There are very few words in our global vocabulary that evoke such a visceral reaction as the word, suicide. While the response may vary from culture to culture, it is universally, without a doubt, negative. Making matters worse, the collective narrative around the subject of suicide is predominantly fear-based and judgmental which only perpetuates the jaundiced view of this national health crisis. More than 47,000 Americans died from suicide in 2019 and it is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Ugly though the word may be, it is one that bears a great deal of attention.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Quite the mouthful. It’s a very tall task to talk about preventing, no less be aware of something that is so elusive and incredibly well-disguised. For those who have experienced a loss from suicide, ‘prevention’ can become an obsession. The search for answers to what could have been done, what wasn’t seen, or heard, or what was missed is, as my husband says, like an App that is constantly running in your brain; always there, always-on, no escaping it. Prevention may mean diving into the research and understanding brain chemistry, exploring the underlying mental health issues that contribute to suicide, genetics. For some, it means participating in one of the many walks or events sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or other like-minded programs. For others, it is sharing their story so that perhaps someone may learn from their experience, may have hope.
We lost our 21-year-old son, Viktor, to suicide three years ago this month. Viktor was a sweet, kind, loving young man who had everything in front of him. He loved and was loved beyond words. But for the emotional impulsivity of that moment, fueled by alcohol and poor choices, and whatever was in his mind in that millisecond of that moment, he would likely be here right now. But we cannot change any of that or the outcome. And so, our lives are dominated by endless and profound grief, his searing absence, and the desperate longing to understand how this could possibly have happened.
There is zero discrimination in the world of suicide. It takes rich or poor, young and old, any sexual orientation, mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers, spouses, or partners. The common thread that is woven into the fabric of this unfortunate group is a desire to do whatever possible to prevent this from happening to someone else. For my husband and me and many of those we have met, prevention comes down to two key elements: communication and access to mental health care.
Communication means asking the tough questions. The difficult questions. Communication requires compassion to create safe spaces for people to talk about their feelings, to listen and guide, to help access care. Communication means lifting the veil around what suicide is and is not, removing the judgment, and permitting people to seek a safe, higher ground. Communication is learning how to talk to your loved one, your colleague, your friend or neighbor, even a stranger when you sense something is off. Communication is about setting aside your bias about mental health and realizing that some people are in trouble, are alone, are grieving, are lonely, and need a helping hand. Asking “how are you?”, “do you need to talk?”, “Is everything ok?” can be a game-changer. Changing the narrative and allowing people the safety to talk about the unpleasant thoughts, fears and ideas is the first step toward possibly preventing a suicide.
It is no surprise that access to mental health care is a must. This merits a much larger discussion but the facts remain, having access to resources, tools, and clinical support is necessary for those struggling. Whether it is therapy, coaching, in or outpatient treatment, mental health care is as much in need if not more than any other type of health care option.
Sadly, there is no way to prevent 100% of suicides. We can, however, drive the numbers down. Being informed, compassionate, creating access to care, eliminating judgment and stigma, changing the conversation are the best first steps. Being aware. This is prevention. We would give everything we have to see him walk through our door, see that big smile, hear his voice. Anything. Since we cannot, we will do everything in our power to change the narrative around suicide and create hope for the future.