Every 12.8 minutes, an individual dies by suicide. As the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the 2nd leading cause of death among 15-34 year olds, suicide takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined. How is it possible that “the most preventable form of death in the U.S. today” continues to haunt the lives of our loved ones, family members, friends, neighbors, and veterans?

I attended the Brookings Institution's screening of “The S Word”, a documentary on suicide in America that followed a discussion with director Lisa Klein and economist Carol Graham. In an effort to remove the taboo from the “s word”, this film seeks to create an open dialogue about suicide across different races, genders identities, sexual orientations, professions, personal experiences, and their intersections. Throughout the film, attempt survivors and those who have lost a loved one to suicide share their stories in a way that is raw and unapologetically honest. 

Kelechi Ubozoh photographed by Dese'Rae Stage as part of the Live Through This project—  “a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors.”

One of the survivors, Kelechi Ubozoh, detailed her experience as a woman of color with a mental illness— a profile that is uncommon among those who attempt suicide according to statistics by Carol Graham. Although suicide rates are most prevalent among middle-aged white males in rural areas, Ubozoh notes that she uses her narrative as a means to shift the paradigm within black communities with the hope of being met with understanding and dialogue, rather than judgement and shame. Lea Harris, another survivor featured in the film, expressed that she uses her story to advocate for suicide prevention within health care, education, legislation, and human services. She encourages survivors to take ownership of their experiences and use their collective voice to come together as a community to rewrite the narrative about suicide. Harris was present during the screening.

This film reinforced the idea that recovery is not linear. A survivor expressed that “it’s not about my diagnoses, it’s about managing my symptoms”, which is commonly managed by survivors in the film through participating in activities they are passionate about such as photography, writing, parenting and singing. Occupational therapy practitioners recognize the value in participating in activities and establishing important roles and identities, which is often forgotten by health care providers when working with survivors or those who are at risk for suicide. A common factor among the individuals in this film was a sense of dissatisfaction toward mental health providers who failed to see the importance of saving their lives beyond the legal obligation to do so. Occupational therapy practitioners must recognize the importance of trauma-informed care and work with patients to regain a sense of personal safety, confidence, and enjoyable connection to others. This puts the survivor or individual at risk at the forefront of their own care. Occupational therapy practitioners should play a powerful role in helping this community amplify their voices in the movement to change the perception and education of suicide awareness and prevention.

For more information about the role of occupational therapy within mental health, read AOTA’s article on Occupational Therapy and Depression: Reconstructing Lives. Also check out an AJOT article specific to the role of occupational therapy as it relates to veteran suicide. To learn more about the photography project featured in “The S Word” documentary, check out LiveThroughThis.org.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255
Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada)
The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386
Crisis Text Line text HOME to 741741

Gabriella Vasquez is a student at Boston University in Boston, MA. She is currently completing a third fieldwork placement at the American Occupational Therapy Association within the Federal Affairs Division. She is passionate about analyzing the relationship between policy, advocacy, culture, mental health, and occupation. Gabriella hopes to someday work in a community based mental health setting while also working to advocate for occupational therapy on a state and local level.