Bringing ‘Stigma People’ into focus

Penn State Health employee’s experience as suicide survivor shapes exhibit

For 30 years, Dan DiFava Jr. wore depression like a lead blanket that at times became too heavy to carry.

“You don’t really want to die, but it’s so heavy, and you just don’t want to carry it anymore,” said the Penn State Health Environmental Health Services employee who has attempted suicide five times. “People don’t understand, so they stay away, and then you feel like no one can even help you.”

DiFava traces his depression to childhood taunts about his small stature—always at least six inches shorter than his peers due to a growth hormone deficiency—and an unstable home life. Low self-esteem and loneliness were his constant companions.

When his last suicide attempt finally led to the medical help and therapy he needed, DiFava found inspiration for living in a surprising place—behind the lens of a camera.

“Photography kind of found me…you might even say it saved my life,” the 35-year-old Lebanon resident said.

Just as budding writers are told to write what they know, DiFava decided to shoot what he knew—suicide and how it looks on the faces of those who have survived it and those who have lost loved ones to its obstinate clutch.

“I met with people, told them my story, and they told me theirs. Everyone’s story is different, but there wasn’t one I didn’t connect to,” said DiFava who scoured the internet for central Pennsylvania residents who shared this common denominator. “In the beginning, it was to help me feel better about all the years I had wasted, but it’s become a lot more. With my camera in hand, I found I loved meeting these people.”

The project energized DiFava and gave him a purpose he never had.

“Stigma People”—a collection of DiFava’s photographs and stories of survivors and those who lost loved ones to suicide is on exhibit this month at the Lebanon County Council on the Arts. DiFava will be on hand for opening night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7 during Lebanon’s First Friday Art Walk.

Read more about DiFava and “Stigma People” in this Penn State Medicine article.

September 5, 2018 Penn State Health News

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