Today is my dad’s birthday. He would be 73 years old, except that he took his own life in 1982 after a lifelong struggle with depression and loneliness.
Suicide is a complex and painful issue confronting our society in higher and higher numbers. The World Health Organization estimates that almost 800,000 people die by suicide globally each year. While suicide is often seen as a mental health issue, it is, in fact, a very complex problem with multiple variants and causes, including genetics, mental health, socio-economic status, physical health, and cultural identity. I want to take a moment to talk about suicide from the perspective of a survivor of someone who has lived through the loss of a suicide and as a person who has lived with the demons of depression and self-harm since adolescence.
My own story.
I’m committed to ending the stigma around suicide, mental illness and to raising awareness about the loneliness epidemic and the need for true human connection. So, in the spirit of transparency, I’m gonna spill the beans here.
I didn’t really know my father, he was not in my life until I found him at the age of 9. We connected and began communicating and I had the opportunity to meet him at the age of 10. When I was 12 he took his life. The shock and horror and grief was not buffered by the lack of him in my early years, it was a devastating blow to my world and one that changed the course of my life.
I had so many questions, so much pain, and anguish. I was deeply hurt that he didn’t love me enough to stick around. I felt guilty that I couldn’t make his life good enough to stay alive. I was shattered at the idea that the father that I had finally found was gone forever. I was confused because I still had so much to learn about him and his family. And I was in the dark because no one in his world knew about me and I had to seek him out a second time when he stopped communication, only to find out from a stranger that he had died the year prior. All of this at the age of 13.
The grieving process led me down many twists and turns over the years. One path I found myself on was the path that disallowed anger. I found that I had so much compassion and empathy for his pain and suffering, that it was nearly impossible for me to be angry. I also found that the anger I did experience felt inappropriate (women are often taught that anger is inappropriate for us to feel, so I’m guessing there’s more on this topic than this one instance) and I worked hard to get to the bottom of the feeling of not being able to experience anger, employing my spirituality as a means of understanding more deeply what I was processing. More on this in a minute…
Let’s take a step back in time. I began to experience depression around the age of 11. By 12 it was in full force. I had suicidal tendencies, made two (thankfully) unsuccessful attempts and practiced self-harm for most of my teens. I was a troubled teen without a healthy network of support and there was no information about mental health available where I lived, nor did anyone think to check into why I was “sleeping” all the time. When I got the news of my dad’s suicide I was jolted into a decision. While I had empathy for his decision, the pain I experienced as a result of that led me to understand how much it hurts to be left behind and I decided I couldn’t do that to my family or friends.
That decision I made was a good one but it didn’t end the cycle of self-harm I was engaged in. While I was committed to life, I was still dealing with depression and low self-esteem and a lack of resources to help. My head is a lonely place to be, I’m guessing yours is too. But I didn’t have the courage, nor the understanding to realize that reaching out for help would mean relief, rather than increased stigma. After all, the responses I got to the admission that my father had taken his life led me to understand how much stigma there was around suicide.
Fast forward to 2003, when I went through a very tough divorce and subsequently found myself out of work for 9 months, causing my daughter and me to spend 6 months without a home, couch surfing and relying on the kindness of friends to get us through. During this period I had daily thoughts about ending my life. Yes, you read that correctly, at the age of 31 I considered killing myself every day, even with a precious 3-year-old depending on me. I’m telling you this because I think it’s important to understand that suicidal thoughts are not confined to people who act on them. Nor are they a sign of weakness. I was committed to life and refused to act on those thoughts, but I was in so much pain emotionally and the feelings of failure and despair were so intense that I wanted to escape them and there was nowhere to escape.
I think that’s the key. The feelings we have when we consider ending our life are the feelings of despair or pain (including chronic physical pain) so overwhelming that it’s not possible to see any way out, except ending our life. End of life = end of pain.
Because of my own personal journey and lived experience with both surviving my father’s suicide and experiencing my own suicidation, my feelings on this topic have evolved.
I’ve never shared this extremely private story except with my most trusted friends and family. Why share it now?
Because we have a literal epidemic of suicide in this country, and for me, this is the perfect day to help change the way people think about suicide in general.
First, I think it’s important to recognize the normal feelings that arise in the people who lose someone to suicide. The survivors are often overwhelmed by guilt and feelings of responsibility – the feeling that they could have, should have done more. There is a deep sadness and sense of waste – wasted opportunities, wasted life, wasted chances. Sometimes anger arises – anger at the person who took their own life, anger at the situation, anger at one’s self for failing to stop the suicide or see the risk factors in time to intervene. Many more emotions arise in the process of acceptance – shock, denial, confusion, blame, shame, despair, betrayal, and even relief. All of these emotions are normal reactions to a traumatic event and when experienced should be understood as such and the person who experiences them needs to have access to support and resources that help them parse and understand these feelings while processing their grief.
The stigma surrounding suicide muddies the conversation around the underlying causes and can lead to confusion in how to prevent suicide. This is a complex issue; there is never an easy answer as to why someone takes their own life. We need to have more education and open discussions around the multiple factors involved in suicidation.
There are many misconceptions about someone who attempts or completes suicide. Let’s dive into a few:
- Weak. Often people who have died by suicide or have attempted to take their own life are seen as weaker than those who do not. This is false. Choosing to take one’s life is not a symptom of weakness, it is due to overwhelming pain, mental anguish, fear or despair that a person cannot solve effectively. This can be brought on by mental illness but it can also be a result of trauma such as abuse, an accident, sexual assault or deep loss.
