This Tuesday, September 10, the International Association for Suicide
Prevention (IASP) is sponsoring World Suicide Prevention Day. We applaud the IASP for drawing attention to what has become a “silent crisis” and bringing this issue out of the closet. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the suicide rate in the US has reached epidemic proportions.
Here are some striking facts:
- Five million Americans have attempted suicide. Every seventeen minutes, one of them succeeds.
- Three and a half million Americans are survivors of a loved one’s suicide. Most of them have been left with a sense of guilt and deep grief.
- Between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate in this country rose over 30%.
- Between 1952 and 1995, the suicide rate of young people (ages 15-24) tripled.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.
- There are more deaths annually of young people by suicide than automobile fatalities.
- Fifteen percent of clinically depressed people commit suicide.
- Ten percent of suicide attempts made without a gun are successful.
- Ninety percent of suicide attempts made with a gun are successful.
- There has been a 128% increase in suicides among children aged 10-14 since 1980.
- One in twelve high school students has attempted suicide.
- More young people die from suicide than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, strokes, pneumonia, and lung disease combined.
- Eighty percent of successful suicides have given clear warnings of their intentions to others prior to taking their lives.
- Teen boys commit suicide at a rate 4 times greater than girls.
- Divorced men commit suicide at a rate 10 times greater than divorced women.
- Baby boomers have a higher rate of suicide than any other age group.
- One out of three successful suicides has made at least one previous attempt.
- An attempt made within one year of an unsuccessful attempt is 100 times more likely to be successful than a first attempt.
While there are of course, many factors that influence people to consider, plan, or successfully carry out suicides, there are several indicators that are common to many situations.
- Depression, which usually involves expressions of self-hate, hopelessness and despair.
- Increased irritability or aggressiveness.
- Changes in personality
- Obsessiveness about death that could show up in conversations, on-line messaging, drawings, poems or artwork.
- Self-punishing thoughts or actions.
- Inability to enjoy normal life pleasures.
- Increased risk-taking.
- Increased substance use or abuse.
- Recent experience of losses of any kind (death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, health, etc.)
- Severe emotional distress.
- Intense feelings of shame, guilt, abandonment, loneliness, or humiliation.
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
- Giving away possessions.
- Saying good-by to family members or friends.
- Making “arrangements”.
Some things that you might hear from someone who is potentially suicidal:
- “You’d be better off without me.”
- “I’m a complete loser.”
- “I’d be better off dead.”
- “I just want to die.”
- “I won’t be bothering anyone for much longer.”
- “I hate my life.”
These thoughts and feelings are not a reflection of a moral deficiency or characterological weakness, but are often symptoms of biological and chemical changes in the brain that affect our moods and cause thinking disorders. It’s important not to presume that someone experiencing suicidal despair can simply pull themselves out of it through a sheer act of willpower or determination. They probably need at least temporary professional help. One of the deterrents to soliciting or accepting that help often has to do with the sense of hopelessness that usually accompanies these mind states. There also, even in the year 2013, continues to be a social stigma associated with getting psychological or psychiatric help and many people fear that receiving assistance will cause them to be seen as a “mental case”. Strangely enough, even when faced with the choice between getting help or ending one’s life, because rational thinking processes are so often compromised by chemical imbalances, many people “choose” the latter.
The Golden Gate Bridge which connects the city of San Francisco to Marin County, is the second most popular suicide site (after the Nanjing Yangze River Bridge in China) in the world. Since it was opened in 1937, it has been the site of over 1500 known suicides.
Kevin Briggs, a California State Highway Patrolman with a twenty six year history on the job has been credited with saving an average of two people a month from jumping from the bridge. In his years of service he has lost only one person. Kevin is no stranger to adversity. At age 21 he was diagnosed with cancer and he didn’t expect to live. Over the past twenty-five years he has provided hope and inspiration to hundreds of despondent people, many of whom have gone on to live fulfilling and productive lives.
In his thought-provoking and inspiring book on suicide, Waking Up, Alive, psychologist Richard Heckler interviews fifty individuals who attempted suicide and lived to tell the tale. Heckler describes suicide survivors of all ages and backgrounds and their common experiences of loss and pain. He also describes their recoveries and successful efforts to establish wholesome lives after their failed suicide attempt.
His stories of hope and the resilience come straight from the mouths of those who stood at death's door, and somehow found the strength to live. The book’s emphasis is not on the factors that lead to deep despair but on the process of emotional recovery.
Most people who attempt suicide don’t actually want to die; they want out of their suffering. Their pain is so great that they don’t see any solution to stop it other than death. They are usually alone with their own mind filled with depression that tells them that not only is their life horrible now, but that it’s always been horrible and that it will never change. It is the depression that’s doing that talking, and distorting reality. The most important antidote to thoughts of pessimistic doom in the depressed mind is to reality test with someone who can be trusted, so that a bit of breathing room can be established to find other methods of relief that could include medication, proper support and life changes.
If you suspect that someone you love may be considering suicide, here are some things that you can do to help them:
Do not leave them alone. Try to get the person to seek immediate help or call 911 or 1800-SUICIDE. Eliminate access to firearms and all potential tools for suicide, including unsupervised access to medications.
Listen to them before you try to talk them out of anything. Most of us are so uncomfortable in the presence of loved ones in extreme emotional pain that we are quick to try to talk them into feeling better and don’t really hear their pain. Consequently there isn’t a real connection or sense of deep understanding.
Remember that a suicidal person needs to be in contact with someone who wants them to live and who cares deeply about whether they live or die.
People in a suicidal crisis are rarely absolutely determined to die. They almost always have mixed feelings. Speak to the part of them that has hope and something to live for.
Resist the temptation to try to coerce them into following your advice and focus more on creating an empathic bridge of understanding between the two of you.
Remind them that the thoughts that they are having may be distorted by their mood and that their situation though painful may not be as hopeless as they believe it to be.
Remind them that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Reassure them of your love and support.
On behalf of the people whose lives may be positively impacted by your having read this piece, we thank you.