Finding Light in the Darkness
Dan Reidenberg believes talking about suicide can encourage individuals to seek help.
"I live by hope,” says Dan Reidenberg (B.A. ’89), CEO and executive director of the Bloomington-based Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (save.org), a nonprofit serving those affected by suicide.
As a psychology major at the U of M in the ’80s, Reidenberg remembers watching a lifelong friend walk off toward Northrop Auditorium one afternoon as Reidenberg walked toward Coffman Memorial Union. “Something’s not right,” the sophomore thought. Days later, the friend took his own life.
Two years later, Reidenberg was volunteering with a crisis hotline near the U of M campus; on his very first call the caller died by suicide. The hotline had provided training for its volunteer staff, but, at the time, offered no debriefing or trauma counseling, so young Reidenberg just slumped into his chair in shock.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and rates climbed by 2.6 percent between 2021 and 2022.
Given contemporary financial, political, environmental, and social instability—including Covid—“these things take a toll on the psyche,” Reidenberg explains. “Our world is looking for heroes right now.”
Hope often comes from helping others. After graduating from the University, Reidenberg earned a doctorate from the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology. He threw himself into the mysteries that separate those who make it through difficulties and those who succumb to dark nights (or days) of the soul. In turn, he has passed that hope on to countess others.
At SAVE for 19 years and as managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention, Reidenberg is in demand worldwide. He helped develop an AI-based app to fight suicide that the World Health Organization recommends in its Live Life guide. He’s presented to more than 350,000 people worldwide and wrote the U.S. Best Practices for Media Reporting on Suicide, as well as a similar guide on mass shootings. He regularly leads social media and technology summits and serves on the advisory boards of several academic journals. Reidenberg and SAVE have won awards for their work, including for teen suicide prevention and workplace prevention.
Reidenberg gets teary phone calls. Attends funerals. Hears stories, answers messages, and meets about statistics. Some of the stories are happy, some of the messages are uplifting and grateful, and some of the stats offer hope. But still, his work can take a toll.
Typical escapes, such as movies, TV, and even vacations, don’t help; the transition back into the world of real crises and pain is too much. So Reidenberg spends healing time with the love of his family and golden retriever, and has set firm boundaries between his clinical and private life, going back to that first phone call:
“What was going on for the person I was working with that night wasn’t mine. It wasn’t mine at all,” he says.
Around the year 2000, the federal government asked two dozen experts on suicidology to speculate on the biggest changes that could come to the field. Nearly everyone imagined a new medicine or treatment. Reidenberg alone proposed working with Hollywood and the media to relieve stigma and expand Americans’ understanding of suicide.
His hope and predictions are slowly coming true. “The stigma is changing,” an August 2023 Washington Post feature quoted him as saying: “It’s less than it used to be, and that’s increasing people’s willingness to include [suicide] in an obituary.”
Last fall, a Young and the Restless soap opera storyline had a pivotal character develop depression, nearly end her life, and slowly rebuild her mental health. Reidenberg worked with the show creators and writers, then coached the actors on appropriate moves and emotions.
“When TV shows like The Young and the Restless give accurate and respectful portrayals of suicide, this can encourage people with suicidal thoughts to seek help, as well as change the way viewers think and talk about suicide,” Everyday Health wrote about the show in November.
“If someone is hurting,” Reidenberg says, “even sitting quietly and listening to them for 10 minutes could save their life.
“Compassion is one of the greatest gifts you can give to somebody. You don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to fix their problem—just be with them in their pain. That could save their life.”
Ellen Ryan is a freelance writer in Rockville, Maryland.
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