" SHARING AND HEALING "
A Newsletter for Survivors of Suicide Loss
→ Scroll down for Articles In This Issue ←
Coming SOSL Meetings in Albuquerque
1st Monday October 5th, & 3rd Monday October 19th
1st Monday November 2nd, & 3rd Monday November 16th
♦ At : Shepherd of the Vally Presbyterian Church, 1801 Montano Rd NW, Albuquerque ♦
◊ Survivors of Suicide Loss - New Mexico ◊
Is a support group that serves the needs of people suffering the loss of someone they love by suicide.
With two meetings every month, that are free and open to all survivors. SOSL also hosts relevant presentations and discussions throughout Albuquerque and New Mexico.
Survivors of Suicide Loss - NM groups are dedicated to providing information and support to assist in the grieving and healing process. It is a support group of people who help one another through the stages of grief related to suicide.
Self introductions by each person is requested so that all in attendance recognize the common relationship with all others there. Longer term survivors facilitate and help lead the meetings. They present their own perspectives and experiences on the death of the one they lost by suicide. We share feelings of guilt, anger frustration, emptiness, loneliness and disillusionment. For some, it is hard to identify or even to understand their feelings. Through others’ expression of what they are feeling, we begin to have a better awareness of what is going on inside us.
The issues discussed at Survivors of Suicide Loss meetings are usually —grief, mourning, anger, loss, abandonment, guilt, blame, and paths toward recovery and acceptance. The purpose of all our meetings is to openly discuss these feelings and to share our experiences as we live and work with the grieving process.
The mutual sharing with those who have a related loss, offers us perspectives and experiences that are valuable to survivors of suicide loss. These and other key issues can trouble of us. The risk in frankly sharing our unique problems and concerns about such topics is offset by the benefit of learning from those who have experienced the related suicide loss.
SOSL-NM meetings are attended by both recent and long-time survivors, all of whom benefit from the sharing of experiences and approaches to the loss through suicide. In addition to the survivors, the meetings are also frequently attended by mental health professionals who offer their various perspectives on unexpected death, grief and bereavement, guilt, responsibility, and mourning.
More information from Al & Linda at (505) 792-7461
( © by SOSL-NM : Non Profit NM ID #4996053 & FED 501-c-3)
Articles In This Issue :
Pg 1: Grieving Notes - Al V. -- Pg 2: Suicide and It’s Unrelenting Stigma - - Pg 4: "Sin of Suicide" is Losing it’s Grip
Pg 5: Suicide and the Young Physician - - Pg 8: Suicide isn’t Contagious - - Pg 10 : Quote - "Those We Love"
Pg 11: Rules When it Comes to Talking About Suicide -- Pg 12: About SOSL and Meetings
"Grief never ends ...but it changes
It's a passage, not a place to stay.
Grief is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.
It's the price of love !"
- Quote was sent to us by our daughter Melinda White
Yes, you did —you took the risk —and you fell in love.
You knew that the way your happy heart skipped a beat —you had found your soul mate. A true nature of love usually happens when you see the tears in eyes of your spouse —when they tell you that ‘you’ are their world.
And you especially fall in love, on the day your children are born.
You fell in love with your daughter the first time you saw her wrinkled brow and puckered lips. You fell in love the first time you saw your son’s toes —you even counted them.
Right there begins a passage of love that will be intertwined with the life passage of those that you are in love with. Painfully so, in our present grief, we know that our time together could never have been pre-defined. The loss to death, of someone you love will always be much too soon.
We can truly believe that deep love is immortal. Even after the death of that person
that we love, love for them continues on. In fact, I think the love for that person sometimes magnifies itself over time.
At our Survivor of Suicide Loss meetings, we never refer to any loss as being about a person ‘that’ you loved. That love is never ‘past-tense.’ You don’t stop loving them because they died.
We will mourn that loss for the rest of our life.
Our grief is the price of that beautiful and privileged gift ...love.
- In "Sharing and Healing" — Al V.
Suicide and Its Unrelenting Stigma
By Kristinea Cowan - Journaist
Suicide is an earthquake. Sudden, jolting and catastrophic, it ruptures the lives of those it leaves behind. The aftershocks ripple into subsequent generations. We spend years navigating our emotional landscapes, seismically realigned by chasms of guilt, confusion and regret. We build bridges when we share our grief, seek individual or group therapy, and work toward healing and growth.
