As two more celebrities died by suicide last week, a much-needed conversation is gaining ground. Perhaps it’s the latest iteration of the #MeToo movement but, instead of sexual assault, it’s suicidal ideation that is being talked about.
I have been moved at the brave stories of dark days that are being shared. Some of my friends have been incredibly open about the feelings of worthlessness and pain, of knowing that the world, even their families, would be better off without them, and then with the shame of having been to that dark place. Their vulnerability and willingness to share will help all of us do more to help those who are suffering.
And we do need to do more.
Disturbing numbers from the Center for Disease Control show that suicide is now a leading cause of death nationwide. Suicide rates have increased in nearly every state since 1999; in Utah, the race increased a whopping 45.5 percent.
Here’s the number that really surprised me: More than half (54 percent) of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition. A recent New York Times article points out that nearly 80 perent of people who die by suicide explicitly deny suicidal thoughts or intentions just before killing themselves. Suicide can be a snap decision and it can come quickly, or after long periods of struggle.
Certainly, there can be warning signs. Postpartum mood disorders (which can last for several years), relationship problems, a current crisis, substance abuse, traumatic brain injuries and financial stressors can all be associated with suicide.
Suicide is devastating for those left behind. In a gut-wrenching article in the Washington Post, Roxanne Roberts writes of the aftermath of her father’s death by suicide.
“These are the legacies of suicide: guilt, anger, doubt, blame, fear, rejection, abandonment and profound grieving. Most people don’t want to talk about it, don’t even want to think about it. It is too raw and confusing.”
Blame is often aimed at the survivors. “Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you stop him?” or even the horrific “What did you do to drive her to suicide?” Imagine being a young child no more than 7 years old whose father locked you in a room, then hanged himself in front of you. The first comment your aunt makes after you finally break out of the room and run for help is “Why didn’t you stop him?” Two decades later, one of my sons adopted from Ethiopia still feels the effects of that traumatic day.
There are statewide efforts underway. Rep. Steve Eliason has been working on tackling the problem of youth suicide for several years. Along with help and support from public advocate Laura Warburton, whose daughter completed suicide in 2014, Eliason ran HB41, Mental Health Crisis Line Amendments, or “Hannah’s Bill” to make sure no call for help goes unanswered.
Additionally, Eliason is working on an education campaign — “Is your safety on?” — to encourage gun owners to keep firearms properly secured. Suicide is often an impulsive action and often with a firearm if one is readily available. He and others are also strong advocates for Utah’s Hope Squads and the SafeUT app.
Solutions to a frightening trend will involve many parties — employers, health care providers, schools, communities, lawmakers and the media. But the most important way to help is for you to reach out when someone is struggling. Don’t wait for them to ask you for help — they probably won’t.
Talk to a loved one, a neighbor or a friend who is going through a hard time. Check in with a new mother not just the first week or two but even months later. Be assertively present for those who are grieving. Ask if they are considering suicide and listen to their answers. Be there for them. Help them connect with additional support and help them develop a safety plan. Follow up when you say you will — or more often than that.
Connectedness and follow-up are shown to reduce the number of deaths by suicide. It just makes sense. People need to feel like they belong and that they matter.
We’re all in this together. Let’s share the load. It might just save a life.
Holly Richardson’s life has been touched by the suicides of loved ones.