Ken makes suicide prevention personal

The topic of suicide is complicated. Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Robin Williams are the latest celebrities to take their own lives. But their deaths are simply the most high-profile cases. Nearly 50,000 Americans commit suicide each year, making suicide the 10th highest cause of death in the U.S. What do these tragedies have in common? Very little, actually, except for general suicide risk factors: Age, gender, race, ethnicity, marital status, sexual orientation, financial status, substance abuse, and history of mental health issues. One or more combine in a moment of weakness or feeling of helplessness to cause someone to take his or her life.

In the U.S., teenage suicides often grab the most gut-wrenching headlines, perhaps because of their youthful vulnerability and tender age. All suicides are tragic, but especially so for teenagers, who have their whole lives ahead of them. Sadly, the severe emotional consequences of bullying and romantic rejection are too often only self-evident after the fact. Without the benefit of fully developed coping mechanisms, suicide suddenly becomes an option, or in the case of some, the compulsion toward mass shootings as a means of revenge. The emotional line that separates suicide from mass shootings can be narrow. They are frequently opposite sides to the same mental health coin.

Statistically, the trends are obvious, even if they are not fully understood. Men, generally, commit suicide at a rate more than triple that of women. Middle-aged males in the U.S., particularly white males, are most likely to commit suicide (more than double than black males). The second- and third-highest rates of suicide are the elderly, age 85 and older, and age 75 to 84. The lowest rate is among teenagers, which, although increasing faster in the past 30 years than ever before, remains low in comparison, for instance, to middle-aged (age 45–54) white males. Heterosexuals are less likely to commit suicide than gays and lesbians, and it is estimated that heterosexual and lesbian women actually attempt suicide more frequently than men. Overall, suicides in the U.S. increased by nearly 25 percent between 1999 and 2014, the largest rate of increase being the category of middle-aged women.

What is society to conclude from these spikes across all ages and genders? Researchers know, statistically, the most vulnerable are those with mental health issues, or those who are recently retired, unemployed, or divorced, or those who are childless, empty-nesters, or who otherwise feel isolated. All of these factors potentially affect the will to live. But none are conclusive. Everyone acts and reacts differently to stressors in life. At best, they are potential red flags to watch for in our spouses, family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

What we do know for certain is that suicide candidates don’t often ask for help. They can’t. Their need to protect their standing in the eyes of others is frequently stronger than their willingness to reach out for help. They withdraw and go dark socially, or they mask their depression and early suicidal thoughts until it is too late. Many of us have actually had these fleeting thoughts and hid them even from those who love us unconditionally. Many more have been touched by someone in our lives who has committed suicide. In retrospect, the signs were often obvious.

This primal compulsion to avoid asking for help is unlikely to significantly change, even as the social stigma of admitting to emotional struggles lessens. The solution, therefore, is not to expect someone who may be suicidal to “cure” themselves or to ask for help. It is not their burden to carry; their emotional state is already too fragile. The burden rests with the rest of us. We need to get out of our self-made, self-focused bubbles and look for opportunities to help without being asked. If we see something, we need to say something, even at the risk of treading where we don’t belong. If done for the right reasons—out of love, compassion, and/or concern—the mistaken intrusion into someone’s privacy who is not suicidal will be forgiven. And for those who are at risk, the extended hand will be welcomed by all but perhaps a few.

Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility. Be proactive. It is not enough in life to care; you have to take the time to show you care. Look for the telltale signs. Find someone who is struggling and go to their world, especially teenagers, who don’t yet even have the life experience to know what to hope for. As adults, we do. We know the deep satisfaction of sharing the journey of life with a partner, with raising children, and with achieving life goals that bring meaning to our lives. And when you ask “How are you?” mean it. Stop, listen and talk, not once, but be there in the moment for as many moments as it takes. Be the love that gives the hope.


For more content like this, read the story about Opiod Addiction from our February issue here.

"If we see something, we need to say something, even at the risk of treading where we don’t belong."