Reaching out

I think about suicide nearly every day. I don’t think of it in terms of myself. By every measure of which I know, I am at extremely low risk of dying by suicide. But I have dedicated one portion of my time to helping others deal with the unique grief that comes from suicide loss and to doing everything I can to prevent suicide. I have to admit, our prevention efforts have had mixed results. We’ve seen a few dips in the suicide rate in our community, but it still is a major problem and our community still has a suicide rate this is over double the national average. I think about it a lot. I’ve joined with others to do what we can to prevent further suicides.

After years of serving on our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) team, I have become one of the team’s coordinators. That means that every time law enforcement requests a suicide response in our city, I am aware of the call. Dispatch sends me a text message that tells me of the loss and which team member has been called. I then follow up to make sure that our system is working and our responders are in motion. It means that I am aware of and counting nearly every suicide in our county.

Today is not a typical day, but it is not all that atypical, either. This morning I will facilitate a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. This afternoon I will attend the funeral of a young man who died by suicide. These aren’t the only events of my day, but if you count writing this journal entry, I’ll spend about 4 hours directly dealing with suicide.

It isn’t all bad news, but there is a lot of pain and sorrow and sadness.

The trigger for this morning’s journal entry was reading that Sydney Aiello, a recent graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived the Parkland school shooting has died by suicide. The news reports don’t give many details. I usually don’t want the details anyway. What I need to know is there. She was a brilliant and wonderful young woman. She filled her days with cheerleading, doing yoga and brightening up the lives of others. She was hoping to go into the medical field to help others. One of her close friends, Meadow Pollack died in the Parkland shooting on February 14, 2018. Sydney was struggling with her fear of classroom settings and it was hindering her ability to pursue her college education. She had recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was experiencing a huge burden of pain and grief. And she is dead. She is every bit as much a victim of that horrible shooting as are the ones who died from their injuries on that day. There is no way to compare one person’s pain with another’s but we know that her pain lasted longer. She suffered for over a year.

We can’t fix that stark fact.

I tell family members that I can’t fix their pain. I tell them that I can’t help them get over what has happened. You don’t get over it. You get through it. I tell them that it is time to “circle the wagons” and pull in every resource we know. Counseling helps. Getting counseling sooner rather than later helps. Support groups help. Being with others who understand the unique nature of suicide grief makes a difference.

The story of the young man whose funeral I will attend today is not mine to share. I can write, however, that its ending is an incredible tragedy. His family will struggle for years with grief. It is hard for them not to make his last day the defining day of this life even though they know, more than the rest of us, that he was so much more than then events of his final hours.

I do think about suicide a lot. And I have taken several classes and read a lot of books. I read the abstracts of academic psychological studies. I have attended seminars and listened to some of the worlds leading suicidologists. But I don’t understand suicide. It doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve never experienced the darkness of clinical depression. I’ve never gone to that place where hope is absent. I can’t imagine the sensation of wanting this life to end. I don’t understand it. I know the symptoms. I am ASIST trained as a suicide first responder. I know what to do when someone is asking for help or threatening suicide. I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of multiple successful interventions where help was obtained, treatment was effective and suicide was prevented. But I don’t understand suicide completed.

Our brains are incredibly complex. Our society has attached so much stigma to mental illness that it hasn’t received the funding necessary for the research that is needed. We do know that mental illnesses can be effectively treated. We also know that treatment needs to be individualized. What works for one person may not work for another. There is no “one size fits all” solution to mental illness. We also know that the fatality rate from certain mental illnesses is very high and among the highest is post-traumatic stress disorder. We can identify some individuals who are at a higher risk than others.

But we also know that we are often surprised by suicide. Families frequently report to me that they did not see warning signs. They did not know how much their loved one was suffering. The death came as a complete shock. Mental illness can be incredibly sneaky. It can hide and the symptoms can lie beneath detection by even close family members.

I think about suicide a lot. It isn’t morbid curiosity. It is a genuine desire to help others. Today, like many days, I dream of becoming more effective at diagnosing and treating mental illness. I long for the day when we learn to be even better at detecting suicidal behavior and preventing death.

I genuinely look forward to the days when there are no suicide calls and there are no funerals to attend. On the days when suicides do occur, however, I will continue to reach out and provide whatever support and comfort i am able.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!