Maybe the most ominous ravine is the one filled by stigma. It often seems impossible to cross.
Stigma is defined as "a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation." Our society does a good job of saddling suicide with stigma. In an effort to make sense of it, perhaps, we label the person who ended his or her life. He was selfish. She was crazy. They took the easy way out. These sorts of things couldn't happen to us.
Statistics say otherwise. In the United States, someone dies by suicide every 13 minutes, and each death intimately affects at least six others, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Between 1989 and 2013, there were 825,832 suicides, leaving an estimated 4.95 million survivors behind, the AAS says.
Until Jim's death, I assumed suicide was reserved for people afflicted by excessive fame, addictions or crimes.
Our culture drives these assumptions.
Before my brother ended his life, one of the few times suicide came to mind was when I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, in 2008. I was struck by the prominent signs urging suicidal people to seek help. Last year San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors unanimously approved funding for a 20-foot-wide steel net — a so-called suicide barrier.
Author Amy Simpson backs this up in her book,
Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission : Have you ever paid attention to the way people with mental illness are portrayed in popular media? While some works, especially more recent ones, treat mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, most of popular media treats the mentally ill as either frightening or funny or both. Most people don't seem to give it a second thought, but for people whose loved ones suffer from ongoing serious mental illness, such portrayals are hard to ignore.
The last 16 months have revealed flaws in my thinking. I'm bent on raising awareness about suicide and helping others prevent it. A major hurdle I'm seeing is related to stigma. It chases those who've attempted suicide, those who lose loved ones and even psychiatrists who treat suicidal patients.
In a recent conversation with my dad, I was reminded how pervasive stigma is. Jim was from my mom's first marriage, so we have different fathers. My dad was Jim's stepfather, raising him from the age of 4. Their relationship was strained from the start. My dad is the son of Greek immigrants. I never knew my paternal grandparents, but it seems they trained him not to acknowledge his feelings. My dad had a troubled relationship with my grandfather, and he repeated some of it with my brother. Once Jim was an adult, he distanced himself from my dad, but they remained civil.
In the early days after Jim died, my dad presented a stoic front. He's suggested that we shouldn't dwell on his death; we must "move on." I was surprised when he admitted to struggling emotionally, grappling with guilt over not being a better father to Jim. His medical doctor has referred him to a therapist. Yet my dad hasn't acknowledged the source of his angst, afraid of what the M.D. might think. Stigma.
It plagues those mired by suicidal thoughts and attempts, as Kevin Caruso, founder of Suicide.org, explains on the site :
Because of the stigma (the ignorant stigma, mind you) that still exists concerning mental illness, many people who need help do not seek it. Even though there is clear scientific data that indicates irrefutably that a physical connection exists with most mental disorders, many people still stigmatize others because they stupidly hold on to the misguided beliefs of yesteryear that people with mental disorders are weak or just lack will power.
Some suicide-attempt survivors are pushing back against the stigma they've faced, according to a
Chicago Tribune story: "They are speaking up in an effort to educate, raise awareness and reduce stigma about suicide, which advocates say is a public health issue, not a private shame."
Psychiatrists who treat suicidal patients face an especially sharp stigma. A
story in The Atlantic says :
The stigma of suicide is so strong that it's often an issue left unspoken, even by doctors. Many psychiatrists refuse to treat chronically suicidal patients, not only because of the stigma that surrounds it even in their profession, but because suicide is the number-one cause of lawsuits brought against mental-health treatment providers.
My dad's hunch is right, sadly. Even the medical field is beset by stigma. That's hard to grasp, because mental health practitioners are supposed to be a place of refuge for those battling suicidal thoughts. It sometimes infects another safe haven, too —churches.
In her book, Simpson explains in a chapter on stigma :
Although 80 percent of church leaders said they believe mental illness is 'a real, treatable and manageable illness caused by genetic, biological or environmental factors,' only 12. 5 percent of them said mental illness is openly discussed in a healthy way in their church. Some churches stigmatize mental illness because they simply don't want 'the wrong kind of people' interfering with their vision for their churches. Let's face it: a thriving ministry to people with mental illness is not the easiest or most ego-polishing kind of ministry.
