Cynthia L. Meeske, LICSW, CRMT
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just say that word to yourself a couple of times. Suicide. Suicide. Now notice the feelings that come over you when you read, hear, or say it. Notice how it feels in your body. Notice the thoughts that come into your mind. Notice your desire to stop reading. I challenge you to stay tuned. Sit with that discomfort and think about what it means.
We as a society are very uncomfortable talking about suicide. We are afraid to ask others if they’re thinking about it. We are afraid to talk about suicides that occur within our families, friend groups, communities – or we do so only in hushed tones. We don’t know what to say to someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one by suicide. We don’t bring it up. The stigma surrounding suicide is profound.
So what message does that send to someone contemplating taking his or her own life?
If you are wrestling with these feelings and have been made to feel ashamed of them, would you bring them up? Would you ask for help?
Our silence is killing our family, friends, and community members in droves. Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide will not increase their risk of making an attempt. In fact, it decreases the risk, giving voice to their feelings and getting help is a protective measure. If you feel unworthy and isolated, imagine the difference if someone takes the time to show that they care and will even put measures in place in order to try to keep you alive. Imagine if someone sees you drowning and throws you a life preserver instead of pretending they don’t see you and steering their boat in the opposite direction.
Silence also has a profound effect on families who have lost a loved one by suicide.
A client of mine, who lost her brother to suicide years ago. recently reflected on when she first started therapy with me. She recalled that when she told me about her brother that my response was, “I’m so sorry….”
She explained that not many people gave her that response – that most said nothing and some asked intrusive questions about his method of suicide. Even within her own family her brother’s name is rarely spoken. She expresses wanting to remember and honor him the same way anyone would honor a lost loved one. Instead people are fearful to bring him up. This interferes with healing and reinforces the stigma around mental health and suicide. When someone passes away, the appropriate statement to their friends and family is always “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
This year there have been some high-profile suicides in the news. People appear stunned whenever anyone rich or famous takes his or her own life, as if money or fame somehow prevents mental health issues. Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar disorder, Psychosis, Post-traumatic stress…they don’t discriminate. Not on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status.
Are there groups that are at higher risk? Yes.
For example, Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual youth are “almost 5 times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.” (The Trevor Project) Is there any group that is exempt? Absolutely not.
So, I want to point out that just because someone seems like they’ve got a lot going for them (captain of the football team, acceptance to Harvard, etc.), doesn’t mean they are not suffering. I know that makes it harder to notice. We can’t always know. That is why it is so important for us to break our silence in general. If we stop whispering or not bringing it up at all…if we make it a regular topic…if we remove the stigma and set the tone that we care if others are suffering…that we want to help…that we’re not judging…perhaps then we’ll see those suicide rates go down instead of up.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2016 almost 45,000 lives were lost to suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death overall and the 2nd leading cause for people age 10-34. From 1999 to 2016, the rate increased by 28%.
Sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t make the problem go away. It makes it worsen. And it will continue to worsen until we’re ready to look at it. That discomfort you felt the moment you heard the word suicide…imagine the discomfort for the individual contemplating it…or for the parent finding the body of their child. Let’s talk about suicide in our classrooms and at our dinner tables. Let’s stop looking down at our phones and start looking at each other.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text line: Text REASON to 741741
Veterans Crisis line: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project (resources for LGBTQ youth): 1-866-488-7386; www.thetrevorproject.org