September is Suicide Awareness month so this post will not be all hearts and flowers. Trigger warning: this post deals with that issue intimately. Today, I will open my heart and share something deeply personal not for my own benefit but for the benefit of other people and families struggling and to raise awareness for this worthwhile cause. Let’s rid the world of this thing. Let’s help people.
It’s Suicide Awareness Month in the U.S. and the campaign is more relevant than ever before. A few weeks ago, I lost my younger cousin to suicide. He was a great listener, had a sweet sense of humor, and would give you the shirt off his back if you asked. Losing him has been hard in ways I didn’t expect. We were not particularly close when he passed. I was older, lived far away, and mostly kept in touch with him through social media. But there was a time when he and his sister were inseparable from my sister and I and they were both a big part of my little world. Losing him somehow made me aware of my own mortality due to recent battles with postpartum depression and, shook me to the core as a mother who couldn’t ever imagine losing her kid to this ugly thing.
When I reached out to my aunt and my cousin (his sister) about writing this, they told me they just wanted people to know how devastating this had been for his family and friends. I can’t overstate that. My cousin may have never imagined that entire sanctuary of people deeply saddened by the loss of a friend, a family member, or a colleague would come together on a Tuesday afternoon to remember him but that is what we did. In all honesty, I feel deep regret about not letting him know how much he meant to me before he passed. I don’t know what it would have changed but I would have let him know that he was a part of many of my fondest memories of childhood. His mom or mine would take us all up to the lake. We’d all try to bury one another in the sand in the most lock-tight configuration or try to find an elusive sandbar in a way which now I can understand must have given our moms the scare of a lifetime. And then there were Christmases of dueling ping pong. His sister and I would feel like we were on fire but would ultimately lose to him and our older male cousin. It was like one of those memes you see where it’s like “what I think I look like when I play ping pong” vs. “what I actually look like”. We would always lose but no one really lost. We’d run around my aunt and uncle’s basement or watch someone play Goldeneye 007 for like 3 hours while eating pizza. Those were the best times. And his wit and fun spirit permeated them. With a mischievous grin, you could tell he was up to something. There was usually fun to be had when all the cousins got together and he was a big part of that. As an adult, I was lucky enough to see him morph into a dedicated employee and a loving uncle to his two nieces. He became a leader. He was and is still so beloved that it is hard to believe he’s gone.
Suicide is truly awful. A lot of people think “that can’t happen to me” or “that would never happen to my kid”. People say terrible things to the family thinking that it will help. “Everything happens for a reason” was one thing I hated hearing after my miscarriage and it was something said to me after my cousin’s death by an acquaintance. Instead of just saying “That is awful and I’m so sorry for your loss” people need to justify why it would never happen in their home. They go straight to “Oh, well, that person was troubled with x”. While I’ve written that comorbidity is an issue it’s not the only reason people take their own lives. Depression strikes deep. In the past year, my family has seen the loss of two relatives, a beloved coworker, a high school friend, and I also observed through the internet the loss of a great political scientist. The last one, while not personal, seemed so sad. People always say “it doesn’t happen to people like that” but in his case, it did. He was educated, had a “good” life, was respected. In fact, in all of these cases, these people had a lot going for them on the outside. However, they just couldn’t keep pushing that boulder up the hill. The old “it couldn’t happen to us” thing that I told myself often seemed to be wearing thin. Likewise, my own struggles made that seem untrue.
I am always hesitant to say I have reached out for help in very dark times of my life because it feels like a moral failure to admit I needed help. Most recently, after the birth of my daughter and in a dark place feeling like no one cared about me, I reached out to the chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I was incredibly low. My biggest worry was that I was making my husband’s life worse and that I was a bad mother. I felt disowned by my own family. I did not want to end my life but I also did not want to continue to feel pain or feel responsible for the pain of others. It’s why I wrote this post when I started to come out of the fog. I cried every day for weeks when my baby cried to much or my back ached or I thought about a personal family struggle I was going through but I wasn’t “troubled”. I had a supportive husband. I had been shut out by family members but had others who did support me and friends who loved me both on the internet and in real life (including you readers who were supportive). I had no substance abuse issues. I was educated and could advocate for myself. I “knew better” than to do that. I still felt awful and unsafe. It is easy for me to see how people would choose to either abuse substances or end their lives. It was the hardest fight I’ve fought, quite frankly.
In those dark days, I would describe to my husband as everything being a choice. I saw living as a choice I had to make. The alternative was not living. It wasn’t about choosing to end my life because I didn’t want to do that. It was that I had to make an active choice to keep living every day. My default swung in the opposite way from a “normal” person’s. The amount of adversity I had to overcome in those first few months was mind-numbing. I think back now and say, “How is it I didn’t end up institutionalized?”
