Hang in there- the story isn't over yet
Updated: Sep 27, 2022
"I'm breathing and believe me that's a HUGE accomplishment. Long story short I SURVIVED! #I'm alive #end the stigma #STOP SUICIDE" T-shirt story on one of the walkers at the Ending the Silence Walk (Above).
Every living, breathing being fears death. It's the existential ending of everything that makes us unique and scary to even contemplate. Yet for some, their fear of living, and loss of hope of things ever getting better start to make death look like a better option. The unthinkable act of ending one's own life through suicide has been around for centuries, and the tug of war between despair and hope challenges the vulnerable and those who love them.
This is a tough topic and I applaud you for getting this far. If you can make it all the way, I promise you a really, really, inspirational story at the end. For most of us, suicide is something to be avoided and shamed as a topic, along with mental illness, but the tide is visibly turning against stigma and it's about time.
Before diving into such a heavy topic, here are some facts.
- Identified suicides in 2019 were about 47,000. making it the 10th leading cause of death in the US.
- Among people ages 10-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death.
- For every suicidal death, there are about 25 attempts, or over 1 million in the US per year.
- Men, (especially white men) are much more likely to die of suicide than women, partially because they choose guns as their preferred method.
- Suicide rates are up over 33% since 2000, and that may be higher still but little post-Covid data exists yet.
- Close to 5% of all Americans seriously thought about suicide during 2019 according to the NIH, and a whopping 12% of young adults, 18-25 had those thoughts.
- Professions that have the highest rates of suicide include medicine (doctors and dentists), construction, farming, police, military, real estate, and law.
Mind you, because of the enormous stigma that surrounds suicide, gathering reliable data is still very much a challenge. These are just the suicides that are known. Add to that thousands more "deaths of despair", that have been written about extensively and tied to alcoholism, opioid use, and risky pandemic behavior and you get a picture of a large segment of society that feels alone, in pain, and sees no place for themselves in the world anymore.
While I've been lucky that no one close to me has taken this dark road, I think about heroes of mine like Robin Williams, who took his own life in 2014. Williams had it all- fame, fortune, family, and a brilliant, kind, sense of humor that lit up the world. But he also had a secret that he hid from the world- a debilitating brain disease that was destroying his mind. He chose to hang himself not just to escape from the disease, but also to avoid the scrutiny and pity that would have followed him if his secret ever got out.
The same story can be said of designer Kate Spade, who had her name all over the world in designer products from clothing to dinnerware. Spade hanged herself in 2018, not because of a brain disease, but because of mental health issues that she feared would damage her brand if consumers ever found out.
These famous cases show that no one is immune to suicide- it can hit anybody- black or white, rich or poor, male or female, which is why we need to all take it seriously. What they also show is that some people would rather die than change their identity or risk judgment from the rest of the world. Life is full of many dead ends. You work and work and find yourself alone and stuck sometimes. Rather than change careers, get help, or admit weakness, some people choose to just plain give up, because it seems easier.
But it's not easier. Suicide leaves behind it a web of sadness and loss that the deceased can't ever imagine. Listening to the words of those left behind, it's so sad to hear them wonder what they could have done to stop it.
There are three levels of suicidal tendencies to watch out for:
1- Suicidal thoughts. In times of extreme stress, especially after the loss of a job, loved one, or marriage, it's not uncommon for people to question the meaning of their lives. Sometimes this leads to depression and thoughts of not wanting to live anymore. The thoughts may be fleeting but shouldn't be overlooked as a warning signal. For those with these kinds of thoughts, talking to someone is key. That someone could be a trusted friend, minister, therapist, teacher, or even stranger (Call 211 for mental health resources or the NAMI helpline at 800-950-6264, or other local resource). Talking out these thoughts while they are still mild often helps people create the action steps that can correct and repair the stress that's going on.
2- Suicidal Ideation. For those who've had thoughts of ending things for a while, they start to turn to how they might do it. They do research on the internet. They buy a gun. They start to think about a plan. There's a lot that goes into this final, desperate act, and for those who find themselves on this path it's time to act decisively. If you or someone you know is actively planning and researching on how to kill themselves, it's time to go to the emergency room and/or call the suicide crisis hotlines. This stage might last a day or a year, but once the plan is close enough, the person is in imminent danger. The national suicide phone number is 800-273-8255.
3- Suicide planning. After ideation gets to a certain point, a specific plan starts to take place. A date, time, and method are selected, a note is written, things are given away, and it becomes very hard to stop the freight train of pain that is about to happen. People shut down and it gets harder to reach them, but at this stage suicide is very much still preventable. This is when loved ones may finally notice what's going on and get a chance to intervene. Sometimes people talk about their plans, sometimes they get eerily silent and withdrawn. The AFSP has a good list of warning signs to look out for, but in this distracted day and age it's easy to miss them. (Oddly, if someone is acting uncharacteristically happy, this is a big warning sign, because the thought that it's almost over lifts their spirits). Talking and listening is key, because those who are about to commit suicide feel supremely alone in their pain, and only the kindness and understanding of others can help them relieve it.
Because of the gravity and difficulty of suicide, most attempts are unsuccessful. Also, most suicidal moods can be very fleeting, which is why it's important not to have easy methods of suicide too accessible. Most bridges now have high fences to prevent jumpers. Doctors have to be careful about prescribing drugs that can be overdosed. Gas ovens used to be a huge source of suicides until the type of gas used was changed. And guns need to be secured and kept from those who are at risk. More than 60% of all gun deaths are suicides, meaning that you're more likely to kill yourself than a bad guy. If you can keep the easy options out of reach, there's more of a chance that talk therapy can do its work.
People on the edge of life are at their most vulnerable, and it it's at this critical time that people can make the most difference. It's just such a shame that it takes so much desperation to get people's attentions. But the despair and determination can be very fleeting, and the right words and actions can make a huge difference. I end with the promised inspiring story, and it's a doozy.
Don Ritchie lived in Australia near a huge cliff, called The Gap, that dropped off to the ocean near his home. That cliff became popular for suicide attempts, and Ritchie made it his life's purpose to watch over the cliff and intervene in any potential attempts that he witnessed. He became known as the Angel of the Gap and is believed to have stopped up to 400 suicides through his vigil. His secret? When he saw someone that he thought was at risk, he approached them with a smile and invited them over for a cup of tea and a conversation. He engaged them and made it clear that he was willing to listen to whatever was going on. He wasn't always successful in his attempts to save people, but he managed to save hundreds, sometimes physically restraining them while his wife called police. Ritchie, who died in 2012 at the age of 86, was given the Medal of Order of Australia and had a park named after him.
Here is a video of Mr. Ritchie in his own words.
This story (and there are more like it out there), proves that human connection can save people at their worst times, and if this guy can save 400 people, each of us can make a difference for one or two. Our world can be a lonely and dark place, and people will continue to look to ending it all as the ultimate solution, which is isn't. Even more people will suffer in silence and secrets, wondering if their lives have meaning.
We all have to die sometime. Until then, we have to find reasons to live and meaning to enrich what little time we have on Earth. We need to be strong enough to acknowledge the darkness, and emerge out of it anyway. Every year, thousands of Americans do just that at walks across the country for suicide prevention. I honor them and those who find the will to keep going.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention- AFSP.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness- NAMI.org
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255