No one, no institution or part of our society, is free from stigma associated with suicide and mental illness. Changing this will be an enormous endeavor. What will it require? Raising our voices individually and collectively, as some attempt survivors have. Working with our mental-health providers and places of worship, to quell fears of lawsuits and unfavorable public opinion. Examining our own misconceptions, and striving for greater sensitivity. And that's just a short list.
We must press on, in honor of those we've lost, for attempt survivors, for grieving families, and for friends and family of the future, who one day will face atrocious battles against mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
‘Sin of Suicide’ is Losing its Stigma
By KATHY HEDBERG - Associated Press - June, 2015
There was a time when suicide was considered a sin or "self murder" by many faith traditions, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho. People who died by suicide were sometimes denied funerals or burial in a common cemetery.
Things have changed.
Suicide "does not carry the stigma it once did," said the Rev. Craig Groseclose, pastor of the Cameron Emmanuel Lutheran Church near Kendrick.
"It’s not considered an unforgivable sin," Groseclose said. "It’s more a symbol of our broken humanity and needs to be addressed like any other of our faults. What I usually try and instill is that God has not abandoned them —the person who has died by suicide and the family."
A workshop dealing with the role of faith community leaders in preventing suicide and helping the survivors was recently presented at Lewiston, Moscow and Coeur d’Alene by Jenny Griffin, executive director of Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.
"We’re trying to let people know there are other options to suicide," said Griffin, whose own 16-year-old son died by suicide. These people don’t want to die. They just want the pain to end."
For nearly 60 years, ever since suicide statistics have been kept at a national level, Idaho has ranked in the top 10 states for suicides. It currently is in seventh place. Although Washington’s suicide rates also used to be high they have dropped and the state is now ranked 22nd for the rate of suicide.
There are a number of reasons for high suicide rates, among them poverty, a "pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps" mentality among the population, lack of affordable health care and accessibility to guns.
Griffin said when she speaks to law enforcement or military officers —whose rate of suicide is among the highest —they become defensive and almost belligerent about the suggestion that gun ownership might play a role in suicide rates.
The prevention network is not suggesting people should not own guns, Griffin said.
"We are a gun-toting state," she said. "But if you have guns in the house and a person with a mental health condition, lock up your guns."
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with mental health and suicide issues, Griffin said, is the stigma attached to them. There is no stigma attached to illnesses such as cancer or cardiac arrest.
"We shouldn’t do it to people who are in a mental health crisis," she said. "We have to change the perspective. We have a culture that, if you have a mental health condition you’re weak. We don’t do that with other medical conditions."
That’s where clergy and faith communities come in, both in dealing with people in mental health crisis and helping survivors of suicide cope with their grief and loss.
"We believe that suicide is not the way human life should end," said the Rev. Sue Ostrom, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Moscow.
"We encourage the church to provide education to address issues related to death and dying, including suicide. I think it’s safe to say the response to suicide would be a tragedy and the church’s response should be one of love, care and comfort —not condemnation."
Dan Cornell, pastor of worship and care development at Cross Point Alliance Church in Lewiston, said there is no difference in the way the church deals with a death by suicide or by any other means.
"We don’t necessarily approach it differently. We still want to care for the families; we still want to walk with them through that process and do what we can to be present with them and care for them," Cornell said.
He admitted, however, that there is sometimes a "hush-hush" attitude about a suicide death that makes preparing for a memorial or funeral tricky.
"I don’t know that our society really knows how to walk through that," Cornell said. "I think families struggle thinking, ‘How do we even have a funeral for somebody who has died by suicide?’ So I feel like we’re not very educated."
The Suicide Prevention Action Network advises pastors and other faith community leaders to be aware of the implications in the language they use to talk about suicide - using terms such as "committed suicide" that connote success or failure in an endeavor.
Even words emphasizing that the deceased is "at peace" or implying that suicide was a reasonable response to the stresses in the person’s life might be viewed as an encouragement to others who are vulnerable, the network warns.
Although there apparently are no statistics, pastors often believe that belonging to a faith community can help people deal with mental health illnesses that sometimes lead to suicide.
"I hesitate to say that, but it does seem to coincide," Groseclose said. "For those who don’t have faith to rely on, it becomes, I think, more difficult to face the feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness that may lead a person to think of or attempt to end their life.
