'I have a future': Woman opens up about surviving suicide to offer hope

Emily Burke remains candid about her mental health challenges to help others who also struggle. She hopes her story offers hope and reduces stigma.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

In August, Emily Burke honored a milestone on social media. But Burke’s anniversary was different than one commemorating a relationship or reaching a work goal — it marked a year since her suicide attempt. She shared her experience to give others hope and raise awareness about suicide.

“I have been going back and forth over whether I should post this, but here it is. Today is 1 year since my last and most serious suicide attempt. I am thankful to the stranger, police and paramedics that saved my life that night. Because of you I have a future,” the 19-year-old university student from Hertfordshire, England, shared on Twitter

Burke grappled with her mental health for much of her life. She had undiagnosed autism and then experienced the “traumatic loss” of her grandfather when she was 13. Soon after, the panic attacks started, occurring as many as three times a day. This kept her from going to school and sometimes she ran away, resulting in police searches. She started self-harming and developed obsessive compulsive disorder, which at first felt like it gave her some power.

“Soon this got out of control, too,” she told TODAY via email. “I attempted suicide for the first time when I had just turned 16 and I was admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit for three months."

Over the next two years, Burke spent time between home and a psychiatric hospital because of “self-harm and suicidal ideation,” with her last attempt occurring before going to college. But during this time she started sharing her mental health experiences on Twitter to lessen stigma of mental illness and suicide. She wanted her survival story to encourage others struggling, especially those piecing together their lives after a suicide attempt.

“There is hope of coming out the other side. I also wanted to show others that there is life beyond a suicide attempt,” she said. “A suicide attempt can be deeply traumatic, and for many, it can be hard to move on after, especially because you are living in a future, which you didn’t think would exist.”

Emily Burke didn't plan on becoming a mental health activist. It just happened as she shared more and more of her experiences. She hopes her openness helps others feel comfortable sharing their own stories. Courtesy Emily Burke

She also chronicles her experiences to provide a better understanding of what mental health is and to encourage others not to be afraid of dealing with their mental health or reaching out for help.

“As a society, we are getting better at destigmatizing mental health, but this tends just to be for anxiety and depression,” she said. “We need to destigmatize all mental health conditions, suicide attempts, psychiatric units.”

Yet, she felt unsure about sharing her post at first. Many people still think of suicide attempts as “attention-seeking,” and she worried that such criticisms would be hurtful.

“I thought, me being reluctant to share it for fear of stigmatizing responses is exactly why I needed to share it,” she explained. “I am in the position to share my story ... to combat stigma, especially for those who don’t feel able to share.”

She hopes her experiences highlight the nuances of mental health and encourage others to think of suicide differently.

“Suicide, or contemplating suicide isn’t selfish. Often the individual thinks it is the least selfish option because they may believe they are a pain for others to be around, or cause problems in other people’s lives that wouldn’t be there if they weren’t alive,” she said. “Someone attempting or dying by suicide is a last resort for that person. From my experience, they are in so much pain that carrying on every day seems impossible.”

Emily Burke feels it's "important to not only show the things which are ‘more acceptable’ to talk about, but also the parts of struggling with mental illness which are viewed as less acceptable to talk about, such as suicide."Courtesy Emily Burke

Burke studies mental health nursing in college and has a job in health care. She recently completed training to be an international peer support practitioner. When she’s not studying or working, she rides horses, hangs out with her two dogs, reads, writes and scrapbooks. While Burke feels healthier now, she still struggles sometimes.

“I have good days and bad days, but my life is no longer consumed by the dark thoughts and experiences, which used to suffocate me. I feel joy where depression used to suffocate. I go out with my friends and have fun, which anxiety used to prevent, and I am working toward goals, which my mental health used to tell me was pointless,” Burke said. “Experiencing a mental illness could happen to anyone. It’s time that society stops shunning those with mental illnesses.”