9 months later, I am about as good as I can be. I’m starting to thrive again but I can’t judge anyone or think anyone weak because they could not dig out. It took a long time. It took a lot of work. And I had a big cheering squad. When you feel like you’re isolated and every day you think “no one would even know how to find me” things wear on you. I used to cry and say “I doubt my own parents would even go to my funeral.” That’s how low I was. And I didn’t even cross the border into having a plan. My husband kept a close eye on me. We communicated with my mental health providers. I am one of the luckiest ones. I have a game plan when things get bad. A lot of people haven’t had a game plan for 10 plus years like me. God forbid you’d ever need it but do you, reader, have that game plan? Most don’t. Most think they will never need it.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) says that suicide is the 10th highest cause of death in the U.S. and more than 40,000 people annually take their own lives here. AFSP also says that for every one suicide, there are 25 attempts. Thus, it is a common issue many families struggle with. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been touched by suicide in some way by age 30. Still, people say “it couldn’t happen here” or “I would be able to see the signs” is those are both usually untrue. Depression doesn’t look like sadness. All those signs you think scream “I’m depressed” are well-hidden by those of us who are struggling. Type A’s like myself who pride themselves on doing everything for everyone all the time may be downright tired of living and feel like hell but you will never see us ask for help. That’s a large part of the problem. If you have a kid who is a carer, you will likely not see their “cries for help” because they’d rather do ANYTHING than ask. They don’t want to feel like a burden. And while having money and a good education can make the risk lower overall, plenty of wealthy, educated people take their own lives. If you’ve never felt that low, you won’t understand, but just try to understand for a moment that when you are in that headspace, you feel like too much of a burden to be “worthy” of asking for help – no matter the material wealth or educational situation you find yourself in.
So, now that we can admit it can happen basically anywhere, we need to stop feeling helpless and ask what can we do as parents and people to stop this.
- Be aware of mental health resources and know where to go to locate a provider. Chances are, there are community mental health resources where you are. They may be severely limited but maybe not. I’ve talked about this issue in the past. If you have a family doctor, they can probably direct you to places that can help. A good family doctor is worth their weight in gold – especially with such referrals. If you need emergency help, call 9-1-1, obviously. If you need a wellness check, also call. Know what resources exist and be ready to employ them – heaven forbid.
- Talk about it. As parents, we need to talk about this openly. It wasn’t until adulthood I realized just how badly-affected my family was by mood disorders and that suicide wasn’t something “new” for us. My therapist calls this a “loaded” family history. Our family will talk about this now. Mental illness is just illness. It doesn’t define you. It is a just one part of you. If someone in your family has struggled and a child asks about it, you should be able to talk in an age-appropriate away about that person having an illness. If you have lost a family member to suicide, you should talk to your child about that when it’s appropriate. This tells your child that you are a “safe” person to disclose these feelings to and makes it seem like you would rather they come to you if in need then hold it all in. Tell them they matter to you and you would never want to lose them. I got the “hold it all in” message growing up. And despite being a good student and generally good kid, I always felt like I was 2 steps from falling over the edge and being disowned for “failing”. I would describe the first 23 years of my life as “holding it together by a thread”. Trust me, it is much better to receive mental health services young and develop coping skills. You want your kid to be comfortable asking for help. Having a diagnosis is not a death sentence. It means you have a plan and a support network. The fact that my extended family is bravely discussing this topic now is heartening. I know this is never easy for the family but saying exactly what ended my cousin’s life may help change the dialogue and prevent future deaths and injuries.
- Be aware of those most at-risk of suicide. Men, boys, young people, kids who have been in the foster system, and LGBTQ youth are at increased risk. Men and boys are 3.5 times more likely to take their own lives than women. When you think about hegemonic masculinity, you think about anger being the only acceptable emotion. Men can’t ask for help. Men can’t cry. Men can’t say they are overwhelmed. Because of this, men are less likely to say they need assistance. While middle aged males are the most likely to end their own lives, young people are also particularly at-risk. The CDC reports 17% of young people have contemplated suicide, that 14% have made a plan to take their own lives, and 8% have attempted suicide (with about 3% of that sample also indicating that this resulted in a serious health risk during the attempt). Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people. As parents this should concern us. If you have a son, especially, modeling gender roles that don’t oppress his feelings or teach him to not to keep everything bottled up may be especially important. If you have a teenager, make sure you openly discuss these issues with them. Keep those lines open. Other kids that are more at-risk are foster or adopted youth or LGBTQ youth. If you have a son or daughter in these categories, special attention should be paid and you need to ensure your cocooned community is supporting them from a young age.
