Someone takes their life.
Story by Michelle Rusk
Suicide has no boundaries. Sure, some people are more susceptible, but it cuts across all groups, leaving an aftermath like a psychological hurricane. Stigma — and the complication of finding ways to help — have made it challenging to combat the rising number of suicide deaths.
I was reminded of how quickly a sunny day can turn dark as I relaxed recently with a magazine in my backyard. I received a message from a longtime friend that her brother had died by suicide. Life once again was disrupted by the news of yet another person ending his life.
“The recent Centers for Disease Control report documents that slightly under half of people who die by suicide had a mental health problem.”
She reached out to me because I’d been there. Twenty-five years earlier, my younger sister, Denise, ended her life just three weeks before her 18th birthday. I was 21 at the time, in the thick of working on a journalism degree and looking forward to the writing career I had wanted since I was 6 years old.
Instead, I found myself spending the remainder of my undergraduate college years repeatedly asking, “Why?” I didn’t understand why my sister ended her life, especially when she was about to head off to college, a time when, I believed, the world becomes one’s oyster. But she was plagued with depression, bulimia and a date rape I didn’t know about until after she died.
I was left to pick up the pieces and find my way forward again without the girl with whom I shared a room for 10 years — the girl who knew more about me than anyone else. After taking several years to adjust to life without her, the road in front of me began to clear and, among other things, I found myself writing books on coping with suicide. I also was elected president of the American Association of Suicidology.
For my friend, part of my sadness came because I knew she was now on a road I’d faced years ago. I have traveled to many corners of the world, including Australia’s South Pacific beaches, New Mexico’s Indian reservations and the pueblos where I now live, and done extensive media interviews worldwide to teach people about suicide and its aftermath. But I know the facts are grim: suicide rates continue to climb.
According to the American Association of Suicide, in the United States in 2016, the most recent year data is available, 44,965 people died by suicide. Of these, 34,727 were men and 16,196 were middle-aged (45 to 64 years old). That’s an average of one person every 11.7 minutes, compared to data from 2011 that shows 39,518 people died by suicide — one about every 13.3 minutes.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 800,000 people die by suicide a year; roughly someone every 40 seconds. Globally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds.
As the rates continue to climb in the wrong direction, the answer to “why?” is complicated — because suicide is complicated — and there is no one way to bring a decline to the number of deaths.
“I, like many, am really at a loss regarding why suicide is increasing,” says John McIntosh, professor emeritus of psychology at Indiana University South Bend. “It would be easy to attribute it to politics and pessimism, stress, uncertainty, but the increase has been happening since the late 1990s, so it is not just immediate time related. There are likely generational group issues, economic, social and other factors that are at play that provide a complex, multi-determined picture.”
Peter Gutierrez, professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, believes the change needs to come from focusing on it as a public health problem rather than a mental health problem.
“The recent (Centers for Disease Control) report documents that slightly under half of people who die by suicide had a mental health problem,” he says. “So I think we need to be focusing our attention on both public health interventions which seek to identify and address the precursors to suicide risk at a population level (e.g., income inequality, lack of social connection) to prevent people from reaching the point where suicide is a serious concern in the first place.”
“Everyone can do small things every day to increase a sense of connection with others.”
There have been numerous high-profile suicide deaths in the news in past years. Facts show that suicide rates are high among veterans. And it’s heart-wrenching to hear when a young person dies by suicide because of bullying. Because of this, more people are talking about suicide. But more talk doesn’t seem to be doing much for the numbers.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a time when a topic has received more attention,” McIntosh says, “and efforts for prevention, intervention and postvention have been provided and expanded, but rather than going down, the rates and numbers continue to go up.”
However, we can’t lose hope.
Robert Gebbia, the executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, believes the numbers eventually will start to drop because of exposure to the topic.
“There is more awareness, more advocacy and more science,” he says.
It’s also important to understand the myths around suicide. One of those is the common misconception that suicides increase in December during the holidays. The opposite is actually true. According to the CDC, November and December are the months with the fewest suicides.
McIntosh points out that statistics show suicide deaths peak in the spring, not the winter, as most people believe. It’s possible that more people get stressed or even depressed during the winter months and holidays, but that depression doesn’t spike the suicide numbers.
