People in physical pain are likely to seek medical help but when there is mental or emotional pain, individuals don’t always know where to turn. Health professionals say depression, mental illness and suicide are topics that Americans don’t spend enough time discussing, nor is there enough funding to explore the issues.
Suicide isn’t always clear-cut, and researchers have spent several years trying to unlock clues that explain why certain people commit the act while others do not.
In recent years, the numbers have been on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for U.S. adults ages 35 to 64 increased by 28.4 percent from 1999 to 2010.
Monday marks the beginning of Suicide Prevention Week, a time when licensed counselors and mental health professionals aim to raise awareness, educate people about warning signs, challenge stigma and let people know where they can receive help. This year’s theme is “Challenging Our Assumptions and Moving Forward Together.”
“This is something that I personally wanted to raise awareness about,” said Brittney Nichols, a licensed professional counselor at East Texas Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Center.
According to the CDC, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming 36,000 lives each year. It’s the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 and the second leading cause for those ages 25 to 34.
The American Association of Suicidology and CDC reports show that more than 5 million Americans are affected by the suicide of a family member or loved one, while 8.3 million adults reported having suicidal thoughts in 2008 and 2009.
And for every completed suicide attempt, there are 25 unsuccessful attempts, according to AAS estimates. Ms. Nichols said these are conservative estimates.
“People don’t realize how common it is,” she said. “People don’t realize how treatable it is.”
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Not only are more people taking their lives, but more families are left to deal with the grief.
It’s something Sarah Robinson, of Whitehouse, understands too well. She lost her younger brother, Seth Porter, three years ago. She said the 29-year-old had battled depression since middle school.
“We were always very aware of it and very in tune and very much talking to him each day,” Mrs. Robinson said.
The key to surviving the suicide of a loved one, Mrs. Robinson said, is education and counseling. Her family immediately sought help after her brother’s death. They continued intensive counseling once a week for several months. It’s been a process, she said. Being a close-knit family and having religious faith also has helped them mourn their loss.
“We do have a very close relationship with Christ — all of us do,” Mrs. Robinson said. “But there’s also an awareness even before this happened that counseling is God’s way of helping each other deal with tragedy. We’ve never had the mentality that depression is a weakness. We’ve been real blessed that (counseling has) been widely accepted and widely encouraged. It’s common for us when we’re struggling with something to seek professional help.”
Stacey Bass, of Tyler, lost her father to suicide in 2005. After years of depression and prescription pain medication addiction, he was tired of fighting.
“He was an oil and gas landman,” Ms. Bass said. “He was successful but he couldn’t kick his addiction and his depression.”
Ms. Bass’s family found solace in online support groups. At the time, there were no suicide support groups in Tyler.
“When it happened, naturally, I think you go through shock,” she said. “The first year, I was very numb. In order to help myself, I got online immediately.”
Families often are left with a sense of guilt and wishing they could do more.
“For survivors, you have to learn to forgive them,” Ms. Bass said. “No matter what you did or could have done, there was nothing you could have done to stop them.”
Mrs. Robinson said her brother’s death offered a lesson in humanity. It changed the way she interacts with other people.
“I take that extra time to care for that human more than I would before,” she said. “I think I look at people differently when I walk down the street or walk through the mall. Every human is dealing with something, and every person has something that they’re battling that we don’t know about, and some are more severe than others. I think I have more of an empathetic heart for people. I think I’m a lot less quick to judge people just in general because you don’t know what they’re battling.”
She added, "We're all better because of (my brother). He's touched our lives in a way that I don't think we ever could have realized."
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Mental health professionals said that depression could fester into something dangerous very quickly. They said having a dialogue could help prevent suicide.
While it is a difficult topic, Ms. Nichols said ignoring the issue worsens the problem. It’s uncomfortable, she said, because there still is a stigma attached to suicide.
“People who have different beliefs about suicide, people who haven’t been through it, they really don’t want to talk about it because there’s a stigma,” Ms. Bass noted.
For loved ones of those who exhibit signs of suicidal thoughts, Ms. Nichols said not to leave the person alone. She also advised people to encourage them to see a counselor or mental health professional. If there is an immediate danger of suicide, she said they should help the person to an emergency department, call police or 911.
“This is a life-or-death issue,” she said. “If someone is talking suicide you have to do something.”
Ms. Nichols said people who commit suicide typically have warning signs leading up to the event.
“People start withdrawing, they become depressed, they withdraw emotionally, they stop doing something they used to enjoy or they talk about death,” she said.
Ms. Bass’s family saw the warning signs in several previous attempts.
“All of the times before when he was attempting it, there was a cry out for help,” she said.
Ms. Bass said her father would write notes or make phone calls, but with the final attempt, there were no alerts.
But then there are times when there are no warning signs.
“That was our case,” Mrs. Robinson said. “(My brother) was on an uphill swing and we did lose him. … Sometimes there’s warning signs, and sometimes there aren’t. It’s very much an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment thing.”
Ms. Nichols said thoughts of suicide don’t necessarily mean there is a mental illness. A history of substance abuse, a major loss, grief and trauma can spur suicidal thoughts..
“Having suicidal thoughts does not mean you’re crazy, and it is not a sign of weakness,” she said.
For Seth Porter’s family, suicide has been a test of compassion and faith. It has also reminded them that this life is a gift.
“Embrace every moment that you have — with everyone — whether they’re dealing with it or not …” Mrs. Robinson said. “You just don’t know when it’s going to be our last moment. Let them know how you feel while you can.”
Ms. Bass’s message to people who consider suicide is that there is another way to deal with the pain.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” she said. “There are solutions no matter what the issue is.
“They thought that they wouldn’t be missed and they would be doing people a favor but that’s not true. It’s the opposite. There are so many support groups that will help anybody. Just don’t give up.”