A few years ago, I started Active Minds’ formal observation of Suicide Prevention Month. There were several reasons for this. Chief among them was that we all know too many people who have died by suicide; or we know their loved ones; or we know people who have attempted; or we, ourselves, have contemplated taking our own lives.
Suicide is the most tragic, heartbreaking, confusing form of death. I hate it. I want to prevent it. So many of us do; so, I created an awareness campaign.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with fellow staff members and organizations to develop messaging and programs. In doing so, I have learned two things definitively:
- We will never eradicate suicide.
- We can’t stop trying to prevent suicide.
Although researchers work hard every day to develop better treatments for the mental illnesses that often precede suicide, we’ll never have the equivalent of a polio or small pox vaccine. Suicide is an engrained part of the human condition, and no two sets of circumstances are alike. Maybe it’s chronic pain. Maybe it’s a debilitating illness. Maybe it’s deep, bone crushing exhaustion. Maybe it’s mental illness—and then in which unique combination, course, responsiveness or unresponsiveness to treatment, etc.?
Suicide is like a cancer in some ways. We can develop better treatments, we can screen for precancerous and cancerous cells, we can do genetic tests. But at the end of the day, each unique cluster of cells will grow and mutate in their own way. There are patterns, of course, and common treatments that provide statistical assurances that they’ll work.
But statistics mean very little when you lose someone you love, anyway.
Cancer has made tremendous strides with the general public. The stigma that surrounded cancer just a few decades ago is gone. Widespread social awareness campaigns mean more donations for research and screenings. Thousands of people “Relay for Life” and “Race for a Cure” each year. Millions of people watch college and professional athletes go pink.
Cancer is out of the closet. We know how to prevent the spread and screen effectively for many types. We are losing fewer people, and that gives us hope.
We can’t say the same for suicide.
According to the CDC, the suicide rate has gone up 24% in the last 20 years, and it’s still the second leading cause of death among college students.
I am privileged to work in a community that is shouting about these facts–to have a partner who has walked all night once a year for over a decade to bring suicide out of the darkness. However, when I step out of that bubble there is still only so much silence surrounding suicide.
That silence is what ensures the continued increase in tragic deaths by suicide.
No, we are never going to be able to develop a vaccination against suicide that will eradicate it from the earth. Suicide isn’t even an illness. It does have symptoms, however, and why not better address them?
- People who attempt suicide and the artifacts left behind by those who die by suicide teach us that most of them feel they are a burden to others in their lives. They aren’t good enough parents. They lost their job. They flunked out of school. Their hospital bills are a strain on their parents’ finances. So many of them descend down a steep, vacuous shame spiral that ends in the belief that the world would be better off without them, and they go.
If you’ve never lost someone close to you, let me tell you this right now: the world is never better off. And we are all better off when we tell and show someone that they are needed and wanted here.
- Loneliness is an empty room without a door filled only by silence. Do you know how often I’ve heard myself tell someone who is lonely or depressed that they should go do any number of things out in the world in order to feel less lonely or depressed? They’re in a room without a door! A lonely or depressed person can reach out all day long, but in the absence of a door, they’ll still be stuck in that room. It’s incumbent upon all of us on the outside to pick up our tools, build doors, and reach back.
We have to create safe spaces. We have to build doors that provide easier access to quality treatment, listening ears, warm embraces, laughter, and purpose. It is only through open doors that we can send sincere invitations to connect and engage.
There is no cure for suicide. There is a cure for the silence, shame, burdensomeness, loneliness, hopelessness, and lack of treatment access that surround it.
We become the cure when we speak up; when we put in the effort; when we say and show each other that someone’s life is a gift to the entire world.
This Suicide Prevention Month and every day of the year, I invite you to work with me to speak up more, and most importantly do more to keep the people in your life here. We may not be able to prevent every suicide, but we all have the capacity to try.