Let’s Destigmatize Thoughts of Suicide

“I love you and the kids, but I need to die…,” are the words I spoke to my husband one day in January of 2004. He hugged me, loaded the family into the car, and drove to our local hospital, where a nurse handed me half a tablet of Ativan and, when it had little effect, the other half. And so went my short but scary journey into weeks of (drug side-effect induced) suicidal thoughts and a bout of depression that lasted six long months. So, when I learn that someone has committed suicide, I don’t wonder, “How could they?” but instead think, “I get that.”

chrome-legacy-window-1062016-112632-amchrome-legacy-window-1062016-112800-amThe American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says “Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.” Although, “In 2014, the highest suicide rate (19.3) was among people 85 years or older,” and, “Younger groups have had consistently lower suicide rates than middle-aged and older adults,” “In 2014, adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 had a suicide rate of 11.6.”

The Jason Foundation‘s site states, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED,” and “Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.” Common myths: “People who talk about suicide won’t really do it,” “If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop him/her,” “Talking about suicide may give someone the idea,” and “People who attempt suicide and do not complete suicide are just trying to get attention and are not really serious.”

When someone is the victim of suicide, people want to know why. And while those close to the victim second-guess themselves, wondering if they somehow missed a sign that could have prevented it, others want to know so that they can use mental gymnastics to distance themselves from the possibility of it happening to their own family. “He had (fill in the blank) going on, mine does not; therefore, that could not happen to us.” The recent case of an Anacortes High School student’s suicide shows anyone who knows this family, that it could happen to any of us.

Three years ago this month, a freshman at Oak Harbor High School was the victim of suicide. His house was less than half a mile from ours. We knew him, though not well. I don’t know why he died, but I will tell you this about him: he had a wonderful smile. Days later, I ran into a neighbor who lived a stone’s throw from him. Unsolicited, her mouth opened and words came out that had no business leaving it, things that I did not want to know, that she had no right to share. I tried to politely walk away, her words could not be unheard. Finally, she got to what I think she really wanted to say: one of her adult children had committed suicide. I’d said hello to her dozens of times, occasionally conversed, but never knew. I regret running into her that day but feel compassion for the loss she shared because of it. I sent the young man’s family a note, crying as I wrote it, avoided driving by his home, a place graced by sadness.

islandskagit-bmpThis summer, the Oak Harbor Library ran a special series about teen suicide, hoping to inform parents about it to better prepare them to deal with the subject. Results from the 2014 Island County Healthy Youth Survey showed that 23% of 10th and 12th graders who completed it, “seriously considered committing suicide” in the last year (about three-fourths of the student population participated). In Skagit County, 21% of 10th graders and 16% of 12th graders did so. The Statewide Healthy Youth Survey Results were similar, “20 percent of Grade 10 students, and 18 percent of Grade 12 students” considered same. Extrapolating the average of the data for 10th and 12th graders to the local schools would mean that about 23% of OHHS’s 1,600, or 368 students and about 19.5% of AHS’s 800, or 156 students have thought these thoughts. Because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, thinking these thoughts and feelings tends to be a solitary endeavor, even though having them is common. The World Health Organization reports, “Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year and there are many more who attempt suicide…[suicide] was the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally in 2012.” These are staggering statistics.world-bmpI choose to believe something a friend once told me, that just as the sun is always there behind the clouds, ready to shine through when they clear, good mental health is always in our heads, ready to shine through when the thoughts that sometimes get in the way clear. I have not contemplated suicide or had depression in over 12 years, but I haven’t forgotten how it felt to get up in the morning disappointed that I was alive. And I still struggle regularly to let go of the thoughts that negatively affect my own mental health. I wish that we could unstigmatize thoughts of suicide, depression and other mental health issues so that those experiencing them would feel less isolated and more likely to get the help they need to clear the clouds and allow the sun to shine.

As parents of teens, we shouldn’t think, “Why my kid?” when it comes to suicide, but instead, “Why not mine?” What is the solution to this problem? I don’t know. But I do know that teenagers needn’t be obviously depressed, lying in bed, refusing to get up and face the world, covered head to toe in black clothes, self-harming, or sharing feelings of hopelessness and despair to be depressed or contemplating suicide. I wonder if we parents all might open a line of communication with our kids and keep it that way, let them know that we will love them whatever they say, and facilitate access to tools and resources that could improve mental health. I don’t know why she died, but if the death of this beautiful, bright, compassionate, well-loved, well-supported young woman teaches you nothing else, let it teach you this: suicide can happen to any family.

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