So, here we are as a nation having to be isolated from one another and then knowing we are taking a chance at getting COVID when we go out to get what we need. Today I was at the grocery store and to be honest with you, I was scared by what I was seeing. There were people there with not only masks on, but with huge bandanas wrapped around their faces so only their eyes showed. When I would reach for something and my arm wasn’t exactly 6′ away, I’d get a dirty look. The instant we let go of something, it’s sanitized. Now, I know the measures need to be taken. I get that, and I would be devastated if someone in my family contracted this. But here’s my point: we are taking so many measures to fight this virus. This crisis. And that’s the right thing to do. I guess I just want to see the same measures taken for a crisis that has no ending in sight.
Now, hear me out. In 2018 (the most recent data I can find), 48,344 Americans died of suicide, which is about 132 people every day. Further, 1.4 million people attempt suicide every year (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). What scares me the most is this: between 2007-2017, the suicide rate for teenagers (15-19) went up 76%. Read that sentence again, grasshoppers. Seventy-six percent. For KIDS ages 10-14, the suicide rate tripled during that same time frame. For both age groups, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death and takes more lives than anything except accidents which include motor vehicle deaths (Centers for Disease Control). Finally, men over 65 are at the highest risk for suicide, and people 85 and over are the 2nd most likely age group to die (NPR).
Obviously, I could go on and on with other statistics, but I think I made my point: suicide is a public health crisis in America ALL of the time, and I think attention needs to be paid to this; particularly when it’s taking the lives of so many of our kids and teens, as well as adults. Do you realize we are twice as likely to die by suicide than homicide, while cancer, heart disease and stroke deaths are lessening?
Think about this: suicide is preventable. Yes, I said preventable. Suicide is not about death, it’s about ending pain in the person’s life. No one truly wants to die, we have a huge survival instinct. Think about the Jews in the Holocaust, or the POW’s in Japan during WWII or Vietnam. When I think how so many willed themselves…forced themselves…to survive in spite of the abhorrent conditions they faced, it astounds me.
I teach about the Donner party in my Sociology classes, and most people joke about this: “Hey…what are the Donner’s going to have for supper? Aunt Jane!” Actually, it was tragic. These poor people who had lost the great majority of their food and supplies because of the Great Salt Dessert crossing and Paiute Native Americans who attacked them, got stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains for an entire winter where literally, scores of snow fell which made climbing these impossible. They tried numerous times though, but failed. The first person that was eaten was a man who had begged his daughters to do so. If they lived, he said, so would the rest of their family. But no one ended up eating their kin, and no one consumed meat unless everything else had been used: bark, leather, fur, etc. That’s survival, peeps. That’s what life means.
Go back to those stats. For kids and teens to be in such pain they end their precious, young lives is unacceptable to me. Overall, not only do we have a suicide epidemic (literally) that cuts across all ‘lines’, but we have a mental illness/mental health crisis that is behind these horrific losses. It’s a 2 fold problem: a society that’s in so much pain, people of all ages are killing themselves because of problems bigger than they are mentally capable of handling at that point, and a lack of resources.
Look at this: The National Institutes of Health are the largest funder for biomedical research in the entire world. In 2016, they spent $68 million on suicide, but 5x more studying SLEEP (what the fuck?), and 10x more on breast cancer which actually killed less people than suicide. Something has to give. We are spending more money on killers that take fewer lives. Isn’t there something very wrong with that? Doesn’t that show the value we place on mental illness and mental health issues?
And like I said, the kicker is that suicides are preventable, primarily with hotlines where the counselor establishes connection with the caller quickly, shows care and empathy, and let’s them know there are other ways to end the pain they are overwhelmed with in their lives. Another prevention? Breaking the stigma of mental illness by making is less ‘risky’ for people to say they are battling depression, or feel like they are outside their bodies looking in, or are experiencing so much anxiety, panic, or mania, they don’t think they can handle it another day. Men are 4x more likely to commit suicide, and are also less likely to receive help for mental health issues. Hmmmmm. Plus, these approaches don’t require social distancing, masks, or staying at home in isolation: it requires work in terms of funding and education. In my mind, that’s doable.
I know these things all too well from my own experiences at attempting suicide – when you are in such a fucking dark place where you look around and see only this black hole enveloping you more and more, you have no way of seeing anything else. That monster has you, and it takes someone outside of yourself to start the journey of climbing up those walls. It takes someone showing you that you matter. That you can survive. Saying: “Things will get better…we all go through stuff.” or “You just got to look on the bright side.” or even “Don’t be so dramatic” are just going to make the person feel guilty for what they are feeling. But saying “Hey, I care about you I want to help you” can.
Edwin Schneidman was the pioneer in the study of suicide, and stated there 10 commonalities of it: seeking a solution, cessation of consciousness, intolerable psychological pain, frustrated psychological needs, feelings of helplessness-hoplessness, feeling ambivalent, a feeling of constriction, a want of escape, communication of intent, and the coping skills the person has. (The Suicidal Mind – Oxford University Press)
Look at some of these closer. How can we help ease people’s psychological pain? By maybe recognizing and helping those with it? By reducing the stigma of expressing this? What about feelings of helplessness & hopelessness? By giving people, such as the homeless, lonely, and sick something that gives them meaning? Something they feel some control over? Something to feel they are needed?
And communication of intent? Maybe we can help by addressing it. Believing it. Showing empathy for the person. Helping them while standing beside them all of the way. That’s what my ma did for me, and it obviously worked.
Lastly, the coping skills the person has. Mine suck balls, like a lot of others with bipolar. I haven’t been able to cope with much since I was a gangly little girl. Normal things hit me hard. Very hard. Just having a friend pay attention to someone else would devastate me (and I don’t use the word devastate lightly). Having my ma or dad express disappointment in me would crush me down to where I felt incapable of being loved. Having a guy reject my feelings in HS would get me so emotionally distraught, I felt I was a ‘nothing, like an invisible girl no one really saw. Is it no wonder the first time I attempted suicide was when my first love told me he didn’t want to be with me anymore? And my second time when too many things piled up on me at once that I totally collapsed under the weight of it all?
We need so much to understand what some people can handle, others can’t. When my ma would say “Honey, you’ll get over J and move on with someone who loves you back” I know her intentions were very good, she simply hated seeing me in so much pain. But I couldn’t ‘just’ do that, no matter how much I tried. Her coping skills are amazingly strong, while mine are amazingly weak. When people would say “Kristi, your nephew is in a better place”, I knew that to be true. But guess what? Maybe understanding that does comfort some, but it didn’t do shit for me when mourning a boy who had barely grown up.
Look, peeps…we are in the midst of a pandemic. We all need to stay healthy and safe. We all need to be diligent about washing our hands, wearing our masks, and staying away from others. But let me tell you something and I want to make this very clear: suicide will still be around. Long after this fucking Covid has either ‘run it’s course’ or we develop a vaccine for it. However, suicide will still be taking lives, young and old. Every single day we’ll see another 129 people kill themselves, all preventable deaths.
I don’t know about you, but I want this epidemic to be over too. Badly.
The National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7 – 1-800-273-8255