"It’s been my experience that the faith communities, when a suicide occurs, have been very supportive of the family," he said. "And I think we can do more in terms of trying to be more alert to the possibility or to the indications that are there. To be more proactive rather than reactive."
"Having a sense of belonging," said Ostrom, "can be real helpful, so people who are part of a faith community can provide that sense of belonging.
"I recognize that because there have been times when the (universal) church has sometimes taken the stance of saying, ‘We condemn you’ and not being supportive that may still be a factor for some people in despairing of where they are.
"I would hope that the church) s a place of hope and that people can find belonging and that God is present with them and God’s love is there. And that gives them another tool to use in dealing with whatever has led them to feel such despair."
SUICIDE AND THE YOUNG PHYSICIAN
Jennifer is a master’s-level mental health clinician. Fourteen years ago —almost to the week, she tells me —one of her patients shot himself; and his family brought a lawsuit against her.
"I'd seen this individual for four appointments, and on the fifth appointment, he did not show," she says. "The next week I heard that this had happened …I was just beside myself with grief. I'd never lost a client before, and I have had many suicidal clients. It was very tragic that this had been the outcome; we had barely enough time to really scratch the surface on issues. Immediately when things like this happen, you're advised by legal counsel not to talk to anybody, when it becomes clear that there is going to be litigation. In my profession, you isolate. You don't talk. Even among your colleagues, there is a certain stigma."
Jennifer says the patient didn’t express any suicidal urges to her. He had come to see her at the behest of a girlfriend, to deal with some anger issues he was struggling with. When advised to take medication, he refused. Then the girlfriend left him, and he killed himself. Yet the family still filed suit against Jennifer and when the judge threw out the first case, they re-filed under a different charge. She says these proceedings dragged out for five years.
When asked why she thinks they sued her, she pauses for a moment. "I think the family was left with a lot of questions and in their mind they needed to find someone to blame for this," she says. "There was nothing to substantiate the lawsuit. My board cleared me. But it was a grieving family. I mean, I feel for them every Christmas. Every time I put my Christmas tree up around this time of year, it brings me right back there."
The flip side of that equation is when a doctor fails to meet the professional standard of care, in ways that can be quite obvious. Skip Simpson is a suicide- malpractice attorney, but from talking to him, he doesn’t seem vengeful. He says he’s interested in bettering th current mental-health system, not bringing frivolous lawsuits.
"If we were to talk for 30 minutes there would be two people in the United States who would die from suicide within that period of time," he tells me during our conversation. "There is a basic duty to prevent harm, for example, at a hospital. If those charged with treatment of mentally disturbed patients know the facts from which they could reasonably conclude that a patient would be likely to harm herself in the absence of reclusive measures or interventions to protect them, then they must use reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent that harm. That’s not just in hospitals, but also in outpatient care too. In my profession, you isolate. You don't talk. Even with your colleagues, there's a certain stigma."
This type of lawsuit is personified in Denise Vitali Burne’s case. Her brother Matt, 37, committed suicide in 2004, while at The Meadows, an inpatient treatment facility located in Arizona.
"He was our rock," Burne says during a phone conversation, starting to cry almost immediately. "He was our golden-haired boy. He was 37, dual-degree at John Hopkins. Totally drug and alcohol-free, —he had an MBA. He was really solid, brilliant, and funny."
Matt decided to admit himself to The Meadows after falling into a deep depression. According to Burne’s retelling of the story, he had undergone many medication changes before his admittance, and The Meadows decided to take him off a heavy dose of Xanax as soon as he was admitted.
"He got in on Wednesday," Burne says. "On Friday, they pulled him off Xanax so fast that he went into paresthesia on Saturday …for four days he told them all he could think about was killing himself. He wanted to hang himself. He thought about nine ways of killing himself, and he settled on hanging. He basically said, ‘I'm suicidal, I'm suicidal, I'm suicidal, I'm suicidal.’ Well, they never locked him down. They never took his belt away from him."
