National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number
Kimberly Veith, MSW, LCSW,LCADC
Director of Adult Clinical Services
Many of us are both shocked and saddened to learn that two young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, as well as the father of a young Sandy Hook student died of suicide in recent days. In Parkland, the young woman had been a senior last year and the young man was a current sophomore. Although we don’t know them personally, because parts of their lives are public, we sometimes feel like we know them, or share a connection to them. I too felt sad and wish comfort and peace for their loved ones in the coming days.
After the suicide of someone well known, there is a lot of publicity, some helpful, some not so helpful. For example, the opportunity to share hotline numbers, to discuss symptoms of depression and other behavioral health illness, and to discuss signs someone may be thinking about suicide is helpful. We all live together in community and should be aware of signs of suicide because you never know when the chance to save a life may present. Over the years in my work as therapist people have told me that while contemplating suicide and in their darkest moments, that help came from the most unlikely places; a neighbor, a co-worker, a bingo buddy, and even from the cashier at the grocery store. Many have shared that a kind gesture or the few words of support from an acquaintance saved them. It is a myth that if you ask someone if they are thinking about suicide that you will drive them to it. On the contrary, people who are hesitant to ask for help feel relieved when someone asks them if they are struggling. If you notice that someone around you has been depressed, expressed feeling hopeless, is not sleeping well or eating well, is withdrawing or isolating, having changes in personality, is engaging in potentially harmful/dangerous behavior, giving away prized possessions, ask them if they are OK. Often suicide is something that the person thinks about on and off for a while, and then something specific happens and they make a final decision, at times quite impulsively. I know that it can be hard to reach out; you may feel nervous or reluctant to step in and help, even when there’s a lot of concern. Some people don’t know what to say, think they may make it worse, or won’t know how to help. The truth is, most suicide attempt survivors have said they weren’t looking for problem-solving or specific advice, just a safe, non judgmental ear, and a nudge toward seeking help.
Often, in an effort to understand, we tend to look for reasons or perhaps some factors that may have lent to suicide. For these particular people there was increased risk because they have experienced trauma. We know that those who have experienced trauma are at higher risk of suicide and there is significant research being done to help us understand the correlation. Also, there can be what is called contagion. That occurs when the suicide of one person can contribute to the rise in suicidal behavior in others. This is especially true for young people and an analysis done at Columbia University suggest that up to 5% of youth suicides are influenced by contagion.
I suppose the other factor that we tend to overlook is that sometimes the diagnosis of a behavioral health illness like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and the like, can be the risk factor in and of itself. Research at Columbia University informs us that 90% of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a behavioral health condition. But what we don’t talk about enough is that behavioral health (especially untreated) can be fatal. No different than any other serious chronic medical condition like heart disease, multiple sclerosis, or diabetes that varies in severity, and has different levels of acuity at different times; the same is true for behavioral health illness. That doesn’t mean that every bout of depression is fatal, but it can be. And just like with all other diseases, sometimes the disease is stronger than the treatment. Funny though, when someone dies of complications related to heart disease, MS, or diabetes we tend to remember them as a “fighter” or a “warrior.” When someone dies of suicide, we say, “don’t do that, don’t be like them.” There is still a lot of stigma around behavioral health illness, so the harder we work to fight the stigma, the better access to treatment will become and more resources allocated to research.
The publicity that isn’t helpful involves the talking heads who are busy passing judgment, saying things like “suicide is selfish.” That kind of talk only makes the stigma worse. Honestly, many suicidal people think that they are a tremendous burden and that their death would be a relief. I’ve had moms and dads tell me that they thought for sure their children would be better off without them, without a mom or dad “like me.” I think that if you haven’t experienced the irrational thoughts that come from a crippling level of depression, it’s best you don’t judge or try and make rational sense of it. Actually, we don’t have to understand what people are going through to help them, we just need to be open enough for them to feel safe and reach out before the irrationality overtakes them. And that kind of talk is very hurtful to the family members who survive. Family members and loved ones will have enough of the chaos of their own emotions, the emotions that come naturally for survivors like anger, shame, guilt…they don’t need the added fuel from those who question and make comments about the way in which their loved one died.
The rates of suicide in the United States are growing at an alarming pace. The group most affected is women between the ages of 45 and 60 years old, however, the gap between men and women is rapidly narrowing. My hope is that we all work together to fight stigma, learn the warning signs, and be willing to lend an ear in order to save a life.