Amherst Magazine

Suicide’s Stigma

By Naomi Shulman

A lawyer and an actor have teamed up on a campaign that approaches suicide as the public health crisis it is.

[Health] Joanne Lelewer Harpel ’85 met Geoffrey Cantor ’84 the very first day she visited Amherst. She was 16, and she could not have imagined they’d collaborate one day—nor what they’d collaborate about.

“I was just starting to look at colleges,” recalls Harpel.

“And I was an Amherst freshman,” Cantor adds. Harpel crashed on the floor of his dorm room in Pratt, but once she enrolled at Amherst, the two ran mostly in separate circles. (“He was much cooler than I was,” says Harpel. “I still am,” says Cantor. “He is,” she agrees.) Cantor was headed toward a career in theater; Harpel had law school in her sights. When they left campus, neither expected they’d be in contact again.

But then life—and death—intervened. Harpel had just won a coveted position in a corporate law firm when her brother suddenly committed suicide, leaving her stunned and bereft. The grief, and the taboo surrounding it, spurred something in her. “My mother and I went to a survivor conference about six weeks after Stephen died,” she says. “Even through the haze of all the emotions, I  had this awareness that someday, this was a field that I wanted to get involved with.”

A few years later she started volunteering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Eventually she became its senior director of public affairs and postvention and began working on a fledgling publicity project that would turn into the International Survivors of Suicide Day. “At the time there was really nothing—a couple of brochures,” she says. “There were 10 or 11 cities participating.” Under Harpel’s direction, programs for the day—in which people gather with others who understand their loss—now take place in 300 cities and on six continents.

Harpel soon decided to expand the project, but she felt it needed artistic direction that she could not provide. She thought of her old acquaintance Geoffrey Cantor. In addition to his stage and screen credits—he performed in Side Man on Broadway, on Spike TV’s The Kill Point and in a dozen Law & Order episodes, for example—Cantor had worked on a major ad initiative, Kleenex’s “Let It Out” campaign, specifically meant to provoke emotions.

Joanne Lelewer Harpel ’85 and Geoffrey Cantor’84

Joanne Lelewer Harpel ’85 and Geoffrey Cantor ’84

Harpel had a hunch he’d bring creative juice to her project. What she didn’t know was that right after he left Amherst, Cantor had lost a dear friend to suicide. “But I’d never really talked about it with anyone,” he says. “I was very emotional when I spoke about it to Joanne, and I realized this was a cause I could get behind.”

The two have now collaborated on multiple projects, the latest being a series of interviews in which researchers talk about how various factors—biology, psychology, epidemiology and genetics—relate to suicide prevention. The pair have also gone around the country interviewing survivors of suicide loss—a kind of group therapy on a massive scale.  

International Survivors of Suicide Day takes place the Saturday before Thanksgiving. “A big purpose of the day is to educate people about the issues around suicide,” Harpel says. “But it’s also to provide emotional support, so people can begin their journey of healing and find relief from some of the emotional burden.” The Harpel-Cantor interviews will air online that day, and many communities will stage “Out of the Darkness” walks to raise awareness of suicide prevention and reduce the stigma around suicide.  

Participants preparing for the Out of the Darkness overnight walk in Washington, D.C.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention held a 16-mile Out of the Darkness overnight walk in Washington, D.C., in June. Photo by Kerry Payne

“It’s a health crisis,” Cantor says. “Thousands of people die every year, more than from car accidents. I felt that something needed to be done.”

Thirty years ago Harpel and Cantor might have seemed an unlikely pair, but having joined forces, they are shaking up the conversation and challenging the stigma. In other words, they’re approaching suicide as the public health issue it is.

Shulman has written for The New York Times, Real Simple and other publications.