According to Burne, that Saturday night, on Thanksgiving weekend, Matt attended a 12-step meeting that left him emotionally vulnerable. "He got up and he left the meeting," she says. "Two patients followed him out and he turned around and said to them, ‘If I were home right now I would hang myself.’ He went back to his room that night. He talked to his roommate, he took his meds, and he went to bed. At 6 o'clock Sunday morning the 28th, his roommate went to the nurse's station for a blood draw and said to the nurses —there were two nurses on staff for 70 patients in three separate buildings —‘Oh, by the way Matt's not in his bed. He hasn't been in there since 5 o'clock when I woke up.’"
"They didn't rush to go look for him, and then when the shift was changing the one nurse was leaving and walked around the outside of the building," she continues. "She looked down the hill and she saw my brother kneeling. She later said she thought he was picking grass to feed the horses …he had walked out the back door undetected because for some reason, in the acute wing of a psychiatric hospital, there were no bells, no whistles, no walks, no cameras, no nothing, just the fence. He went down the hill and hanged himself on a tree. They found him at 8:05 in the morning."
The lawsuit Burne’s family eventually filed against The Meadows was settled out of court, and she started up her own nonprofit, called Break the Silence, in memory of her brother. But she says the system is irreparably flawed, and blames doctors for much of its deficiency. Neither The Meadows nor its legal representation returned requests for comment.
"He basically said, ‘I'm suicidal.’ Well, they never locked him down. They never took his belt away from him."
"He did everything right," she says of Matt. "He reached out for help and he was miserably and irreversibly failed … I just think that caregivers really need to understand that every person is an individual, and if they can't put the time and effort and energy into really knowing their patient … then they’re in the wrong field. They have to go back to their own conscience and wonder about the care they gave that person. Did they give that person the best care that they could at that moment? Did they trust in the system? Did they not pay attention to their gut? I can't answer for them. I would just think if you see somebody that's vacillating—and maybe I'm wrong, but from what I've seen, I don't think happy smiling people just in five minutes go and kill themselves. I think there are signs."
Christine Moutier is Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She says this type of sentiment is normal among many family members who have lost someone to suicide, and sometimes warranted. "I think there are many actual mistakes that get made," she says. "There are doctors who simply don’t meet the standard of care. And then there are doctors who may not have made a single actual mistake, but the family perceives the treatment as not going well. Human nature is to need to find a reason for things. But if you get asked the same question about an oncologist who loses a patient to cancer, the family is much more likely to understand that the person had a terminal illness, so the best care happened but the outcome was still death. We tend to not think of mental illness usually in such black-and-white terms, as terminal illness."
According to many doctors there is also a severe lack of training for mental health professionals —not only on how to deal with suicidal patients, but how to process a patient’s death. Paul Quinett, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is heavily involved in teaching clinicians how to do both.
"I think most of us believe that when we hire a licensed mental-health professional, that they've had training in how to assess and manage suicidal patients, when in fact, the majority do not," he says.
A survey showed where a group of doctors and nurses were asked if they think it’s possible to prevent someone from committing suicide. More than half answered that they didn’t think it was. Another survey asked group of doctors and nurses if they think it’s possible to prevent someone from committing suicide. More than half said no.
"Well, I don't believe that," he says firmly. "I believe that's a convenient myth ...but so many clinicians are not well-prepared for that outcome. There are lots of clinicians who lose patients to suicide in the course of their career … in a way it's almost an occupational hazard. That's why people need the very best training they can get, to learn how to work effectively with people considering ending their own lives."
For clinicians who have lost someone, it can be incredibly hard to continue doing their jobs. Molly, a licensed graduate social worker, was working with a man at an inpatient facility for about a year and a half. Thirteen months ago, she found him hanging in his room.
"I was devastated," she says. "I actually debated, pretty extensively, leaving the field because I just was like, ‘I can't do this. I can't set myself up for this to happen again.’ I'm still working, but it took me a really long time to come back to it."
"Would you ever treat another suicidal patient?" I ask her.
"I don't really plan to, to be honest," she says. "That would be very, very hard for me. Maybe down the road, that'll be different. I think the trauma of finding him is a big piece of that. I think had I not had that extra layer, I could picture myself being able to eventually, but I need to get past it first."
I can’t help but think of my friend and how lost and alone she is right now. I imagine the reality she’s lived for four months of medication, doctors, the cold clean halls of the hospital. Head-banging, cutting herself, restraints, more pills. It’s a world I danced on the edge of for years, and I managed to leave it behind for a life where I laugh more than cry, and hurt without despairing. I want that for her so much, but how will she ever reach that point when no doctor will take her on?
