Banishing the Stigma of Suicide: Jennifer Niven on Learning from Tragedy

Popular non-fiction and memoirist Jennifer Niven is making her first foray into YA this week with the heart-wrenching All the Bright Places, which deals with teen suicide. We asked Jennifer why this book was so important for her to write. Here’s what she had to say.

I wrote All the Bright Places the summer of 2013, following the death of my beloved literary agent of fifteen years.  The last time I saw him, I was nearing the end of a series of books I’d begun writing in 2008 and was feeling depleted and ready—creatively— for something new and different.  He told me, “Kid, whatever you write next, write it with all your heart.  Write it no matter what.  Write it because you can’t imagine writing anything else.”  

Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and later I lost him. The experience was life changing. I’d always wanted to write about it—I just wasn’t convinced I would ever be able to. First, it was deeply, tragically personal. Second, there was what I call the shame factor. Not my shame, but other people’s. One thing I learned firsthand: losing someone to suicide is different from losing someone to cancer or a car accident or a stroke—or any other “acceptable” way to die. There is stigma attached to suicide. I didn’t feel as if I was allowed to grieve for this boy I loved because of how he died. If I was made to feel that way after losing him, imagine how hard it was for him to find help and understanding when he was alive.

That summer of 2013, I thought again about this boy and that experience, and I knew in my heart that it was the story I wanted to write. Suicide is something we need to talk about. Talking is important, talking is necessary—who knows who might be listening. We need to make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most? I want readers to know that help is out there, that it gets better, that high school isn’t forever, and that life is long and vast and full of possibility. I want them to know that they would be missed, that they matter and that there are others in the world who understand their thoughts and feelings and their pain. I want them to realize that suicide is not a solution and that it can’t be undone. It is a permanent “fix” to situations and feelings for which there are help.

Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places is out now, online and in stores. For more YA reads, visit our Everything YA page. 

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