September is a month of transitions.Youth go back to school and recent graduates go off to college, the leaves begin to change color as fall arrives.One thing that does not change is that September is also World Suicide Prevention Month.
Most people don’t know about World Suicide Prevention Month (WSPM) because most people don’t talk about suicide.The word alone scares most people and myths and misconceptions about it still exist and keep us from really understanding the tragedy of it.While many have been touched by suicide, it is still largely kept a secret. Just last August, the world lost the beloved Robin Williams to suicide.Arguably the most famous person to take his own life, in the end Robin Williams was no different than anyone else we’ve lost by his or her own hand.No matter what his resources and assets were, his celebrity status or opportunities, the illness in his brain was just like it is for everyone else. He was in unbearable pain that wouldn’t go away. He too was human. It is hard for us to see someone suffer so greatly, and when it comes to suicide, the suffering is immense and often in silence.
It is time we break the silence of suicide and no person in the media industry has attempted to do that more than Larry King. On camera and off, he has asked me some of the most pointed and incisive questions in a way that let me know this is a man who cares deeply.
To help you understand the history of suicide and where we are today, in Larry’s own words: “Let’s go.”
In the Middle Ages those who died by suicide were buried outside of the church graveyards.In some parts of the world when someone died by suicide the family was shunned, often forced to leave their communities, and in some cultures they were stripped of all of their personal belongings and money.In the late 1600s bodies of those who died by suicide were dragged through the streets and in some places it was believed that if you were a woman and you stepped on the grave of someone who died by suicide your child would die by suicide. Thoughts on suicide began to change in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but it remained illegal in most parts of the world.
While things are not quite this way today – by the mid-20th century that suicide was no longer considered a criminal act and in many religions there was a shift toward acceptance that those who died by suicide did so because of an illness rather than a sinful act – just say the word suicide and you induce fear, guilt, stigma, and shame.I can’t tell you how many times in my life someone has said to me that they are completely alone in the world after losing a child, sibling, or their spouse to suicide – that their friends won’t talk to them and they’re left grieving without support.Yet, according to the World Health Organization and the CDC:
- Every year the world loses more than 800,000 people to suicide – that is one person who dies by suicide every 40 seconds.
- In the U.S., 112 people every day take their own lives, and there is a suicide attempt every 31 seconds.
- In the U.S. in 2013, we lost 41,149 Americans.That is more people who died at their own hand than by car accidents or DWIs, and it is more than twice the number of homicides in this country.
- In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. It is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 years in some countries, and the second leading cause of death in the 10-24 years age group in the U.S.These figures do not include suicide attempts, which are up to 20-25 times more frequent than completed suicide.
- Every suicide leaves families, friends, co-workers and communities stunned, shaken and afraid. Millions of Americans are affected by suicide and that number is growing.
Research across the world has shown that 90% of the people who died by suicide had a psychiatric illness at the time of their death, much of which goes undiagnosed, under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed by a terribly under-trained professional.Just like any other organ in the body, the brain can get sick too and when it does it can make a person do things, say things, feel things, and act in ways he or she wouldn’t normally. People who are suicidal live in constant, unrelenting agony.They see no hope, no future, no way out. They are in crisis and their brain sees suicide as a way to end the pain.
Is suicide the result of a moral deficiency, a character flaw or personal weakness?Absolutely not.As a matter of fact, Joan Rivers and Larry King both said “suicide is gutsy.” And I agree.As humans we are hard-wired to survive.We have a built-in fight or flight survival mechanism, so to think that the brain could lead someone to take his or her own life tells us that it actually takes a lot of courage to get a person to the point of suicide.This alone should help you understand how far off the brain of someone who is suicidal must be.
Here’s the good news: While you cannot prevent someone from getting or having a brain illness (what we commonly think of as a mental illness), you can be part of the suicide prevention solution. Recognizing the risk factors, like having a mental illness, a history of prior suicide attempts, or many external stressors combined with a chemical imbalance in the brain helps identify those who might need more attention from you. Knowing that suicide can affect your friend, your partner, a parent – even a stranger – is invaluable information.It’s important to look for signs someone is struggling.