"I get why they don’t want to work with me," she says during another one of our conversations. "I’m more complicated. I’m just a difficult patient. I’ve been told that. "No one is saying they don’t think I can get better," she says flatly, almost without emotion. "They just don’t want to."
SUICIDE ISN'T CONTAGIOUS
...& We Need to Talk About It - From the Huffington Post
Writing about suicide isn't easy. I've been trying for a while to write this post, but I never know where to start. Do I start with my own story? How I have lived in that pit of despair that causes someone to actually think that taking their life is a solution? Or do I open with the staggering suicide statistics? Like, every 40 seconds someone commits suicide? Or, did you know that half of all college students consider suicide at one point?
Neither options allowed me to find the right voice to speak about something as evasive as suicide. But then, I received a text message that finally gave me the voice to talk about it. And that voice is mighty pissed off.
It was 8:30 p.m., my husband and I were lounging on the sofa, catching up with our DVR, when my cellphone dinged. We have a rule that we try not to use our phones after a certain hour, unless we're expecting news. If it had been one text, I would have ignored it. But it was the urgency of multiple incoming texts that made me break our rule.
It was my best friend. She had just found out that an acquaintance of hers had committed suicide.
She didn't know her that well; they had only performed together once. Her friend, who had known the woman more intimately, had told her the news and he was devastated. My friend was in the middle of a rehearsal and couldn't really talk, but she needed to tell someone who would understand. Who could offer advice on how to console her friend.
Despite being the bastion of mental health knowledge that I am, I was at a loss and caught completely off guard by her text. There's no real way to prepare for the news of a suicide. Other than being there for them, listening to them, and giving them a hug if they want it, there's no real way to console a friend or family member who is dealing with this type of loss.
The absurd thing about this situation is that in the past two months, this is the third suicide victim I have heard of. I haven't personally known any of the victims. It's always a friend of a friend, but the news always hits me like a punch in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me before I am brought to tears. I cry for the death of strangers because I feel a fellowship with people who have mental health issues and because I know that black hole of sadness all too well.
Except Wednesday night, something was different. Maybe it was because it was my best friend who was distraught over this sudden news, or maybe it was because this was the third person, but I was angry.
I was angry that someone was struggling so badly that they felt the need to take their life. I was fucking pissed that they were so desperate that death seemed like a better alternative than living. I was pissed that they were clearly not getting the help they needed or deserved. I was fucking pissed that people would say how they never "saw it coming." I was pissed off because suicide shouldn't happen, but it seemed to keep happening over and over again.
Despite all the advances we have made in mental health awareness, suicide is still an issue that is shrouded in silence and secrecy. Suicide is sometimes treated like a "contagious" disease, as if you can catch it just by speaking its name. Maybe "suicide contagion" happens not because of the act itself, but because no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about the fact that maybe they've thought about killing themselves before because it's embarrassing and morbid.
Or maybe they had a relative who committed suicide that no one talks about. Or maybe suicide just makes them feel terribly sad, even if they didn't know the person.
There's no easy way of talking about suicide, because it's hard to explain why someone would think killing themselves is a viable solution to their problems. As someone who has seriously thought about numerous ways to die, suicide is still hard to articulate. It's a complex and confusing issue because it goes against one of our most basic instincts, self-preservation.
The thing is, suicide is not about wanting to die, it's about wanting the pain to end. It's about wanting to disappear. It's about wanting whatever it is you're struggling with to be over. If you've never battled with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, or any other form of mental illness, it's hard to understand the enduring and seemingly never-ending psychic pain. It's a pain that follows you like a shadow in your waking hours and haunts your dreams as you sleep. There is no escaping it.
Moreover, suicide is hard to talk about because of the pervading myths that surround suicide. I'm sure a researcher somewhere has done a fancy study with numbers, but I've been in enough social situations to know how dumb people can be about mental health and suicide.
I was at a party this past summer when the subject of suicide, self-harm, and mental health came up. I don't know how or when the conversation started, but it was sudden and swift and I braced myself for the impact of these words.
