitch says:

    “It shows […] that people need to take care of themselves…”

    With all respect, I think it shows even more that we need to take care of each other. Even the bravest among us don’t always get the support they need to manifest and sustain their great courage.

    Hugs to you at this sad time from /r/reddit.com/r/SuicideWatch, where our resource lists include many links to your wise words.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      That is an excellent point, SQLWitch. Thank you for calling me out on that. When I’m at a computer again, I will revise.

      Thanks, too, for the links, and for the link to your reddit. (Or sub-reddit? I’m not up on the terms.)

      Hugs to you, too. Very sad time indeed.

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