When someone you know commits suicide, the first question we ask is “Why?” Knowing the answer to the question before a suicide occurs may help prevent someone from taking their life.
This month, in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ll explore a variety of mental health issues—some more recognizable than others. One in five persons in the United States suffers from some sort of mental health problem, yet the stigma surrounding mental health remains. The more we know about mental health problems, the better we can come alongside those who suffer.
A Question Without an Answer
“Why Cee, why did you do this? You didn’t have to!” her voice trembled and ended on a shaky accusation.
The heavy sounds of quiet sobbing filled the small space. Outside, Kingbirds warred with each other in the bright sunshine. As if the day were normal. But nothing about the day seemed normal.
We laid my student to rest this morning. Her niece, a student who graduated last year, gave the eulogy. In her quiet and touching words, I learned more of a heartbreaking story. Cee spent time in foster care. She seldom lived with her mom.
Her brother, another former student, stood by the open casket and shook with silent sobs. None of Cee’s siblings shared the same last name. Little tragedies piling up over a short lifetime. And for Cee, the weight became unbearable last week.
At 17, she took her life. We found out the last week of school and held an impromptu memorial service for her. Her classmates, friends, and teachers shared stories of Cee’s silly pranks, sly humor, and kindness.
But the funeral, populated with family members and friends who did life more closely with Cee, held a weight of sadness almost impossible to bear. Everyone silently repeated the same refrain, “Why did you do this?”
The question haunts everyone who has lost a loved one, friend, or student to suicide. If onlys dance in our heads. If only Cee had stayed in school past the first quarter of this year.
Our school offers access to free counseling 24/7. If only a pandemic hadn’t exacerbated the mental health issues of teens. Especially on the reservations where hope has dried up like a leaf in the hot summer winds. If only she had reached out to someone who knew how to help. But if onlys bring no comfort, only more regrets.
Jesus loves Cee. He loves every person who has ever taken their own life. Forget burying those who die by their own hands outside the churchyard. Jesus loves all his children. Even the ones who end their own lives.
Years ago, I heard someone say, “What a selfish thing to do!” when referring to someone who had committed suicide. I hope we’ve gotten past this mindset and recognize people take their own lives for a variety of reasons—none of which seem selfish to the person at the time. Mental illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, may play a role in someone’s decision to commit suicide.
Understanding the Roots
In recent decades, the government has identified suicide as one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In order to better understand the causes and work towards prevention, Dube, et. al, in a 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, identified a correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and increased suicide attempts.
The higher number of ACEs a child experiences before age 18, the greater their risk for mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. The adverse experiences include:
- emotional abuse
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- having a battered mother
- household substance abuse
- mental illness in the household
- parental separation or divorce
- having an incarcerated household member
Cee scored at least five out of seven on the ACE score, but even scoring one out of seven puts someone at a lifelong risk of committing suicide.
Just knowing about the ACE score can help us better understand what might cause someone to take their own life. During this month of mental health awareness, take a look at the people you know and love. Do they have a high ACE score? Have they received professional counseling to help them work through their adverse childhood experiences?
The roots of suicide sprout from mental illness, not selfishness. Learning to recognize others’ pain and offer actionable help will do more to prevent suicide than shaming those who suffer. You can find a well-written article on why people commit suicide at the Very Well Mind.During this Mental Health Awareness Month, make sure you know the warning signs of someone contemplating suicide. #NAMI #suicideprevention #mentalhealthmonth Click To Tweet
Is Cutting the Same as a Suicide Attempt?
Some may think cutting or self-harm equivalent to a suicide attempt, but self-harm and suicide aren’t the same. Self-harm (cutting, scratching, burning, or hitting one’s self), according to an article on the Child Mind Institute, helps those to exhibit these behaviors feel better. The intent is not to end one’s life, but to find relief from the stresses of life.
Those who self-harm usually hide the evidence (they limit their self-injury to places most people don’t see). According to Inside the Cutter’s Mind: Understanding and Helping Those Who Self-Injure, self-harm can become an addictive way to handle stress or anxiety. If you suspect your child harms him or herself, please find a counselor as soon as possible.
Stop the Blame Game
Many times, those left behind suffer remorse and regret. They blame themselves for the action of the person who took his or her life. We ask ourselves what we could have done differently. Did we fail to notice some sign? Do we even know the signs?
Warning Signs of Suicide
- Giving away possessions.
- Talking about wanting to die or end it all.
- Hopelessness or feeling as if one has one purpose.
- Feeling trapped or expressing feelings of unbearable pain.
- Increased drug or alcohol use.
- Displaying extreme mood swings (which could also signal bipolar disorder)
- Demonstrating feelings of rage or wanting to seek revenge.
- Sleeping too little or too much (also a possible sign of bipolar disorder).
- Acting anxious, agitated, reckless, or withdrawn.
- Talking about how much of a burden they are to others.
- Making phone calls to say goodbye.
Listen for the Subtext of Suicidal Thoughts
Remember many people won’t come out and say any of these things. They will use a subtext we need to listen for. Don’t let familiarity inure you to the pain of a mental health issue in a loved one. Be brave enough to ask the hard questions.
- Have you ever thought of taking your life?
- Do you have a plan?
- What can I do to help?
- Do you think you are depressed?
Assure the person you love them no matter what. Make sure they know we all go through hard times and getting help equals an act of bravery. Assure them you will walk through the situation with them.
Offer to hold their hand while they call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. Help them text “HELLO” to 741741 (a crisis text line). If you think someone is in imminent danger of taking his or her own life, you can call or text as well for advice about what to do. YOU aren’t alone, either.
Knowledge brings power. Power to help, to come alongside, to let others know about help and hope.
Stop the Stigma
We need to acknowledge the mental and emotional pain others suffer. Mental health awareness means we don’t stigmatize those who suffer as ‘crazy,’ ‘weird,’ or ‘lacking in faith.’ We don’t condemn people for breaking an arm or getting cancer.
Insurance companies need to make mental health care as accessible as physical health care.
If we all do our part, we won’t have to lose ourselves in if onlys. We won’t have regret nip at our heels. Above all, treat everyone with gentleness and self-control. We never know what someone else is going through.