Santa Fe woman part of film about suicide issues

October 8, 2018

What do you say to someone who has attempted suicide — or someone who has lost a child or another loved one to suicide?

Filmmaker Lisa Klein says an all-too-common reaction is to say, “I’m so sorry,” and look away.

Klein is trying to change that with her new documentary, The S Word.

The goal of the film, she said, is to make more people aware of the problem, to help alleviate the shame and guilt survivors carry, to start having more public conversations about the topic — and hopefully to persuade people not to look away from survivors of suicide attempts and their stories.

“I’d come to this film from a place of loss,” she said in a recent interview. Back in the 1980s, when Klein was a sophomore in college, her father killed himself. Three months later, her older brother followed suit.

The film is dedicated to her father, Harold, and her brother, Keith, and to “the eight people we lost to suicide in the United States alone while you watched this film,” the end credits of the movie say.

Cheryl Brown of Santa Fe, an executive producer of the film who lost her son and her ex-husband to suicide, is bringing The S Word to the Center for Contemporary Arts for two screenings next week. A retired psychoanalyst, Brown has been working with people affected by suicide and suicide attempts and was recognized in 2015 as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.

State Department of Health data show Santa Fe County’s rate in 2017, 26.9 deaths per 100,000 residents, is higher than the state’s rate of 23.2 last year — and far higher than the U.S. rate of 13.4 in 2016, the latest federal data available. There were 42 suicides in Santa Fe County last year, several times more than the number of homicides.

“This film hopefully will help Santa Feans destigmatize the discussion,” Brown said.

When Klein embarked on The S Word journey, she thought the film would be about the loss of her family members. But she began finding survivors from many walks of life who had heart-wrenching stories. The film came to be about them.

The S Word, which includes interviews with a range of survivors of suicide attempts and families of victims, is framed by the life and work of a young photographer named Dese’Rae Stage, who Klein met while conducting research for the film.

“Not only had she herself attempted suicide and survived, but she was doing a project where she was photographing people who had attempted and survived it,” Klein said. “The photographs struck me.”

The director said she was particularly moved by Stage’s “look-into-my-lens” method, which seemed to say, “We’re going to look right into your eyes because how often had we looked away when someone’s in pain, suffering, struggling? It’s not out of malice, but how do we deal with it? It’s easier just to not look.”

Klein went to New York to meet with Stage. And soon, the documentary became something of a collaboration. She followed Stage for about three and a half years.

“I found this vibrant community of people who’d attempted and survived,” Klein said.

Stage comes across as funny and likable — not to mention her talents with a camera She jokes around with fellow survivors as she shoots their portraits. There are moments of joy with her, her friends and her partner. There’s even some footage of her wedding.

Klein’s film also shows one of Stage’s darker moments, in which she’s depressed and unsure.

“It’s really important to have these moments [in the film],” Klein said. “She was absolutely struggling. What was important for us was to show that, yes, that continues. … To say you’re not going to think about suicide anymore is unrealistic.”

But since her suicide attempt years ago, Stage has developed coping mechanisms for those times when depression sets in.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for everyone, Klein said. Some get by with medications, with meditation, running or yoga, she said. A strategy that works well for one person might not work for another.

One of the most emotional parts of the documentary deals with the family of Brandon Toh, a young rock musician who took his own life in 2012. His parents and his sister talk about his life and the pain they felt after he died. The Toh family coped in various ways. His mom, Jean Toh, started working with a suicide support group, while sister Shauna Toh became a music therapist.

Though she doesn’t talk about her own family members’ suicides in the film, Klein said in the interview that the deaths were a defining time in her life.

She still doesn’t know why her dad — who she described as “funny” and “larger than life” — took his life. “That was completely out of nowhere,” she said, noting he waited until all his children were grown and out of the house before he did it.

“There was a lot of shame, a lot of fear” at the time, Klein said. “When you lose somebody to suicide, you do go back and wonder what you might have missed.”

She’d like to be able to tell others in that situation, “There’s nothing you could have done.”

But it’s impossible to know whether such a statement is true, she said.

“The only thing that we do know, unfortunately, is there’s nothing you can do for that person right now,” Klein said. “But there’s a lot you can do going forward. And there’s a lot you can do for the next person.”

How to watch

Two screenings of The S Word are planned this month at the Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail.

A reception will be held at 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, with a screening at 5 p.m. and a question-and-answer session at 6:15 p.m. A second screening is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16.

There is a sliding-scale suggested donation of up to $10. Proceeds go to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Advance tickets are available at the Center for Contemporary Arts.

On the web

• Learn more about The S Word at theswordmovie.com.

• Cheryl Brown hosts a website with resources and information on mental health issues, suicide awareness and how to cope at suicidefindinghope.com.

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