Funding Optimization Project

Creating Space for Women Living with Suicidal Thoughts

Researcher:  Dr. Petrea Taylor

Affiliation:  UNB (Moncton site)


Dr. Petrea Taylor, an Associate Professor in UNB’s Faculty of Nursing, Moncton site, has made it her career mission to help people with suicidal thoughts. A former nurse, she brings what she calls a “social justice lens” to this work, focusing on the experience of women.

In a research study funded by a Bridge Grant from ResearchNB, Dr. Taylor and a team of other UNB researchers interviewed 32 Canadian women (24 New Brunswickers) living with suicidal thoughts to hear their experiences.

They found that women create psychological spaces where they can feel OK, safe to work through their problems. In a world that refuses to accept suicidal thoughts as “normal,” they are finding ways to authentically be themselves.


The challenge of systemic bias

Women living with ongoing suicidal thoughts face what Dr. Taylor calls “structural barriers” to actively looking out for, or “promoting,” their own well-being.

Influenced by gender bias, many people—including  health care practitioners—dismiss emotional behaviour in women as attention-seeking . Additionally, suicidal thoughts often stem from experiences of trauma and violence. When health care providers don’t understand the root causes, women living with suicidal thoughts  are labelled as “difficult patients.” That label affects their ability to access care and to receive quality care.


Creating Space for Women Living with Suicidal Thoughts

Researcher: Dr. Petrea Taylor
Affiliation: UNB (Moncton site)

Taking a harm reduction approach

Given such barriers to their health, what do women living with suicidal thoughts do to stay as well as they can?

Dr. Taylor says her research takes “kind of a harm reduction approach.” Rather than judging coping mechanisms, it views different ways of dealing with life’s difficulties on a continuum.

Current psychiatric practice labels certain coping behaviours, such as self-harm, as “maladaptive” and uses coercive methods to prevent them. But Dr. Taylor says it’s unfair to judge how someone deals with life.

She makes her point through an analogy: “If we were in a tornado and you ran for cover, that’s not being maladaptive. That’s not hiding away. That’s just surviving a crisis.”

How women promote their health

As the research participants shared their experiences, a common theme emerged. They talked about not being able to be just themselves, a person with suicidal thoughts, because they didn’t have safe places to go and safe people to talk with. Instead, they felt confronted and pressured by expectations to be happy and productive.

Dr. Taylor has coined a new term for what happens when women with suicidal thoughts feel they don’t have space to be themselves: “compression.”

Women deal with compression by making choices about how they manage their emotional pain and how they engage with others. They also manage it by creating “units of meaning” for themselves. For instance, a woman struggling to get through her daily responsibilities, may tell herself, “I can survive for the next 24 hours,” or she might structure her life around her identity as the “family-helper.”

Dr. Taylor plans to work with the Canadian Mental Health Association on translating her research into practical approaches for healthcare workers to use.