- Mental illness. I have already pointed out that there are many factors involved in the decision to take one’s life, and while mental illness increases the risk factors for suicide, not all mentally ill people take their lives and not all people who die by suicide are mentally ill. Seeing suicide as a single factor issue impedes us from understanding the truth around suicide and the risk factors involved.
- Surprise. In most cases, people who take their own life show signs before doing so. There are the anomalies, but there are often indicators that are not seen or heard prior to the person attempting or completing suicide. Understanding the signs and risk factors of someone who is considering or planning to take their life can help prevent death by suicide.
- Myths and education. There are many myths surrounding suicide. These myths do harm through reinforcing the misconceptions around suicidation and reinforcing the stigma of suicide, thus making it more difficult to progress in prevention.
In addition to misconceptions, the topic of suicide is considered taboo in many homes and cultures. The lack of public awareness around the causes and prevention strategies of suicide creates a challenge in developing effective preventions.
It is imperative that we change the narrative around suicidation in order to make progress in preventing suicide.
As an example of how complex, confusing and devastating suicide is to the loved ones left behind, even after experiencing tremendous loss as a result of suicide, I offer the following perspective:
I believe that in some cases, suicide is an intensely personal decision made by those who can no longer bear suffering and pain.
Whoa. I know, you’re confused. I’m talking about prevention and then I just made that statement? WTF? Here’s the thing. I don’t ever want to lose another person to suicide. I want to prevent people from taking their own life, I want to ease the sense of despair or pain that drives people to end their pain through suicide and I actively work on doing so.
But here’s where my perspective has evolved:
Each person’s lived experience is unique, we develop diseases that shorten our lives or lessen our quality of life. Some of us develop cancer or another chronic disease, other of us develop mental illness. Still others live with chronic pain, emotional and physical. Thus, my question becomes “If, as a society, we are moving toward acceptance of a person with end-stage disease choosing when they die, can we also move toward this idea for people with chronic pain or despair?”
I know this is a big and shocking question. I’ll go back to my dad to look at this further.
From the age of 9, when his mother died suddenly, my father experienced deep emotional and physical trauma that left him emotionally and physically scarred. With a family history of mental illness and alcoholism, he faced a world where trauma was a daily occurrence and he did not have the support to navigate the trauma in a healthy way. As an adult, he failed time and again to develop long-term emotional ties to people. He also failed to find “success” in the typical measure. He was an artist and was unable to find financial stability. By the time he made the decision to take his own life, he had several failed business attempts under his belt, many burned bridges and was destitute and starving.
My father had done his best, everything he could do, to pull himself up by his bootstraps (which is a concept that deserves further consideration, but that’s another post, on another day), to find healing and to find happiness and financial success. He was never able to achieve these goals and the scars from his unhealed trauma tortured him. So rather than feel anger at my father for killing himself, I developed a sense that his death was his only option. That he deserved the right to choose to end his life when he found there were no other answers. Much like I would defend a terminal cancer patient in dying with dignity, I learned to see my father, and many like him, as having an incurable illness- the weight and pain of which only they could understand.
I don’t advocate suicide, and I continue to work to prevent it, especially in children and teens. But I think it’s important to have a full and honest discussion about suicide and its effect on our world, which for me includes the idea that some people may opt out and that is their choice- and if they have made that choice, there may be very little you can or could have done to stop them. Like Amy Bleuel, who gave the world the gift of Project Semicolon, before finally taking her life after a long battle with trauma and subsequent mental illness.
Amy’s gift to the world has saved many lives, my father’s gift to me saved my life.
Today, on my dad’s birthday, I write all of this in an effort to alleviate the horrendous guilt that weighs heavily on those left behind after a suicide. Each person’s life is their own journey, and ultimately they own that journey, no matter how much we want the truth to be otherwise.
So the next time you think of suicide or are confronted with its tragic reality, consider taking a moment to educate yourself on the complexity of the issue and on ways to offer support and help. In a hyper-connected world, we should be able to make sure everyone feels a sense of belonging and connection and that everyone has the opportunity to find the support and resources needed to be able to choose life every day. Below are some simple steps you can take today to help prevent suicide. (Credit to Project Semicolon for these ideas)
- Pay more attention to mental health and well-being and encourage it in others.
- Support a loved one/friend/colleague who is living with a mental health issue or illness, who is going through a difficult time, is struggling with suicidal thoughts or has lost a loved one to suicide.
- Refrain from using the phrase ‘commit suicide’ or successful suicide and instead say ‘died by suicide’ or ‘suicided’
- Encourage people that it’s ok to talk about suicide.
- Take a suicide alertness or intervention training such as SafeTALK or ASIST or Mental Health First Aid. Just like we learn physical first aid skills we can also learn emotional first aid skills. Encourage families, friends, co-workers, faith groups, coaches to take training in your community. Raise funds and host one!
- Host a Project Semicolon event in your community if one does not already exist
Thank you for reading this. How does it sit with you? How do you feel about the idea of suicide being a choice or the only option for some people?
And don’t forget to take a peek at the resources listed below, they just might help you save a life.
US national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
US national suicide crisis textline: text TALK to 741741
Suicide risk factors and warning signs
Statistics on suicide in the US
World Health Organization fact sheet on suicide
Resources from Check Yo Mate to help make connections with people and end the stigma around mental health