The statistics are sobering. In the U.S., suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death. LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth. Forty percent of transgender adults report a suicide attempt. More than 90 percent of them attempted suicide before the age of 25. The recent high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought the topic back into focus but a number of dedicated organizations has been battling the problem for decades.
One of them is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Established in 1987 by a small group of individuals — each of whom had lost someone to suicide — the founding families joined with scientists to create a voluntary health organization that gives those affected by suicide a nationwide community empowered by research, education and advocacy.
I ran into the AFSP’s LGBT outreach coordinator, Tia Sharpe, at Pridefest. We had a chat about her quest to remove the stigma of mental health, and to be the role model she never had.
PGN: I understand you’re a small-town gal.
TS: Yes, originally I’m from the northeastern part of Pennsylvania, a little town called Tamaqua. It’s in the coal region, tucked between the Poconos and Allentown. The closest movie theater was about 25 minutes away, so not a lot going on there.
PGN: Tell me the family structure.
TS: I grew up in a single-parent household. My mom raised me and my brother. He’s a bit older than me — I’m 28 and he’s going to be 35 soon. We were very close, but I’m closest to my mom and to my grandmother, whom we were living with at the time.
PGN: You grew up in a strong feminine culture.
TS: Yes, and I’m so thankful for that. It absolutely made me who I am today.
PGN: Did you go on to college?
TS: I started to go to community college in Tamaqua, but it was like grade 13 of high school, so I took a break to decide what my true calling was. I just started going back to school to study psychology. I work at Starbucks and they pay for you to finish your undergrad education.
PGN: That’s great! How did you get involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention?
TS: I have lived experience and what that means is that when I was 16, I had an attempt to end my life. I’ve struggled with depression since I was very young, and when I was 16, not to say I didn’t struggle afterwards, but at 16 I had an attempt and after that I began counseling to manage my depression. It was eye-opening for a lot of reasons. I’d heard about the “Out of the Darkness” walk and when I moved to Philly, I wanted to participate. I raised the bare minimum to participate and went with my mom. It blew my mind. It was the “aha moment” — that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This was the feeling I wanted to create for other people.
PGN: How did the depression manifest itself when you were very young? Did people around you realize it?
TS: There were obvious signs. I did some self-harm. I was cutting myself and that would be a clear sign that there was some distress. That conversation was always hard. I’d be in the school nurse’s office and it raised a lot of eyebrows. My mom kept me going.
PGN: Was that before or after the attempt?
TS: Both, actually, and I’ve tried to narrow it down to one event that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but there was just a lot of stuff: abuse in the family with my father. My father’s mother died when I was 16 and that set off even more of a depression. Add coming out in a small town and it was a pretty difficult time. It’s never only one reason — it’s usually a series of different events that comes together.
PGN: How did you come out even to yourself?
TS: I decided to help out with the swim team, and there was this girl who had already come out. One day on the bus, she kissed me and I was like, Whoa! This thing feels right. I’d dated guys before, but I never really got it. After that I was like, oh, this is why I never wanted to sit around talking about boys.
PGN: So swim girl read you before you knew yourself!
TS: Yes! And I was like, Now it all makes sense. Before that, I thought there was something wrong with me — didn’t know why all my friends were having these boy crushes and I wasn’t.
PGN: How did you learn about homosexuality?
TS: Well, it was a combination of what I saw on TV and what I learned from hearing negative things from the majority of people in such a small town. “We hate gay people” wasn’t a really good introduction, so it was a tough place to be gay or be out. My mother wasn’t the most accepting at first, either, but she’s come around and was just at Pride with me. My niece who came out at 16 came too. It was a great day.
PGN: Tell me about your role in AFSP.
TS: I was at an event and overheard someone speaking about how crappy the roads were in Manayunk, and jumped into the conversation. I didn’t know it but she was the area director for the organization. I told her that I really wanted to get involved — I’d staple papers, make calls, whatever was needed. We formed a friendship and I became her secretary. I became part of the board and there, I pitched the idea of having an LGBTQ+ outreach coordinator.
PGN: What’s something you want people to know?
TS: Depression and anxiety are something that I still struggle with; it has not gone away, but I have learned how to manage them.
PGN: What’s the hardest part of what you do?
TS: Talking to the families of suicide loss. It’s heartbreaking, but when you go to the “Out of Darkness” walk, it’s so healing and there’s such a sense of community and support that you know it can help people get through the hardest times.
PGN: Do you think that the number of high-profile people coming out about mental- health issues and even the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought the issue out of the darkness a little?
TS: Yes, it’s something we’ve been trying to focus on for a long time. The light that comes out of the tragedy is that it helps start the conversation.
PGN: Is there concern about people emulating the behavior, I think there’s a term for it … ?
TS: Fear of contagion. Any time there’s a high-profile suicide, or attempt, it can get somewhat glamorized in the media, but I feel it isn’t as big an issue as people think. I think the bigger problem would be to let the fear of it stop people from having a dialogue about suicide. I’m more concerned about giving information to people on the “how,” which is why you’re not supposed to report on the method, but they do anyway. The past few incidents are not going make anyone who wasn’t contemplating it before go out and do something, but it does serve as a reminder of how important it is to talk about this and get educated on the subject.
PGN: I had a friend who took her life, and it was one of those cases where she was the last person I would have expected to do it. She was always upbeat and gregarious.
TS: Right, that was eye-opening for so many people. They look at people like Kate Spade and Robin Williams and think they have so much going. How were they so sad and we didn’t know it? I saw a post that said, “Depression doesn’t care what you do.” It doesn’t matter if you’re Anthony Bourdain or a worker at McDonald’s. Of course with a celebrity, you’re only going to see one side of them, which is part of that stigma, because if they’re battling cancer or even drug addiction it’s lauded, but mental health is still a taboo subject. Let’s hope that we can use this as a call to action.
PGN: What touches you when you’re doing your work?
TS: I’ve had some amazing experiences with people who come up and thank us just for being there and raising awareness. It’s such a personal experience. It’s incredible how many people are willing to share their stories with a total stranger, but I’m happy to provide the platform for them to do so.
PGN: I’m sure you have.
TS: I tell my nieces and mom that I want to be the role model that I never had: an out-and-proud LGBTQ person who is strong and has made it, even through the hardships. I was 16 years old when I tried to end my life. I am now 28 and inspired by my 16- and 17-year-old nieces, both of whom I would have never had the pleasure of witnessing, grow into the compassionate and dedicated young women that they are today if I had completed my suicide attempt 12 years ago. So if anyone is reading this in crisis, hear this: Stay. There are so many reasons to stay.