Suicide and Depression: Surviving the Holidays

This topic today goes to the heart of an epidemic in our culture and our community. One that rips a hole in the fabric of so many lives and always – always – leaves too many questions unanswered.

According to a New York Times article from April this year, the US suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high. The American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide reports that

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US

Each year 42,773 Americans die by suicide

For every completed suicide 25 attempt suicide

And they remind us that while this data is the most accurate available, they estimate the  actualnumbers to be higher. “Stigma surrounding suicide leads to underreporting, and data collection methods critical to suicide prevention need to be improved.”

Many suicides go unreported – especially when they involve a single vehicle car crash or an overdose. I had an intern once who started developed an alcohol problem. He was a seminarian student and he was gay. As he started finding the courage to come out to those closest to him, he was met by rejection. By his family. By many of his fellow students and much of the staff at the seminary. His drinking accelerated and one night he died of alcohol poisoning. It was never classified as a suicide, although he most certainly meant to end his own life.

Here in the Tri-Cities, we have also seen an unprecedented rise in suicides. The rate among our young people has increased over 70% over the last few years. The latest Ottawa County Youth Assessment Survey (2014) confirms that depression and thoughts of suicide have reached an all-time high. About a quarter of teens reported being depressed in the past year. That equals about 6,400 youth between the ages of 13 and 18.

17 percent of teens reported that they had thought about attempting suicide and 12 percent had made a plan to carry it out.

7 percent said they tried to kill themselves at least once in the past 12 months.

Our young people are talking about it, they are trying it, and they are completing it. So are our veterans. Every day 22 veterans take their own lives. In turns out that suicide rates are rising in almost every demographic you can define, so that a suicide attempt occurs some place in this country every single minute. And every 15 minutes, one of those attempts is completed. What does it mean that so many people in our society and in our own neighborhoods are taking their lives?

The easy answer is hopelessness. But when we delve deeper, when we ask the really hard questions, we find there are no easy answers. While suicide is often viewed as a response to a single stressful event, it is far more complicated than that. Suicide results from complex biological, psychological, social, and environmental interactions. Each story, like each individual, is unique.

Suicide cries of the tragic brokenness of life: That while we believe life is essentially good, there are times for some of us when to live is to be in hell, to know a torment that has no hope. As human beings, we can’t ignore, reject, or shy away from those who despair of life. Instead, we have a responsibility to protect and promote life, to be an agent of hope in the midst of suffering, and to act in love toward those who are troubled.

But that’s a difficult order to fill because we so often are not aware of that suffering. People hide their pain and their loss because of stigma and shame. And that stigma is sticky. It attaches itself not only to those who consider suicide, but also attaches to those who are left behind – along with a complex combination of guilt, blame and fear. Guilt: What should I have done to prevent this? Blame: What should you or he or she have done? And Fear: Has the unthinkable now become an option for me and for others I love. Each survivor’s life must be re-constructed after suicide, continually, in ways that have to accommodate the hole that suicide has torn in the fabric of life.

Some people consider suicide ultimately selfish. But when victims do leave notes they most often tell of their desperation to end a pain that will not go away. One young man wrote, “I have pondered it and decided I would hurt them less dead than alive.”

William Styron wrote in Darkness Visible:

“…the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne…Through the healing process of time and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases - most people survive depression…but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer…”

Because of stigma, suicide is rarely discussed. And that makes even talking about thoughts of suicide very difficult. The fact that we can’t talk about suicide may well be one of the greatest barriers to preventing its tragic outcome. 

For me those thoughts arrived when I was 18 years old, sitting in my car with a bottle of aspirin crying about the mess I had made of my life now that I was in an abusive marriage. Fortunately for me, I found another way out of my pain. For many people today, suicide has become a much more likely choice.  

In fact, my best friend and my mentor, someone I loved with all my heart, made that choice 8½ years ago – and I was plunged into a world of blackness and confusion. It made no sense – and then it made lots of sense. There was no indication – and then everything became a missed clue. I felt abandoned and betrayed and lost. The act of ending his life was an act of violence against me and all I thought our work and our relationship had stood for. I was furious and I was heartbroken.

I spent so much time trying to affix blame. Why did he do this? Who or what pushed him over the edge? Mostly, how had I failed him? I wanted desperately to understand, to make sense of it. I wanted to understand why he did it, because then maybe I could feel some sense of control. I think somewhere my mind was creating this fantasy that if I could figure it out, I could go back and change things, make everything turn out different. But it doesn’t work that way. Eventually, I learned to accept the mystery for what it is. I forgave my friend. And in time I was even able to forgive myself for not being able to save him.

Whoever among us thinks about suicide should know that the rest of us expect and plead for you to reach out for help. When life's difficulties and disappointments threaten to overwhelm our desire to live, we are urged and invited to talk with those we trust and to draw upon their strength.

When, on the other hand, a loved one talks to us of suicide or we sense that something is seriously amiss, we need to listen and take what they say seriously. People who have made prior attempts are often at an even greater risk. A suicide attempt is a cry for help and a warning that something is terribly wrong and should be taken with utmost seriousness. It can be frightening to hear such words and to contemplate such acts. We may want to deny or minimize what we are told, but we have a responsibility to listen, to encourage the person to talk, and to get him or her appropriate help.  

It’s important to realize that suicidal persons often feel ambivalent about dying. They often go through a long process in which they try different ways to reduce their profound emotional pain. But they often have "tunnel vision." In their unbearable pain, they are blind to other available options. Frequently, the suicide act is impulsive. If they can see that their suffering and pain can be reduced another way, most will choose to live.

If you are concerned about someone, ask. Asking about suicidal feelings will not plant the idea or cause someone to attempt suicide. Instead, asking a person about suicidal feelings provides an opportunity to get help that may save a life.

Ask about their plan. If the intent, a plan, and the means are there, the person should not be left alone but be helped to get treatment immediately, by calling 911 if necessary.

We have been actively working to provide QPR Training throughout the community. QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Respond. It is suicide prevention training. We have guests here today (Sarah and Aaron) that conduct that training and we would like to have everyone sign up to take that training who hasn’t yet. We need to equip ourselves to intervene the hope that we might help save a life.   

Suicide devastates individuals, families, and communities. And those feelings are only compounded by the fact that people don’t talk about suicide. Too often it becomes a family problem, a personal secret, something shrouded in stigma and shame.

Hence the need for us to have this important conversation and to find the courage to confront what we would often rather ignore. The need to listen, to learn, to offer a lifeline and to be willing to take hold of a lifeline when it’s offered to us. Our lives depend on it.