By Taylor Knopf
“When you look back, did you want to die?” Sean Wellington, host of the podcast “Suicide Noted,” asked his guest.
“Absolutely yes,” Melissa replied. “I cannot remember a time that I didn’t wake up and want to die.”
Exchanges such as these are common for Wellington. The format for his podcast is simple — he interviews suicide attempt survivors, giving them a space to tell their story.
“I want to remind everyone here who’s listening that my goal here really isn’t to unnecessarily sensationalize anything,” Wellington explained to the audience gathered for the recording of the podcast during last fall’s National Alliance on Mental Illness NC annual conference in Raleigh. “The goal really is I want to help people and myself feel a little less alone. So that’s the nature of some of these questions. I know some of them dig a little bit.”
In the podcast episode, Wellington asked Melissa:“So you’re planning in high school? Can you share what that plan looks like?”
Melissa said she learned to be organized as a child and to have a plan for every scenario that could play out at home. She described a traumatic childhood where she says she witnessed domestic violence and lived with a mother who suffered from severe mental illness.
Melissa was an adult when her mother passed away. Then, she explained, she had to tackle her own mental health issues, including depression, an eating disorder and practices of self harm. She remembered wanting to die, every day, until Feb. 12, 2020.
“You remember the exact day?” Wellington asked. “Well, you know my next question: What was going on that day?”
Things came to a point, Melissa said, when she finally sought help and was accepted to a residential therapy program six hours away. All she had to do was drive herself there.
“And I told myself, ‘If I get there, I’ll stay alive. And if I don’t, then it’s going to happen this time,’” she said. “‘I will die.’”
She forced herself to keep going past each highway rest stop, she said. Melissa spent 45 days at the residential treatment program, then six months in a partial hospital program, then outpatient treatment.
“Is suicide a possibility as we sit here today?” Wellington asked.
“No,” she replied emphatically. “My full-time job is getting better.”
Melissa credits the skills and tools she’s learned through dialectical behavioral therapy, a form of treatment designed for people who feel emotions very intensely, with saving her life.
“Less alone and less shitty”
Suicide is a growing issue in the United States; rates increased by 30 percent between 2000 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though rates declined some in 2019 and 2020, close to 50,000 Americans died as a result of suicide in 2020. That same year in North Carolina, statistics show that 1,436 of the 2,423 violent deaths in the state — 59 percent — were suicides.
Wellington, a Chapel Hill resident, has recorded nearly 140 conversations such as the one he had with Melissa. Their conversation was the first he’d recorded in front of a live audience, but he hopes to do that again.
The podcast has reached people around the world who say in online reviews that it’s helped them with their mental health struggles and given them hope. Wellington has interviewed people outside of North America, including guests from Australia, South Africa and England.
A man from Malawi, a nation in southeast Africa, reached out to Wellington and shared that he listens to “Suicide Noted” during his morning walk to work. Hearing such stories and realizing the podcast’s reach “warms my heart,” Wellington said.
There are more than two dozen reviews of “Suicide Noted” on Apple podcasts, and many of them describe the show as “refreshingly open,” “comforting” and “insightful.” Several reviewers refer to themselves as suicide attempt survivors and say they feel less alone after listening.
One listener from Idaho wrote: “I’m a survivor because of this podcast.”
The text of the podcast description starts out: “Our primary goal is to help people feel less shitty and less alone.”
It grew out of the lack of community Wellington found while experiencing his own mental health issues. He said he looked for spaces where people were talking openly about suicide and other tough topics.
He didn’t find much.
“I know a lot of people are in a whole lot of pain — I don’t care if it’s physical or mental or otherwise — and we’re not having the right conversations about it,” he said.
Suicide can be a taboo topic for some communities or simply an uncomfortable topic for others. So Wellington created a place for those uncomfortable conversations — a place where he seems entirely at ease.
“I’m more comfortable in that role and that space than probably anywhere else in my life,” he said.
Crisis of communication
There were big life moments that led Wellington to more awareness about mental health and prompted him to want to talk about it more. The first of those happened when he was in his 20s and his best friend died by suicide.
“You change from that kind of thing,” he said.
Then in his 30s, Wellington became really sick with a chronic illness, and it sapped his mental health as well. As his doctors worked to figure out what was wrong, Wellington said his friends and family didn’t know how to talk with him about the hard things he was experiencing.
“It became pretty clear to me, this crisis of communication — how people were so disinterested in conversing about what I was going through,” he said.
Wellington, 51, is originally from the suburbs of New York City; he made his way to North Carolina in 2010. It was then that he started talking publicly about mental health during a radio segment he hosted for a year and a half on WCOM in Carrboro called “Talk of Hope.” The show consisted of Wellington interviewing people who had been marginalized, and many times the conversations turned to mental health.
After that experience, Wellington decided to create a space for more of these conversations, but he struggled to turn his idea into a reality until the early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. With lockdown mandates in place, he said, he finally sat down and created a podcast.
Finding the first few guests took a little time. He started by asking people he knew if they were interested, and he reached out to a few Facebook groups focused on mental health. Now people reach out to him and volunteer to share their stories on the podcast.
“I’ve been blessed to have people that trusted me,” he said, thinking back to those first interviews. “I went into it with good intention, and I think people knew it.”
Listening without judgment
“I really wanted space for people to be able to talk without there being consequences they invariably face when they talk about this stuff. That was key,” he said. “I thought then — and I think it much more now — that that will save more lives than anything else.”
There’s plenty of need. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that some 12.2 million Americans seriously considered suicide in 2020, with about 3.2 million planning an attempt and 1.2 million people making an attempt.
Wellington said a lot of people who talk about their experience with mental illness or thoughts of suicide are met with unhelpful responses. People can be quick to offer their own diagnoses and solutions.
“There’s a lot of pontificating and platitudes,” he said. “Our culture loves platitudes.”
But most of these responses can feel invalidating for the person who is opening up about what they’re going through, Wellington said.
And while most people cannot provide therapy or prescribe medications to people who may be considering suicide, he added, they can listen.
“I’ve been clearly reminded over and over again of the power of a conversation that does not have a specific end in mind,” he said. “It’s not just kind of important — it is the thing.”
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