- Be aware of suicide clusters. These are common among young people and in families where there has been a recent loss. It is important that family members and friends who lose a loved one to suicide seek grief counseling resources and get a plan together should they start seeing warning signs. It’s why my therapist said “I’m glad you came in today” after I heard the news. I didn’t know about suicide clusters but she talked me through what they are and what we, as researchers, do and do not know about them. We don’t know a lot yet other than they happen and grief counseling works. If you’ve lost a loved one, encourage family members to see a grief counselor – especially if they show warning signs.
- Know the Myths. One of the main things people think is “there is nothing you can do”. It is true that if someone wants to end their life, you yourself cannot just stop them with a snap of your fingers. However, if they are talking to you about it, your words matter and you can make a difference. The Jason Foundation has a list of myths about suicide available and this is the biggest myth. While it is true that you cannot blame yourself for the death of a loved one to suicide and that you are incapable of making them talk to you about their plans, you can try to talk someone out of it, get them help, or make a wellness call. Another myth is that people attempt suicide to get attention. If someone is willing to end their life, they are hurting. Perhaps it was a “cry for help” but that’s likely because they didn’t feel they could just ask for help. That’s a major issue.
- Know the warning signs. The Jason Foundation , states that 4 out of 5 suicides came with a warning sign. I have lost a number of people in my life to this thing. I have also been close to people who have attempted suicide. In each case, in retrospect, there were huge red flashing warning signs – basically all of them outlined above. People are not contemplating suicide for “no reason”. They are hurting. If you see a warning sign, please, please try to get help. Once in grad school, I saw warning signs and called for a wellness check for a fellow graduate student. The student was upset but he got help he needed. He was not hopeless. He was in a bad place and needed support. Even if he never talked to me again, I was okay with that if he was safe that day. That was the most important thing. I may not have been the whole reason he got help but I’d like to think I did the best I could for him.
- Take a Mental Health First Aid class and encourage your school board to train teachers to recognize the signs via this training. An organization local to me provides training to all the local school districts. This year, they trained more than 200 educators in our county. If you know of a community organization offering such classes, I highly encourage you to seek out these resources. Oftentimes, they exist locally. However, as the agency providing the training explained, these funds often go unused because people are either unaware or afraid to seek out this resource. Do not be afraid. As a parent, you are your child’s strongest advocate. You are not helpless and you can make a difference.
- Develop a plan. If you notice symptoms that concern you or you believe your child is struggling with mental illness, gather your community and make a plan to support that child. Always check in with your kid or loved one. I do this with my husband. During those really trying times, he would ask me to give him a level of where I was that day so he could see the overall trend. If I had a few bad days, I called my providers and talked to them. Again, because I hate to bother people, it is very hard or me personally to say “I need help”. If you have a kid like this – or really any teenager- having a simple plan that ends in one sentence answers may be a better solution than talking everything to death. Kids may not be comfortable telling you the whole thing but this might be an approach that works. An example would be to use a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 is “really hurting and depressed” and 5 is “satisfied and happy”. If you’ve ever used a CBT mood chart yourself, this will be easy to explain but there are good resources online you can use. If their numbers are troubling, you can reach out to their provider.
There are things we can do -especially for our kids. Hindsight is 20/20 for me and for many. But the fact that I work with youth-focused non-profits dealing with substance abuse and mental health and still never thought “what should we be talking about at home?” until losing someone very close is telling. There is much to do. We cannot bring people back or fix the past. That part makes me so sad. For the two weeks following my cousin’s death at least, I woke up feeling like this was all a bad dream. I’m sure this is still the case for those closer to him. The same is happening for others in my friend community after the death of another friend. We can’t bring our loved ones back but we can try to change the future for better as people and parents. I need to state again, if you have lost a family member to suicide, it is not your fault. It is a tragedy but it was not caused by anything you did. You deserve support and love right now. Likewise, if you are struggling, please reach out for help. People are there to do that. Please call or chat with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you feel uncomfortable talking to a loved one. I wasn’t anywhere near hurting myself when I chatted with them but I know just reading the words of someone being supportive – totally divorced from the situation – was comforting. And since I am not big on talking on the phone, I can see why this would feel more accessible to some people – especially younger people.
Hug your loved ones. Tell them they matter. Tell them, no matter what, if they are ever struggling that you would rather they call you at 3 AM than do something so final that you would be heartbroken over. Know the signs, dispel the myths, and love your kids. This month is suicide awareness month. Let’s use it for good to prevent suicide. Let’s grieve the loss but approach the future with hope.