Alison Malmon, Founder and Executive Director of Active Minds, Inc., and survivor of her brother’s suicide, shares her perspective on how communities can do more to prevent suicide.
I remember the day so clearly. It was unseasonably warm for March, and I had just recently returned to my campus after my first college spring break. I spent most of the afternoon outside with my roommates — our books lying in front of us, but no studying anywhere in sight. After a few hours, I went inside my dorm room to get ready for dinner and immediately the phone started ringing and ringing and ringing.
Not in the mood to answer yet another of my roommate’s calls, I let them go to voicemail. The beeps on the machine meant that at least one was for me. I called into our voicemail system and heard my mom’s voice on the other end, “Ali, it’s Mommy. Call me.” I hadn’t called her mommy since I was four. I dialed her back and got the news that changed my life. Brian, my big brother and only sibling, had died by suicide.
Brian was an accomplished, funny, smart 20-something who had risen to the top of his class at his Ivy League university. In the fall of his senior year, he visited his school’s counseling services and told them about how lonely and aimless he felt. What he didn’t tell them, and what we didn’t learn until months later, was that the depression he was experiencing had been dragging him down and causing him to miss extracurricular activities and classes for years — but no one knew. He also didn’t tell them about the voices he had been hearing since he had begun college, saying things that weren’t true and having him do and see things that weren’t real — or that he thought it was his fault.
Once he took a voluntary leave of absence from college and came home, and with my mom by his side, Brian went through the gamut of social workers, doctors, therapists and therapies trying to figure out what would work best. But no matter what we tried, my ambitious and talented brother no longer had hope. He had struggled alone for so long with feelings he wasn’t prepared for and changes he couldn’t understand, thinking he was just being weak. He just wanted the pain and despair to end. A little more than a year after he first sought help for his struggles, but more than four years after he started experiencing them, my 22-year-old brother, Brian, took his own life.
I’ve often said that survivors of suicide loss are part of a unique community that none of us wants to be in, few of us want to talk about, and yet by which all of us feel wholly defined. Once someone you love dies by suicide you are never, ever the same. If you’re like me, you probably feel confused and guilty. You likely feel alone, and you definitely feel the loss. But you’re not alone. More than 38,000 Americans died by suicide in 2010 — meaning that more people died by suicide than in car accidents — leaving hundreds of thousands to make sense of it all every single year. All that is to say: you, survivor of your parent/child/sister/brother/spouse/grandparent/cousin/classmate/friend’s suicide, are not alone.
In fact, chances are there are more people in this “community” with me and you than you would ever expect. Unfortunately, society has told us that it’s not okay to talk about suicide. Whether it’s because we want to honor our loved ones and not just remember how they died; because we don’t understand or want to understand how someone could do this to themselves or us; or because we feel shame, we keep it quiet. But keeping it quiet isn’t helping anyone. All of us who struggle, all of us who care for people who need support, and all of us who have experienced this loss, need to know that other people have been where we are, and have our backs.
For the next month, Active Minds is commemorating National Suicide Prevention Month with the slogan: “Silence Hurts Us All.” Help us honor all of the amazing people in our lives who we’ve lost to suicide by speaking up and reaching out. By sharing our loved ones’ stories, successes and struggles, we can help prevent suicide — and we can help our community heal.
Are you in distress? Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).