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Preventing suicide: Let go of the myths and understand the facts
After my husband committed suicide, I struggled to understand why. I also struggled with what I now know is a common feeling — self blame. This was made worse by the fact that he pointedly blamed me in his suicide note.
I struggled for many years with severe depression and feelings of isolation before I came to terms with what had happened. Here’s what I’ve learned that I want to share with my community, given the recent events and the pain many of us are feeling. Much of it is based on Kate Redfield Jamison’s excellent book, “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”
First, suicide is not caused by any one event. While it’s true that an event might act as a catalyst, there is no one cause for a person committing suicide. In the absence of the event that may have acted as a catalyst, another event would have — as long as the person didn’t receive any help.
Second, we continue to perpetuate the myth that suicide is sudden and inexplicable, that there is nothing we could have done and no way we could have known. The danger in this kind of thinking is that it frightens our children and teenagers — because if it’s sudden and unexpected it can happen to anyone, including them. It also blinds us to the fact that there are signs and indicators that can help us help those who are at risk.
Third, suicide is one of those things surrounded by shame, guilt and judgment, and yet it is the extreme manifestation of an illness. We avoid discussing suicide in our culture because of the feelings that surround it and because we believe that if we talk about it, that makes it more likely to occur — when the opposite is actually true.
The truth about suicide is that it is extremely rare. It is unlikely to occur even among people who struggle with depression, and there are usually indicators — signs and behaviors that suggest some people are at higher risk to commit suicide. If we were more open and talked about it, we would be aware of what these are.
Fourth, suicide is preventable. There are medications and treatments that have been shown to be effective for lowering the risk of suicide. Why do we know so little about this? Again, because we don’t discuss these things. We talk about finding a cure for cancer and raising money for treatments, and we don’t judge those who struggle with cancer. Why don’t we have walks to raise money for suicide prevention? Where are the fundraisers for the treatment of depression? A friend of mine was told just this week that she couldn’t discuss her suicidal feelings in a therapy group because of the recent events and the fear of what is known as contagion.
That leads me to the fifth thing I’ve learned about suicide. There exists what is known as a contagion factor with suicide — the potential for “copycat” suicides. As a result, some people — including psychiatric professionals — think it’s best to avoid discussing suicide. They are wrong. The best way to minimize the contagion factor is to confront it head on, to discuss it in our community, with our young people and with each other.
We need to tell our children that suicide is rare, that they are safe, that they can feel sad, distraught, even hopeless and not be at risk for committing suicide. We need to tell them there is help and that we will listen to them and help them sort out what they are thinking and feeling. We need to listen to each other and support each other. We need to stop judging and blaming because of our confusion and pain.
In the months following my husband’s death, I had to realize I didn’t cause him to kill himself. I had to learn it was OK for me to feel confused, hurt and angry. He left me with two young children to raise on my own, and on a bad day I’m still mad about this. And that’s OK. I still cry when he misses a school performance or when, in a quiet moment, I realize I want to tell him something. He wasn’t perfect. He was mentally ill. He could be imperfect and do something that really hurt me, and I can still miss him every day.
As a community, we need to love and support one another. We need to extend kindness to those we think deserve it and those we think don’t. We need to listen to our children when they say they had a hard day and when they say they had a good day. We need to leave room in our lives for those around us to express that life is hard, that sometimes we feel overwhelmed, alone and like we just can’t take it for one more second. We need to focus on what’s important and take time to remember that the greatest factor in whether someone makes it or doesn’t can be a helping hand.
Suicide can be prevented, and all of us, working together, can help to prevent it. But it truly takes all of us; no one can do it alone. So let’s focus on the living, love them and express to them that we are not ashamed, that we do not judge and that we are here to help, not just now, but every day.
— Amy Maez is a student, homemaker and mother of two.