“I have a hard-earned respect for suicide’s ability to undermine, overwhelm, outwit, devastate, and destroy.”—Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., from Night Falls Fast
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide has increased in almost every state since 1999. For more than five decades, I’ve been preoccupied with those who have taken their own lives. It all began when I was ten years old and my grandmother committed suicide in my childhood home. I was the one who found her. My first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, was based on that traumatic experience.
Ironically, my grandmother took her life during the month of September, a time when suicide is at the forefront of many people’s minds, but back in the 1960s, there was little talk or awareness about this subject. Today, there’s an effort to raise public awareness about suicide, in addition to connecting survivors with post-intervention services. The largest event held during September is the Out of Darkness Walk held in cities across the United States.
In recent years, not only has suicide been on the rise, but it’s also discussed more openly. Statistics indicate that in the United States, more than one million Americans attempt suicide annually, and approximately 45,000 will succeed. It’s been reported that suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States. Over the past few years, the suicide rate has skyrocketed among youth, as well as those between the ages of 55 and 64. For many of us, the recent suicides of Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain have brought this subject to light.
When someone has chosen to take his or her own life, the most common question that arises is “Why?” It’s impossible to know for sure why someone has made this choice; however, those of us who are left behind find ourselves entangled in speculation. We also wonder about the victim’s state of mind at the time of the suicide and ask ourselves if there was something we could have done to prevent this irreversible act.
According to Jamison (1999) in her timeless book Night Falls Fast, there are a number of underlying conditions that might predispose someone to suicide, including heredity, mental illness, or impulsive or violent temperaments. These factors coupled with troubling life experiences such as economic setbacks, romantic failures, confrontations with the law, terminal illnesses, and substance abuse create a fertile environment for someone to take his or her life.
It’s been said that at some point in their lives, the majority of suicide victims have struggled with depression. In most cases, suicide is a permanent solution for what could have been a temporary problem. Further, what might seem like a temporary problem to outsiders might have been a battle the deceased struggled with for a long time. Often the psychic pain gets overwhelming, but these individuals don’t avail themselves of resources to help them navigate their journeys. Sadly, they come to view suicide as the only alternative to their tormented situations.
As Jamison wisely states, “Suicide is a particularly awful way to die: the mental suffering leading up to it is usually prolonged, intense, and unpalliated”; and the dilemma is often that the person both wants to live and to die.
Even though there’s a lot more awareness now than there was during the 1960s, for some, there continues to be a stigma related to mental health issues, which can prevent people from seeking help. Feelings of shame often lead to depression, a common precursor to taking one’s life. Although sudden acts of suicide have been reported, typically people don’t decide to commit this act overnight. There might have been a deep depression or sense of hopelessness that they’d been struggling with for a long time.
We can never completely know and understand the extent of another person’s psychic suffering, but it’s important that we’re alert to it and that we reach out when we can.
If you or someone you know might be suffering, please immediately seek support and assistance. Here are two resources:
For substance misuse problems, contact The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline (link is external) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
While we cannot help others once they’ve decided to take their own lives, we can assist the loved ones left behind who will suffer for the rest of their lives, as they ask themselves what they could have done to help, or if there were any signs they missed.
If you’re managing the loss of a loved one due to suicide or know someone who is, here are some things to remember:
- The death of a loved one is among life’s biggest stressors.
- Losing someone in this way can trigger other intense emotions.
- Be prepared for shock and disbelief.
- Feelings of guilt are normal, as well as wondering, ”What if?” but remember that no one’s suicide is your fault.
- Having unanswered questions and feelings of confusion are normal.
- It’s common to feel distrustful of others and to want to withdraw from everyday activities.
- You need to give yourself time to heal. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.
- Expect setbacks.
- Reach out to supportive friends and family.
- Suspend family gatherings/memories that are too painful.
- Consider daily journaling as a way to record your feelings.
- Think about joining a support group.
- Seek professional assistance or “psychological first aid.”
Dunne, E. J., J. L. McIntosh and K. Dunne-Maxim. (1987). Suicide and Its Aftermath: Understanding and Counseling the Survivors. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Co.
Greenspan, M. (2004). Healing Through the Dark Emotions. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Jamison, K. R. (1997). Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. New York: NY: Vintage Books.