No one talks about life after a suicide attempt – because there isn’t supposed to be an after.

This month, National Geographic is featuring the story of Katie Stubblefield. To quote their first line “This story is difficult to look at.” But it is also difficult to talk about. Her story is unique, not only because she attempted suicide and survived, but also because afterwards, she needed 22 surgeries to reconstruct her face. At age 21 she has become the world’s youngest face transplant recipient.

The story in National Geographic mostly covers the 31 hours that the procedure took. But Katie’s story is so much more than a surgery. You can read her story here. And as you do, keep these things in mind.

1: Healing after a suicide attempt is more than mending physical wounds.

For Katie, there was lots of physical damage that needed to be repaired – but for others, the wounds are less visible. For all, however, the emotional pain is deep. Suicide is a traumatic experience. There is no other way to think of it. It’s traumatic for everyone involved. The pain that drove someone to the point of suicide doesn’t just “go away” if they survive. In fact, that pain is probably compounded by feelings of guilt, shame, and also feelings of failure. Suicide survivor and Mighty writer, Lucy, put it this way in her article “Returning to Life After a Suicide Attempt”:

“When you attempt suicide, there’s not supposed to be an afterwards. It’s supposed to be an ending, not the beginning of a whole new horrendous chapter. No one tells you what it’s going to be like to live through the aftermath…

Yes, I still bear the mental scars of my suicide attempts. Those attempts have changed me in a way I can never undo. I’m a different person than I was before. I crossed a line we’re not supposed to go near. I prepared, when I took those tablets, for one outcome. The one I got was entirely different.

I’ve lived through an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody else. I’m glad to be alive, something I once thought I would never be.”

The healing process needs to be more holistic, and just because someone looks OK on the outside doesn’t mean that they are well on the inside.

2: The means is part of the story, but not the focus.

Most reporting guidelines say to leave out how a person attempted suicide. However, there are exceptions. Katie shot herself in the face, this is part of her story. It explains the need for such extensive surgeries and ultimately her face transplant.

The reason for leaving out the attempt used is because these details can inadvertently be used as a “how to” for people thinking of suicide. The guideline states “Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”

However, in some cases — like this — hiding the means hides a significant element of the story. National Geographic offers more detail than necessary when describing the type of gun she used. We only need the bare minimum on these types of details, to help explain the story — not to steal the focus.

3: Katie’s surgeons worked very hard to give her a second chance, but not everyone is treated so well.

More than not, suicide attempt survivors are treated with an air of contempt for “doing it to themselves”. It’s fair to assume that not every doctor Katie came across was supportive and compassionate, but through the depiction of her story in National Geographic, we see her surrounded by smiling nurses and applauding surgeons. For many people who find themselves in the ER after a suicide an attempt, their team of medical professionals come across a lot less caring. Many patients report feeling like they aren’t taken seriously. Another Mighty writer and suicide attempt survivor wrote it this way:

“I felt like I wasn’t even a patient, let alone a person. He talked to the other nurses about my cut like someone gossiping about some drama. They made it seem like my wound wasn’t even attached to a person…

Holding back tears, I tried to explain that for me self-injury is an addiction. But [the doctor] told me this was a choice.

‘Why should I even help you?’ she said. ‘You’re just going to do it again.’

Those words cut me deeper than I have ever cut myself. This doctor — a person who has taken an oath to help those who need it — was telling me I wasn’t worthy of help or compassion. I finally got myself to go to the emergency room for a self-inflicted injury, something I probably should have done in the past, and I was being treated like I was wasting their time.”

Suicide attempt survivors need and deserve as much effort, care, and resources as anyone else. They won’t be ungrateful, and they are not unworthy.

In summary

Katie is not a cautionary tale of what might happen if you attempt suicide, she is inspirational in what healing can look like after an attempt. Her story is dramatic and revolutionary (in that her face transplant is being funded by the US Department of Defence to pave the way for young soldiers with similar injuries).

However, not every survival story needs to be dramatic to be relevant.

Katie’s story deserves to be told just as much as yours. Even if it’s just to a friend or family member – you matter. Katie is just an example of one woman, and we hope she sets that bar for the level of care that each survivor deserves.

Suicide prevention and help resources:

If you or someone you know if struggling in this area, please visit our “Get Help” page for your region.

If you are currently in crisis, please call 911. If you are not in a state of emergency, please visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and find the number for your area.


September’s ‘National Geographic’ Cover Features a Suicide Attempt Survivor


Returning to Life After a Suicide Attempt