On the eve of National Suicide Prevention Week and World Suicide Prevention Day (at least the ones that I recognize, but it all depends on who you ask), I thought I would give my two cents on the state of suicide. I'm not going to quote any stats, but simply discuss what I see as someone whose life has been intersected in multiple ways with suicide and mental illness and whose life once revolved around speaking and educating people about not just preventing suicide but also helping people cope with the loss of someone they love. Today I stand on the outskirts of it and I watch. And this is what I see:
The numbers are up. It might seem like there are more suicides because we hear about them more– particularly in social media– but the reality is that more people are dying by suicide as there were years ago. Some of this could be attributed to better reporting (deaths being classified as suicides that might have been classified as accidents years ago), however, suicide is more accepted as a mode of death today than it was ten years ago and that's exactly why we will never eradicate suicide.
There is more empathy about people's pain, especially regarding mental, chronic, and terminal illnesses. I have more than once lost someone in my life to suicide– someone who was severely mentally ill– and everyone said, "At least they are out of their pain now." They'd been hospitalized repeatedly, taken cocktails of medications, medications that didn't work, and gone through multiple therapies. The relief only came in fleeting moments before the mental anguish returned. The suicides weren't outward like taking a massive dose of pills one more or hanging oneself, but rather in pain pills over time or through other ways of eventually wearing down their bodies. They were educated people– many of them in the medical field– and they knew exactly what they were doing each time they took pills.
That said, we're still not helping people the best that we can, mostly because we don't have the means (which involves money) to keep people hospitalized long enough until we know they are on the right drugs, have the right dosages, and have a support system outside of the hospital. Not everyone needs drugs for a long period of time to get well, but sometimes just a short time to get over a hump. Yet for others there will be a life-long regiment to keep them balanced. And sometimes that regiment needs to be tweaked over time.
We're continuing to miss the mark on helping people through resilience, through finding ways of helping them feel connected to life. I still say shelter dogs and cats (and other animals) could find homes with people who are struggling, giving them a meaning to get out of bed in the morning (they need to be fed!) and unconditional love they often aren't finding in other places in their lives. I have heard stories of suicidal people who have said the very thing that kept them here was their pet. That's just one example of many ways people could be helped– sharing stories of what helped them which might inspire someone else.
I often think about what Ed Schneidman, the founder of the field of suicidology, wrote in one of his books. He said that we continue to miss the mark helping people because we've gotten away from it, because it comes down to two questions: "Where you do hurt?" and "How can I help?"
We think we are more connected to people because our phones are leashed to us, because we can look at social media as much as we want and see what people are up to, because we copy and paste a post that says that we'll be there if anyone needs someone to talk to. But really, are we going to be that person?
Some years ago, I called three people one afternoon. I was in Los Angeles on a trip and driving and I just needed someone to talk to– I was fine, but sometimes it nice to chat with a friend. None of them answered and none of them returned my messages. What if I had been suicidal? Why wouldn't you return the call of a friend you hadn't talked to in some time?
That very thing happened again several weeks ago. I had some free time one afternoon and I called four people. One called me back a few hours later (and the who has the most going on because her husband is dying). One called back a week later. The other two never called me back (although I ran into one last week).
My younger sister called me in the weeks before she died. I was busy and didn't call her back and she said she just called to chat. I missed out on something because about a month later, I would never get to talk to her again.
Money would help. A lot of it because there are many changes we need to make that, unfortunately, involve money to help the mentally ill, to inoculate communities– the ones that I spoke in years ago– about suicide prevention. Ultimately we have to be there for each other though. It's all about human connection.
You can't take away someone's pain. Sometimes you have to stand there in the dark with them– that's how you know you are really with them, not when you're reminding them all of the great things in their lives. They need to release the pain first. For some people that won't be enough because their pain is much greater than we have knowledge about.
But we can be there. We can be that human, that connection. It's not enough to say, "I want to save one life and it'll be worth it." The numbers of suicide continue to climb and they won't decline until we all take the time to reconnect, to share how we go forward in our lives (it's the way I believe I inspire people– by showing in my life what I do to cope with all that's happened to me).
Life is short as it is. Don't let it sail by you until you're left wondering where it went.