“There are several issues involved with depression and when it occurs — rises or diminishes — that are obviously not as distinct as the time of one’s suicide,” he says. “Other social and even psychological factors can and likely are involved with the seasons as well.”
YOU have a role in this
It’s not just about dispelling myths; learning about suicide is like learning about CPR. People should know the warning signs and what to do if they are worried about someone they care about. The best thing you can do is be direct: Ask the person if he or she is feeling suicidal.
“Everyone can do small things every day to increase a sense of connection with others, like routinely asking people how they are doing and listening to their responses,” says Gutierrez. “When people say they aren’t doing well, are struggling with problems or provide other indicators that something’s wrong, we need to be able to hear that and respond with empathy and concern.”
That means there are many roles that Kiwanis clubs can play to help prevent suicide. While everyone can donate to a suicide-related organization (funds are always needed for prevention, research and support), clubs also can reach out to local suicide prevention organizations and arrange educational events to dispel the myths around suicide, teach people the warning signs and show where to get support if someone is worried about a loved one.
“It is important to tell children the truth about suicide in a way that is age-appropriate, and you can add details as they ask or as they get older.”
“They can help awareness about this topic that used to be taboo,” Gebbia suggests. “They can have groups talk about it, which is very powerful and a way to reduce stigma.”
It’s not just about educating people about how to prevent suicide and where to go for help. It’s also about supporting the survivors — those who have attempted suicide and lived and the bereaved, the people left behind after a suicide — to ensure they don’t become suicide statistics too.
Heidi Bryan, a suicide prevention advocate who once attempted suicide, talks about her own experience, hoping to help others who want to end their lives as she once did.
“I hated myself with every fiber of my being and had been thinking about dying or killing myself for about as long as I could remember,” she says. “It would fluctuate, but it was always in the back of my mind: ‘If things get too bad, I can always kill myself.’ I was disabled from Lyme disease, my marriage hit a rough spot, I was depressed and waiting for the right opportunity to kill myself.”
When her older brother killed himself, she was stung that suicide no longer was an option for her. She had to make life work. Today she credits her husband and her dogs for helping her move past stressful situations. Bryan also works hard to stay emotionally and physically healthy.
“I take the attitude of my chronic suicidality as being a chronic illness, so I try to maintain my health,” she says.
Most of the bereaved never find the answers they seek. There’s a journey in looking for answers while grieving the loss of a loved one and reconciling the life one lived with how that life ended. Often they need to tell the story over and over again until they realize the answer they seek probably will never emerge. A mark forward in one’s grief journey is separating the end of the life from the life one lived.
After a suicide, working with children — who often in the past were not told of a loved one’s suicide because of the fear they either would not understand or might end their lives too — has its own set of guidelines.
“It is important to tell children the truth about suicide in a way that is age-appropriate, and you can add details as they ask or as they get older,” says Julie Cerel, president of the American Association of Suicidology and professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work.
While there are many ways to help prevent suicide and support attempters, their loved ones and the bereaved, the late Edwin Shneidman, who founded the field of suicidology, said it comes down to two questions: “Where do you hurt, and how can I help?”
That’s something all of us can practice daily.
Warning signs of suicide
- Threatening to or talking about hurting or killing oneself
- Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills or other means
- Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
- Increased substance (alcohol or drug) use
- Expressing a lack of reason to live or sense of purpose
- Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all of the time
- Expressions of hopelessness or feeling trapped
- Withdrawal from friends, family and society
- Rage, uncontrolled anger, desire for revenge
- Impulsively engaging in reckless or risky behaviors
- Dramatic mood changes
- If observed, seek help as soon as possible by contacting a mental health professional or calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a referral. (In Canada, visit suicideprevention.ca/need-help for contact information.)
Source: American Association of Suicidology
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers a variety of training opportunities related to suicide. While some are specific to mental health, a basic introduction to suicide prevention workshop is also offered. Find out more at afsp.org.
Michelle L. Rusk, formerly Michelle Linn-Gust, is a writer whose first book, “Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Sibling,” launched an international career of writing and speaking following her younger sister’s death by suicide. Today she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, focusing on writing fiction and her lifestyle brand, Chelle Summer, choosing to inspire people through a life of creativity. Read more about Michelle at chellesummer.com.
This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.