When assistant professor of social work Jonathan Singer was in high school, he appeared in his school's production of Ordinary People, a story about a Midwestern family dealing with the death of one son, and the attempted suicide of another.
After each rehearsal and show, a social worker visited the students to talk about youth suicide — how to identify troubling behavior, who to talk to, how to get help. Singer says this is where the seeds of his academic career were sewn. He dedicated his studies — and later his career — to learning how to best work with suicidal youth and their families.
His love of the arts and drive to help youth and families in crises coincided earlier this year, when he began working with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program on a website that he hopes will be a virtual support community for people who have been affected by suicide.
As part of the Finding the Light Within project, sponsored by the Mural Arts Program, the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the site will allow people who have lost someone to suicide, or people who have supported someone through a suicidal crisis, to tell their stories. The site complements a mural designed and currently being constructed in West Philadelphia by local artist James Burns, with the goal of raising the awareness and visibility of a sensitive issue for many people.
For three months, Singer and Burns, along with Temple's Department of Computer Sciences, worked to decide what the site should include, and how it should look. Singer says his role is co-creator and designer, and he also moderates the stories that users post to the site.
Many stories have already been posted, most anonymously. Some are heartbreaking accounts: in one story, a woman describes finding her husband after his death; in another, the writer describes feelings surrounding an uncle's death. Others are informative: as someone who attempted suicide, one writer offers a glimpse into what drives someone to make such a decision.
Research has shown that sharing these types of thoughts with people experiencing similar situations can be helpful in the healing process and can help mitigate feelings of loneliness. The site also offers resources for people seeking help.
"The hope is that these stories will provide relief and support for those who have been through it and a sense of mutual aid for those who might be going through it now," said Singer.
In order to find out if that is true, Singer has developed a survey that people who contribute stories to the site can complete anonymously.
“No one has ever created a website like this,” he said. “We’re taking this opportunity to do some fundamental research on the perceived benefits of sharing stories about suicide online.”