Why I Made a Documentary about Suicide

As I tour the country with our documentary, The S Word, it’s been interesting to gauge reactions from waiters to Lyft drivers to random people I encounter. When I tell them I’m screening my documentary, they inevitably ask “Oh, what’s it about?”

Lisa Klein Director Behind CameraLisa Klein, director of The S Word

Depending on the day, I usually pause, take a breath, do a short preamble about not jumping to conclusions, then I tell them it’s about suicide. The responses range from “Oh, that sounds like fun” to a very long, uncomfortable silence. A concerned look. Clearing of the throat. Then I launch into my spiel:

“It’s not a dirge—at all. It’s even funny—well, not funny in that suicide is funny, but funny and human in its portrayal of people living and surviving and telling their stories so other people won’t have to endure what they have…”

Not an easy pitch, to say the least. And, oftentimes the follow-up goes something like this—“Ya know what, my uncle killed himself —nobody in the family talked about it.” Or, “One of my best friends in high school killed herself, and we were all shocked.” What I am learning is that everybody knows somebody who has been touched by suicide in some way.

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Attend an Ithaca screening of The S Word with director Lisa Klein, April 15, 6:30 p.m., G-10 Biotechnology Building, Cornell University. Open to the Ithaca community. Free admission.

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As a survivor of both my father’s and brother’s suicides, I have wrestled with the guilt, shame, and confusion for years. I will never know why my dad ended his life. Nobody talked about my brother Keith. My mother could never bring herself to say the words, “my son killed himself,” words that no mother should have to say. Ever.

That was my impetus for making the film—I wanted to tell the stories of people who have lost loved ones to suicide because it’s crucial to both stay connected and to be able to talk about suicide without shame or judgment.

I didn’t come easily to this realization. The word suicide was not spoken in our house. It was the confused and traumatized ghost that lingered in the walls. It’s taken me years to figure out that speaking the word itself is not the problem. The silence that so often surrounds it is.

As difficult as it would have been for my mother to say “my son died by suicide,” I now believe that it would have freed her to grieve and find a community where she could relate and talk and listen. I think my 19-year-old self would have begged Keith to stay—and told him all the reasons why he should. But, I probably would not have asked him if he was thinking about suicide or if he had a plan. I wouldn’t have told him that it was okay to not be okay. I would have just wanted to fix the problem because that’s all I knew. What I’m left with now is retrospect and the thought that “if I knew then what I know now, my brother would be alive.”  Maybe—I can’t ever know that.

I ventured into creating The S Word barely understanding my experience with suicide, but what I have found is an incredibly rich community of people who I believe are the voices we need to hear to lead us toward the ultimate goal of suicide prevention. Who better to learn from than the people who have been there—those with lived experience who are willing to share their stories.

To spread the message of The S Word, we have been working with schools, nonprofits, local governments and law enforcement—groups whose needs vary from state to state, city to city and neighborhood to neighborhood. We welcome those vital opportunities—opportunities that could make a difference.

Until very recently, first person narratives of people who have been suicidal were largely missing from this conversation. The S Word gives voice to those who have not only survived, but have courageously transformed their personal struggles into strength and action.

The film provides a window into the lives of people who have attempted suicide and survived—their day-to-day lives, their struggles, their humanity. The S Word also offers the perspective of a family who has lost their son/brother to suicide. We feel their grief as they try to make sense of an unfathomable tragedy.

So, when somebody asks me, “Why suicide? Isn’t that topic depressing?,” my answer is very clear: “There is nothing depressing about working to prevent suicide and the kind of suffering that so many families have endured. The most depressing thing would have been to remain silent.” And not to have made this movie.

—By Lisa Klein

Lisa Klein is the director of The S Word, released in December 2017. She co-directed the 2012 documentary Of Two Minds about bipolar disorder. She and her husband Doug Blush own MadPix, Inc., an independent production company in Los Angeles. Klein will present a screening of The S Word and lead a panel discussion in Ithaca on April 15 at 6:30 p.m. G-10 Biotechnology Building, Cornell University. The event is sponsored by Cornell Minds Matter and The Sophie Fund.

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]