Suicide prevention does not just happen in a doctor’s office or in a state capital.Suicide prevention happens between people.Research has shown that connectedness is a vital piece in those we lose to suicide and how we help those at risk. Social media can be used to help others and you can be part of that by posting positive, helpful, and encouraging messages: Offering support by reminding someone that you are thinking of them, posting a fun memory that you have or something you learned from them helps brighten their day.You can also use social media for to look for signs that someone is in trouble.When reading their posts, think about these things:
- Are they getting increasingly angry, violent or threatening in nature?
- Are words they are using more depressed or anxious sounding?
- Do they talk about feeling “hopeless, helpless, filled with despair or purposeless in life”?
- Is your friend not posting or responding to posts as frequently or quickly as they had in the past?
- Does everything they post or respond to seem to have a negative tone to it?
- Do they stop mentioning anything about the future, ceasing to mention hopes, dreams, goals, aspirations or things they are looking forward to (graduation, a job, getting married, kid’s birthday, etc.)?
Suicide is a serious issue that should never be joked about or minimized.Many parents think their 14- or 15-year-old is going through “normal adolescence” or their recent high school graduate just off to college is exaggerating their distress and they expect they will get through it.In fact, research has shown that nearly 50% of college students feel so overwhelmed, anxious and depressed that they can’t function.Statistics tell us that there are about 650 suicide attempts on college campuses across the country EVERY DAY.
Elizabeth Gini, Sawyer Sweeten’s mom, told Larry King that while at first her son denied being suicidal, “concern became alarm” when he actually said that he was thinking about it.
That is why I tell parents, friends, and even professionals: when your gut tells you something is not right, trust it and act now. I encourage you to log on to www.Take5ToSAVELives.org and take five minutes to learn the warning signs, join the movement and get others involved in breaking the stigma of suicide.
If you fear someone you know may be suicidal:
- Ask them directly if they have or are thinking about suicide.Research has shown that asking them about this will not put a thought into their heads or make them want to attempt or anything like that.Actually, it helps them feel like someone understands.
- Stay with them; don’t leave them alone.Call someone to help you or go with them for help.Leaving someone alone who just told you about their feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of ending their life could put them at higher risk.
- Remain calm and engage them in a conversation.Offer hope, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Tell them that there are effective treatments and that they can get better.
- Remove or reduce access to lethal means of suicide (firearms, medications, alcohol, keys to the car, etc.).Do what you can to keep your friend or loved one safe until help arrives or you can get to a healthcare professional.
I have lost family, friends, and patients to suicide.It is something that I carry with me every day and in all of my work.Rarely does a day go by in my life that I am not talking to someone who is suicidal and needs help or who has lost a loved one to suicide.I hear the worry in the voices of parents about the child who won’t come out of his room and the spouses afraid they are going to lose the love of their life.I listen to the deep, painful sorrow felt by families and friends who lost someone and the never-ending “why?” that plagues them.“Why didn’t they just call me?Why did I have to say that?How come they couldn’t have reached out?”
Despite all that we have learned about the risk factors, protective factors, warning signs and what to do when someone is suicidal, we have a long way to go in better understanding and preventing suicide.This field is underfunded by the government, rarely recognized by the private foundations, and terribly unsupported by the public.People still believe that suicide is done to hurt someone, it is an easy way out and that those who do take their own lives were going to no matter what we did for them.This is wrong on all accounts.We need greater investment in research, development of new and innovative treatment programs, and more people to help those left behind.Over the last 60 years – despite several recorded recessions, wars,and advancements in medications – suicide rates have remained relatively stable, but every year for the last decade they have gone up.Much more needs to be done.
As we close out another Suicide Prevention Month, let’s challenge ourselves to do something about this.Reach out to someone you are worried about with a message of hope.Reach out to someone who lost a loved one to suicide and let them know you remember them today.Reach out to a local counseling center and offer your time to volunteer.Reach out to those in your social networks and communities and get them involved in suicide prevention.Please, be a lifeline to someone today.Let them know you’re concerned about them and let them know help is available and that they can live through this.As I’ve said many times before:
“Now is the time.This is the place.You are the one to make a difference.”
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.