"I lost a friend to suicide when I was in high school and later decided to pursue a psychology major," she said. "I also had trouble transitioning from middle to high school, and got hit pretty hard with depression for the first time. I also started to question my sexuality. I didn't handle any of that well either, and started self-injuring. This went on for years."
Later, as an undergraduate, Stage tried studying suicide and self-injury but was steered away from those pursuits by professors who told her to wait until graduate school. But one professor encouraged her not to give up, prompting her to apply to a Ph.D. program.
Dese'Rae L. Stage
Six months after she graduated, Stage tried to kill herself. After an evening in the hospital, she promised herself she would stop self-harming and leave town.
With a great support system in place, she moved to New York City, and began working for a major record label, photographing rock stars. Eventually, she decided the job wasn't as fulfilling as she'd like it to be, so she moved on to pursue her interest in learning about suicide attempt survivors like herself.
She told A+ she felt there were not enough resources dedicated to creating a space for survivors to speak out.
"We [suicide attempt survivors] had no names, no faces, no quirks, no hobbies — nothing to grab onto and identify with."
Stage understood the reasons for the apparent silence, however. She understood the shame and how it could weigh heavily on someone. And she wanted to change that.
So she started the Live Through This project in 2010, and has since interviewed 112 attempt survivors across 12 U.S. cities.
Her intended takeaway is simple: No one is alone when they're going through hard times, and being genuinely empathetic with each other could save lives.
When people see or hear about suicide or mental health-related issues, they tend to turn away. But Stage is asking people to pause.
Look into the eyes of this person who has lived through things that have made them want to die. Look at them and really see them. See that they could be any of us, and that they blow our stereotypes about what suicidal people look like right out of the water.
There are many powerful stories from suicide attempt survivors on the Live Through This website. Here are just a few:
"I just kept everything inside. I never let anything out. I never want to talk about anything. I just live through it. I went through it like nothing was happening to me." — Abel Ibarra
"Everyone has issues, but some people's issues are far more severe than others, and I was one of those people whose issues tended to be a bit more severe, and I had to have the patience to find, and work with, a doctor toward getting diagnosed." — Dustin Hill
"It was when I interviewed Dustin Hill in Raleigh in August 2013 that I realized that I’d been looking for my pack," Stage said.
Stage explained she knew she wanted to help people, but after speaking with Hill, she realized she was looking for a community. And since her photography had already begun creating this community, all she had to do was connect everyone together. And so she did.
"Beacon is with Alameda County. He's my emotional support dog... He does get to come in with his vest because no one questions me. He comes most places so he comes to the supermarket, he comes to the bank... It's really changed everything for me to just have him there." — Jaime Neidermeier
"[Suicide is] not an option at all. I got way too much to live for. We all have a lot to live for. We got family, we got friends. Even if we're not close to our family, we got people around us that it will impact somehow and, yeah, it can't be an option. It just can't be. There's too much riding on it. You just have to hope and just keep on fighting." — Rene Severin
"I think people need to be talking about suicide a lot. I mean, I never told anybody. I didn't feel I had a friend. I never told anybody in high school how I felt." — Kristina Yates
"They say time heals all wounds... I still have those thoughts every day. Every once in a while I'll think about it and go, 'Why am I here? What's keeping me tethered to this right here?'" — Dominick Quagliata
"I have a life I'm proud of. It's crazy to me, 'cause I never thought I could reach this point. Putting in the time and the effort and the thought every day just changed my life. I'm now on the path to exactly what I want to do. I realize I wasted most of my life being miserable and now I just want to live the rest of it out taking advantage of it, 'cause it really is a gift. Being here... it's, like, a one in a forty million chance that you were born." — Grace Kim
"All of these people are my heroes," Stage said.
"I've never met anyone braver than they are. They each took an experience we, as a society, look at as shameful and weak, and they've told it honestly (to a stranger!)." Stage continued, "And they've attached their names and faces to it, all in the hopes of being able to help someone else. That's pretty incredible."
Stage told A+ that creating this project and watching it grow has been extremely rewarding. "Their stories are in the world now, and bolstered by the power of the Internet," she said. "Anyone can find them at any time. People in moments of dire need, people who don't understand and want to, mental health practitioners."
"They’re each a beacon of hope, and they’re each a teacher."
Stage said it's unclear what this project will lead to in five or more years. But she truly believes it will be her life's work. She's working on producing a podcast and thinking about writing a book, too.
In the meantime, she speaks at universities across the nation, teaching people about storytelling, crisis intervention skills, and ways to utilize social media in order to prevent suicide.
"It’s [the project] helped me in so, so many ways, but more than anything, it’s taught me that I am never, ever alone."