Here is my truth: After years of advocating for suicide prevention in my community, online and in-person, I still find that even I am too afraid to talk about suicide.
Talking about suicide is hard. But not talking about it is even harder.
Back in April, I started working at a mental health non-profit, a place where one would assume opening up about your struggles is expected and welcome. My third week of work marked my friend Steven’s death anniversary. Steven died by suicide four years prior. That day, I suffered alone at my desk in silence. It was agonizing. I forced myself to choke down sobs and tears as I did my work. About thirty minutes before I was supposed to leave the office, I mustered up the courage to tell my supervisor’s boss about the significance of that particular day. She was understanding, just as I imagined she’d be; still I remained fearful of being so vulnerable. The day continued on, and I grieved within the confines of my mind, only feeling comfortable enough to write about it in the form of blogs. Eventually, I opened up to a couple of friends, but the day had already passed by.
What was I so afraid of?
Last week, I heard news that Jess, a friend and former roommate from college, may have passed away by suicide. To be honest, the last time Jess and I interacted was on a day marked by the culmination of a year of tension and passive aggression. Back then, I was young and self-absorbed in my own little bubble and I never considered her struggle as something to focus my time on. I was impatient and I didn’t bother asking her what was wrong. In fact, I was so concerned with my boyfriend (at the time) and afraid for his mental health that I failed to take her mental health – let alone my own – into account.
Once I heard the news of Jess’ passing last week, a sense of complete guilt flooded over me. Suddenly, our fights in 2011 and 2012 seemed petty. I began to experience feelings of worthlessness. I wanted so badly to tell her I was sorry. I wanted to tell her that I failed her as a friend, roommate and fellow human being.
Jess was a beautiful young woman, inside and out. She was curious, creative and seemed to jump straight into life without reservations. She didn’t care what people thought about her, which I admittedly envied. Jess would offer to drive me to class during the semester when I didn’t have a car. We’d jam out to some EDM, which she absolutely loved, at 8:30 in the morning before class. But somewhere along the way, things changed. I saw her less and less, as she’d sometimes leave town without notice. I didn’t know how to reach her as a concerned friend. And so I stopped trying. I continued on with my senior year, trying to make sense of what I was going to do after I graduated. And once that rolled around, the two of us ended all communication.
News of her death hit me with the force of an unexpected tsunami. I fear that her passing was due to suicide and I’ve been hesitant to talk about it with others. Once I got the news, I ended up telling a handful of people. But for the most part, I’ve stayed silent about it.
After news of her passing mid-last week, I left town for the weekend for a family commitment. I had been planning a joint bachelor/bachelorette weekend, one filled with love and celebration for my brother and his fiancée before their wedding. It was to be a weekend spent at the beach, soaking up the summer sun and sea salted waves. Regardless, there was a huge pressure (no doubt, one that I created) that latched itself onto my shoulders and seemed to grow in weight as the weekend wore on. My internal experience was marked by overcast skies. It was filled to the brim with hidden tears from a tumultuous storm of grief, guilt, sadness and self-loathing.
Still, I convinced myself to be turned “on.” I forced a smile across my face, trying to be as positive and upbeat as humanly possible. I stayed up passed my bedtime to entertain and woke up early to round people up for activities and socializing. Toward the end of the weekend, I found myself excusing myself a couple of times to cry or vent. But ultimately, I felt disingenuous and angry for being unable to at least share the pain I was going through with the larger group.
I confided in a couple of people, but for the most part, I wore a mask. I conferred with other family members and ultimately decided that I didn’t want to share my sorrow. I didn’t want to make the weekend about me, or steal the happy couple’s spotlight. In turn, I cast a shadow on my pain.
I felt like a fraud. How can someone so passionate about suicide prevention not have the guts to even talk about losing someone to suicide in the most critical time of grief? Death and dying are such taboo topics. When a loved one passes away, society generally accepts it. We offer condolences and allow people their space. We send flowers and kindly written cards.
But what about when someone dies by suicide?
The reality is, this particular cause of death is rarely mentioned at funerals or memorial services. It’s too shameful to talk about. The fact that someone chose to end their life is unfathomable. We, as society, have deemed suicide as a sin. We view it as an inappropriate and unacceptable way to die. And so we avoid it. We don’t discuss it. We move on.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “there is no single cause to suicide.” Additionally, “[it] most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” Suicide is preventable, still it is the 10th leading cause of death in America. Furthermore, for every suicide that takes place, 25 people attempt to end their lives. This is a serious problem.
Here’s the thing: When people end their own lives, we are beyond all red flags. Suicide is the end game, meaning it’s too late to help that person. It means that an individual was going through something beyond understanding. It means they were struggling alone or in silence. It means they may have been living with an undiagnosed mental health condition. It means they may have been getting treatment, but that treatment wasn’t effective. It means that legislation isn’t comprehensive, and it pushes mental health concerns under the rug. It means that time ran out, and no one was there to be this person’s lifeline or guardian angel. It means that our society has failed yet another individual with: 1) an inadequate mental health care system and 2) a culture that shuns the concept of being open and vulnerable.
There’s hope, however. There are ways to join the cause for suicide prevention. It’s important to know the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, which includes the way a person talks, their behavior and their mood. An individual’s health, environment and history also play huge roles, so we must be cognizant of these. If you or someone you know is at risk of self-harm or is experiencing suicidal ideation, you should take action. You could save a life.
Ultimately, it comes down to each of us: we must not be fearful of being vulnerable. We should be open and honest about the nature of someone’s death, even if it is by suicide. We must acknowledge that when someone dies by suicide it has a huge impact on loved ones and people around them. Loss of life, no matter the cause, breaks hearts. The question is whether or not we can stand for future deaths by suicide.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors are available 24 hours everyday. For more information, or to connect with a counselor via chat, check out their website. If you prefer to text, you can contact the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For more information, visit their website.