Justice Speaks: The Right to Survive

Wednesday, February 19, was the semester’s first Justice Speaks Lunch. The topic was The Right to Survive; the speaker was Cara Anna. Ms. Anna is an accomplished journalist that has reported on issues in China. However, her talk to students last week was not about her experience as a reporter; instead, Ms. Anna shared her experience as a suicide attempt survivor and has called upon future lawyers to stand up as civil rights advocates on this issue.

The central theme of Ms. Anna’s discussion was that suicide is a topic not often spoken about, if at all. The reasons for this silence have many layers, including fear of discrimination by employers and mental health professionals, insurance companies choosing not to insure attempt survivors, and an overall lack of community and community awareness surrounding suicide. Ms. Anna’s solution to these problems is a collective voice—she stressed the need for people, especially future law students and practicing lawyers, to get involved.

The reason Ms. Anna has called upon future lawyers to get involved with talk about suicide is because there are various civil rights that may be violated once a person speaks out about having suicidal thoughts and/or made a suicide attempt. For example, when a person is experiencing suicidal thoughts, an extremely vulnerable time, that same person is told to call numerous hotlines for help without being made aware that some hotlines will notify the police. In this same example, once the police have been notified, the police will begin a record for the person. The reason this should raise eyebrows in the legal community: the person was not given notice and then treated like a criminal when no criminal act has been committed. That record then follows the person through life, with the risk of affecting employment, education, travel, and more. Yes, there is an argument that goes: we should have police make records, it could save someone’s life. However, if a person wishes to seek help but wishes to not be treated like a criminal for doing so, the person will likely not reach out. In effect, the lack of notice will deter the people that desperately need help, and in some instances ensure that the act is committed for fear of the shame that accompanies reaching out for help.

Another issue that Ms. Anna raised that caught the attention of many students in the audience was her discussion of the series of events that follows a person seeking help at a medical hospital. When a person experiencing suicidal thoughts goes to an Emergency Department, the person can be detained without due process—a constitutional rights violation. Ms. Anna shared her own experience walking into a psychiatric institute, voicing feelings while expressing interest in research programs, and then immediately being taken to the Emergency Department next door and detained without notice. She was detained in a mental health facility for ten days after being given the choice of involuntary or “voluntary” commitment, with no choice to not be committed at all. For those lawyers well versed in mental disability law, we know that there is a constitutional standard for declaring a person incompetent, which allows for their involuntary commitment. The standard often is not met when a person is feeling suicidal.

In the hopes of raising awareness, or even starting a debate, Ms. Anna has provided the following websites/links for future and present lawyers to use as resources to learn more about suicide and attempt survivors.

Voices of attempt survivors:

Twitter: @AboutSuicide, @lttphoto, @unsuicide

  • #SPSM is a weekly chat at 10 p.m. Sundays on suicide prevention and social media
  • #todayistandup is a series of selfies by attempt survivors

TED Talks by attempt survivors:

Additional Websites:

Specific issues mentioned during the Justice Speaks Lunch:

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