"They say it's a cry for help." ...... ‘They do it for attention." ...... "Well they say that you can tell a cutter from someone who really wants to die by the direction of the cuts." ....... "How much of a loser do you have to be to fuck up your own suicide?" ...... "I get why people jump in front of a metro ...but everyone knows taking a bottle of Advil will only make you sick."
These comments were tossed out over wine and cheese, in front of near-perfect strangers. This is the stupidity and callousness with which suicide is discussed. It was complete thoughtlessness and ignorance that dominated the conversation.
Let me demystify a few things about cutting and suicide: The two are not intrinsically linked. Just because you cut doesn't mean you want to commit suicide. Attempting suicide or self-harm are not "cries for help" and aren't attention-seeking behaviors. People who do these things are sick, just like someone who has cancer or diabetes, and they simply don't know how to cope with their feelings or the world they're living in. This is what I wished I had said at this party. But after bearing the weight of these words in silence, I made a quick exit in tears.
So it's not that we shouldn't talk about suicide because we're afraid it'll be contagious, but we need to know how to talk about it. We need to be sensitive to our audience. We need to be considerate of other people's experiences. We need to be kind and understanding. Suicide isn't an easy subject to broach and defies all logic, but we need to talk about it, or else all of these deaths will have been in vain.
There Are Rules When it Comes to Talking about Suicide
There are rules when it comes to talking about suicide, and experts say how we talk about it may be just as important as having the conversation.
Many rules have to do with what doesn’t work. Blaming or shaming the victim: that doesn’t work, experts say. Neither does ignoring the death. But talking explicitly about the death, especially the method or circumstances, doesn’t help either; in fact, research shows that too much detail can actually inspire others who are at risk.
Whenever we can, we should talk about suicide, experts say that those are some solutions.
"It’s preventable. It is something we can do something about," said Lisa Wexler, a researcher and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Wexler lives in Kotzebue and has spent over a decade working to address suicide in western Alaska.
She led a workshop on the topic, along with educator Diane McEachern, during Kawerak’s Rural Providers Conference in Nome last week.
As part of the presentation, Wexler and McEachern incorporated an innovative approach to prevention. Rather than lecture on the topic of suicide, they simply introduced a single piece of data: In Alaska, suicide rates among youth go up during the summer, and down in the winter.
They asked conference participants to break into groups and come up with their own explanations for the data, which contrasts seasonal trends in the Lower 48. The result was a list of potential factors that spoke to the culture and lifestyle of western Alaska: sunshine and warm weather that might allow teens to stay out late to party; less adult supervision in the absence of school; intense summer romances; and even a lack of sleep.
The topic of suicide is a sensitive one for many in the Bering Strait. Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, with Alaska Native youth particularly at risk. And the data being presented wasn’t new. One participant voiced her frustration at the lack of fresh information —saying the real benefit, for her, came from talking and collaborating with people from other communities that face similar issues.
"Certain communities are put at higher risk, not because of what they’re doing, but because of what’s been done to them," she said.
Wexler said factors like food insecurity, unemployment, loss of cultural identity and intergenerational trauma have played a role in the prevalence of suicide within indigenous groups all over the world.
McEachern pointed to one example of how historical trauma could factor into suicide: Young men and women who come from homes fractured by the relocation of parents or grandparents are likely to place a disproportionate weight on early adolescent romances.
She said those romances, when they sour, can be a trigger for teens already struggling with suicidal feelings.
"There are things that are done in our community that are not necessarily called suicide prevention," explained Pananga Pungowiyi, Kawerak’s Wellness Director. "Fostering healthy relationships between people, helping people understand how to express their emotions…those are really important skills that need to be fostered in our young peoples."
"If you look at things like suicide prevention," she said. "It’s always systems trying to fix people. But if you look at the bigger picture you realize there’s nothing wrong with the people, there’s something wrong with the way the systems are interacting with the people.
"Allowing people to develop their own systems makes for more relevant solutions, she said. And just as multiple factors contribute to a traumatic cultural experience, Pungowiyi believes that concept can be reversed as community members develop multiple fronts on which to confront problems like suicide.
Wexler agrees that while there is no single solution to the issue, the most effective kind of prevention is "many kinds of prevention."
As for what can be done to address suicide on the individual level, Wexler concluded: No harm can come from asking loved ones how they’re doing.
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