A suicide survivor aims to change the conversation about a taboo topic

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with 129 people on average taking their lives every day, according to the National Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

In the conversation about this public health crisis, you often hear from the experts and the grieving loved ones left behind. Yet because of a persistent stigma, you rarely hear from the suicidal person.

Tricia Risley (right, with a shirt she wore last year to an Out of the Darkness Walk) wants to change the conversation. Tricia has lived with multiple mental health disorders since childhood, including severe recurring depression, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, self-harming, and bulimia.

Breaking the stigma

“Suicide has always been a one-sided conversation. It’s always been about the people left behind and their grief. I’m not invalidating their grief, but who’s speaking up for the person who passed away?” said Tricia, who has two children who don’t currently live with her because of her illness.

Talking about what it’s like to be suicidal and live with mental health disorders can help smash the stigma, she said. Tricia keeps journals and writes poetry about life with mental illness. She has self-published two books of her poetry, called “When Prozac Fails” and “It’s Complicated.” (Read “Prudence,” one of her poems, below left.) Her goal is to be that “missing voice” in the conversation about suicide.

Tricia is in treatment at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s Program for Assertive Community Treatment in Burlington County. The program, known as PACT, serves people with severe, persistent mental illness who have a history of hospitalization and risk returning to institutional settings. The goal of treatment, which includes psychiatric medical intervention, counseling, vocational training, recreational outings, transportation, and case management, is to help a person live successfully in the community. Catholic Charities has one PACT team in Burlington County and three in Mercer County; combined, they serve more than 300 people.

A daily struggle

Tricia wants people to know how much mental illness steals from the people who experience it.

“I was diagnosed at 15, so I was in the hospital from 15 to 18, so I didn’t date, I didn’t go to my senior prom, I didn’t get to graduate with my cap and gown. I had to drop out of college because I couldn’t stay out of the hospital long enough to finish my classes. I‘ve lost jobs because of it,” said Tricia, who recently got a tattoo to remind herself of her worth. “It takes a lot away from you. Having to deal with those consequences, along with the daily task of getting up every morning and actually caring to brush your teeth and shower and get dressed when you don’t want to, and the side effects of medication, is a real challenge.”

Because she was in psychiatric hospitals from a young age and for so much time, “hospitals feel like home to me,” she added. “So when I’m depressed and nothing seems to be working, I go ‘home.’ I go back to the hospitals.”

An eye on independence

Tricia has been in PACT treatment since December 2014. Her counselor Cathy Porubsky (pictured at right with Tricia) said Tricia’s experience shows that “every day with mental illness is a struggle.”

Still, PACT Director Crystal Smith said, “Tricia shows positive and continual, steady improvement, and typically rebounds from any setbacks that she may have.”

Tricia’s goal is to be hospital-free for a year. She started a cleaning business, recently was gifted a car from relatives, and also aims to return to school to learn phlebotomy. More than anything, though, she wants to regain her independence.

“There’s no ‘cure’ for mental illness,” Tricia said. “There’s only medication to manage it. The rest is on you – you have to have the desire and willpower (to recover). You have to decide what you really want from this life and whether or not you believe you can do it.”

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For more information: PACT Director Crystal Smith at csmith@cctrenton.org or (609) 396-9777, ext. 2216; or Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities communications, ddifilippo@cctrenton.org or (609) 394-5181, ext. 1153.

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