Behind Stanley Sessions: Removing the suicide stigma through photos

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Behind Stanley Sessions: Removing the suicide stigma through photos

After her father committed suicide last October, Whitney Saleski didn’t know what to do with herself.

She started taking pictures of her friends and her work at Antioch College in Yellow Springs as a way to connect to her late father, Stanley Saleski, who scouted for the San Francisco Giants before his death just a few weeks before his team won the World Series for the third time.

“I’ve been taking photos on and off for years, and whenever I took a photo, the first person I would send it to was my dad, and he would always have something good to say about them,” she said.

The result has been the Stanley Sessions, a photo project created by Saleski and supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Montgomery County. By taking black-and-white portraits of individuals who have either lost someone to suicide or attempted suicide themselves, Saleski hopes to open the conversation about mental illness and suicide, and remove the stigma that appears frequently once someone reveals that suicide is a part of their lives.

“I thought that if you are able to identify with people, and you see old people, young people of every persuasion, it could help,” Saleski said.

The first Stanley Session had 10 participants, and several stories are already online on the Stanley Sessions’ Facebook page. Once she has about 50 participants, Saleski hopes to put the portraits and their stories into a book that can be found on any coffee shop table, to help someone whose life has been affected by suicide, and show them that they’re not alone.

“For a lot of people, it feels like it’s (suicide) not a normal death,” Saleski said. “A lot of people think, he committed suicide, what did someone do to drive him to do that?”

“That sort of stigma is overwhelming,” she continued. “It is for me, and if I’m lucky enough to have a support system, there’s a lot of people who don’t have anybody.”

An Oakwood native, Saleski graduated from Miami University in 2009 and lived in Washington, D.C. for several years before returning home to be close to her family. An only child, when her father died, she and her mother, Lisa Saleski, were each other’s comforts until they found a support group for people impacted by suicide in Oakwood. Through a member of that group, Saleski connected with Michelle Maloy-Kidder, executive director of NAMI Montgomery County, who instantly supported the photo project.

“I am all about removing the stigma, and the only way to do that is to battle it head-on, talk about it, bring it to people’s attention,” Maloy-Kidder said. NAMI is assisting the Stanley Sessions by providing studio lights, and Maloy-Kidder helps Saleski find participants and go through the process of issuing release forms, shooting the photos, and editing the stories. And though she has been hesitant to share her personal story outside of her close family before now, Saleski’s project encouraged Maloy-Kidder to bring her own attempt at suicide to light.

“I had attempted in ninth grade, and my issues stemmed around sexual abuse,” she said. “Working in the last session that we did a few weeks ago, we had a continual wait for people sitting. And the more I thought about it, the more I said to myself, I’m not better than anyone else; why am I not talking?”

Saleski said that she feels “so grateful” that people have been willing to share their stories with her, and even more, be photographed.

“People understand that honesty is better and being open is better, and that tears down stigma in an important way,” she said. “Taking a picture is exposure; there’s nothing to hide behind.”

Though the pain of losing her father hasn’t lessened, with help from Maloy-Kidder and her mother — “my biggest supporters,” Saleski said — the Stanley Sessions give her motivation to move forward and to give his death meaning.

“Most days, my mom and I are exhausted, but she has her writing and I have this and my job, and we always try to find time to laugh,” she said. “And I know he’d love this, because he loved all of my photos, good or bad.”

For more information on the Stanley Sessions, or to participate, visit their Facebook page or email stanleysessions@nami-mc.org.

About NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides support, education, and advocacy for individuals with mental illness around the country. One out of every four families in America has a member who suffers from a serious mental illness, and two out of every 100 young adults will be affected by serious brain diseases between the ages of 18 and 30, according to NAMI Montgomery County. For more information, visit nami-mc.org.

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