The Intersection of Storytelling and Empathy
Earlier this year, officials in Mitchell County, Iowa, embraced an attention-getting gimmick to make drivers aware of deer on a stretch of rural highway.
They replaced a standard deer crossing sign with one that read, “Suicidal Deer.” The sign was initially well-received as clever and effective in getting people’s attention. But when it caught the attention of a local suicide prevention activist, controversy followed. A petition was signed by hundreds of people who believed the sign made light of suicide and mental illness.
Controversy makes for click-worthy news, and in the age of social media platforms for the opinionated, where there are clicks, trolls are sure to follow. A disheartening, and ultimately ineffective back and forth raged, one side demanding empathy, the other telling everyone to lighten up and appreciate a good joke.
At the ripe old age of 34, I am something of a cagey old veteran in the suicide loss community. I lost my mom three days after my 13th birthday. Today, I speak publicly about my experience with suicide and depression, and serve as an advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Over 21 years, I’ve seen an incredible amount of progress in suicide prevention and mental health awareness. I tend to be less sensitive to general insensitivity, whether in the form of road signs, t-shirts, or Halloween costumes. I hope the feelings of a parent who lost their child to suicide are valued more than a cheap laugh, but I understand that’s not always the case.
Even if officials in Mitchell County choose to prioritize the laughs of many over the grief of some, I am proud of the people who stood up for the cause they believe in. I hope the dialogue they started will outlast the sign they petitioned, no matter how long it stands.
But I also feel sorry for the people who got sucked into a comment section firefight. They couldn’t win, because no one wins in the comment section. It’s like fighting someone in a sewer. No matter how many blows you land, everyone walks away covered in shit.
Progress in suicide prevention and mental health awareness requires a willingness to challenge people to address problems when it is easier to look away. But how do we respond when we are challenged?
Sometimes we want to scream, demand people see our point of view and understand our pain. It hurts when those screams are marginalized as baseless cries for political correctness. Fight that fight at your own peril.
Sharing our stories is a more effective form of activism. It sounds simple, but its not easy. Sharing personal experiences with suicide and mental illness requires us to embrace vulnerability instead of running from it. Vulnerability creates empathy, which paves the way for understanding and creates an environment of support where none existed before.
Even the best argument has an uphill battle to change a mind, but a great story can change a heart. So tell yours. Eventually, I think you’ll find people taking suicide and mental illness at least as seriously as the deer in Mitchell County.