How One Woman Uses Her Life Story to Reach Teens

The scars on Josephine Grayson's arms are testament to the number of times she attempted to commit suicide.

Healing finally came after a near-death experience, when she met a doctor who didn't put her on drugs and didn't tell her she was crazy.

"He just listened to me," says Ms. Grayson. "That made a big difference."

Today, Grayson is listening to others.

She is an adult volunteer at the New York City-based Suicide Prevention Resources (SPR), a nonprofit educational group dedicated to raising awareness about suicide.

Prevention message

Sharing her own story of why she rather would have died as a teenager, Grayson now talks to high school students, teachers, guidance counselors, hospital workers, parents - anyone with access to children who is willing to hear her message.

"I always stress you have to listen to them; there's something going on in that child's life to make them feel the way they do," says Grayson, who is routinely approached by teens with similar stories after she speaks.

While she gives talks around New York City, she prefers to work in communities that are low-income and predominantly African-American, in part, because of a dramatic increase in the suicide rate among young black males. For 10- to 14-year-old black males, the suicide rate has more than tripled in the past 15 years.

But she also chooses these communities because many people there have lives that are as difficult as her own.

Grayson was the daughter of a heroin addict. When she was still an infant, she was removed from her mother's care and adopted by a woman who, she says, was an abusive alcoholic.

By age 5, she began sticking herself with safety pins, Grayson says. At 14, she attempted to kill herself. It was the first of many attempts.

Paying attention

"I see a lot of teenagers with just so much anger, and they don't know how to deal with it," Grayson contends. "They say they're going to kill themselves and people dismiss it, saying they're just trying to get attention. Well, of course they are. Sometimes that's the only way they know how to get it."

Grayson often speaks to school children along with David Conroy, SPR's executive director.

He stresses the importance of learning the signs that potentially could lead to suicide, from overt talk about ending life to sudden withdrawal from normal activities.

"Part of it is breaking the taboo, the stigma that says if you're suicidal don't do anything about it: People will think you're crazy or just dismiss you," says Mr. Conroy.

"The key thing," he says, "is to let those kids know they can get help."

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