The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is at the forefront of issues related to suicide prevention and awareness. On June 1, AFSP will host the annual Overnight Walk in Washington, DC from dusk till dawn, literally bringing the issue of suicide out of the darkness and into the light.
Many who have survived the loss of a loved one to suicide have been asked if they really believe there was something they could have done. It's not a question of malice, nor is it meant to be dismissive, but it is a question that each of us feels in our very core with each thought we have about the deceased. The guilt that plagues you after a loved one dies by suicide is one that is convinced of your failure — convinced the answer to the question is of course you could have done something.
I lost my best friend, Jason, to suicide on August 27, 2010. I had moved away from my home state of Colorado to Washington, D.C. I remember seeing his name on the screen of my phone, and answering the call that day enthusiastically with a "Hey, Jace!" His Mom's voice came through though — not Jason's. I remember saying to her, "please don't tell me that something happened to Jason ..."
Suicide can be prevented. However, in order to prevent suicides, we must be active, vocal and engaged well before we are personally affected. There is a heavy stigma associated with both the person who is lost and those left behind. This stigma causes paralysis in how we publicly speak about suicide, the factors that pose a risk, and the policy solutions we pursue.
Suicide is a different sort of loss — one that is not tied to an untimely accident or a long battle with a disease. Suicide is occasionally dismissed by those who don't know any better as a "selfish" choice. In reality, this is not the case at all. Research findings show that the minds of those who complete suicide are operating differently than a healthy mind. 90% of those who have died by suicide have had a mental disorder or substance abuse problem. Not all of these issues were diagnosed, but these illnesses are treatable. Our inability to discuss mental health and suicide without judgement causes many who need help to avoid seeking it.
Suicide intersects with the debate over gun control, given that suicides account for 60% of all gun-related deaths. We will not see a drop in gun-related fatalities without addressing suicide. In 2010, firearms were used in a little more than half of all suicides. A recent study showed that 20% of young people at risk for suicide have a gun in their home, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal.
This isn't a statement for or against gun control — it is a statement about suicide, risk factors, and protective factors. As another testament to how closely the issues align, six states proposed and Florida passed legislation banning doctors from speaking to their patients about guns in their home (a judge has recently halted the law). Gun advocates argued that doctors having this information violated an individuals right to privacy and effectively limiting away a safe, confidential mechanism for physicians to identify those with both the means and ideation to take their own life.
In recognizing the link between guns and suicide, AFSP policy researchers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and others have partnered on a project to educate gun shop and fire range owners to recognize the signs of suicidal persons called the Gun Shop Project. The guidelines created under the program encourage gun owners to promote firearms training, which allows for time for the crisis to pass, while also providing brochures and information on how to make firearms inaccessible if a family member seems troubled. Strategies such as these are one step we can take to reduce both gun-related deaths and suicides.
Suicide is a public health problem and an economic problem. There is a cost to suicide in this country, estimated in the U.S. to cost $34 billion annually for completed suicides and $8 billion for suicide attempts in medical care and lost wages and productivity. If we speak at all about suicide, it is rarely quantified in this way so that we reveal both the emotional and financial costs to our society.
There is an intense need to have these conversations about suicide in all facets of public policy — and now is the time. I will be participating in the Overnight Walk with the Team Colorado AFSP Chapter, in memory of Jason and others the team has lost to suicide. Follow us on Twitter: @JewelynCosgrove, @AFSPnational, @AFSPColorado.
Review the warning signs, and if someone you love could be at risk for suicide, take the advice offered and act calmly but quickly to seek support — including removing firearms, drugs or sharp objects as necessary. Remind your loved ones that treatment options are available. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) if you are in crisis. Additional resources can be found on the CDC's website.
Dum Spiro Spero. "While I breathe, I hope." — Cicero