When my son was born twenty-two years ago, he struggled for his life. The cord that shared my strength with him while he grew in my womb was tangled around his tiny little neck. The cord was also knotted which prevented him from getting the full amount of nutrients my body offered him. When he finally emerged into the world, doctors had to work quickly to remove the strangling cord and get life giving oxygen into his lungs. After the medical staff whisked him away, I wasn’t able to see him or hold him for an entire day. I felt so helpless knowing he was sick and I was unable to care for him or hold him close.
The first time I laid eyes on my son he was in his hospital bassinet with a little gold heart monitor sticker on his chest. He had an IV in the bottom of his tiny foot. The wires and tubes connecting him to various machines made him look even more vulnerable. My heart broke to see him like this. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I stroked his little face and the soft brown fuzz on his head. Holding him close against my heart I told him I would always be there for him and that I loved him.
Like most parents when my child is in danger or hurt, I feel that deeply. It doesn’t matter how old my children get; time does not lessen my indelible desire to protect them. Unfortunately, it is not possible to protect your children all the time. Furthermore, it would be harmful to their development to try. As we grow into adults, it is important to have the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. Allowing our children that freedom is never harder to abide, than when they hurt themselves on purpose. I was recently faced with this very situation when my son was admitted to the hospital for his second suicide related incident this year. This time he had taken an entire bottle of medication in an attempt to end his life.
By the time I got to the hospital he had already peed his pants, been belligerent to the nursing staff, and behaved so irrationally that he was given antipsychotics to calm him down. The antipsychotics knocked him out. As I stroked his cheek and soft brown hair, I thought back to the first time I saw him in the hospital as a baby. Just like when he was a tiny baby, tubes and wires connected him to monitors. This time his arm was tightly wrapped so that he wouldn’t yank his IV out. Looking down at him with the past and present juxtaposed in my mind’s eye, I experienced the same feelings of helplessness and determination to protect him that I had before. I wasn’t sure what to do. I could barely handle the barrage of emotions running through me. Sadness, anger, relief and desperation filled me up, then drained out and left me hollow over and over again. I clung tightly to the bars on the side of his bed as I told him I loved him while I tried to hold myself together.
Suicide is a hard, ugly subject that no one wants to think or talk about. It doesn’t differentiate between the poor or rich, old or young, men or women. Suicide doesn’t care what race you are, religion you believe in, political party you follow, or who you love. Suicide can affect anyone at any time in their life. It’s hard to fathom why anyone would choose to commit suicide. Most people cling to the life we have. We dream and make plans for our futures. We connect with other people, build lives together and create families. When faced with someone’s suicide we ask ourselves; how can anyone want to throw all that potential away? That is not an easy question to answer as the reasons vary from person to person.
According to The World Health Organization 90% of the people who commit suicide are living with a mental health condition. But that’s not true in all cases. Other things such as environmental factors, debilitating illness, loss of an important relationship, persecution, and traumatic events contribute to a seemingly endless list of reasons. No matter what the catalyst is, the fact remains that suicide rates continue to increase at alarming rates. There are approximately one million deaths a year worldwide attributed to suicide. Suicide is now one of the top three worldwide causes of death for individuals ages 15-44. It is the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States. In fact, there were twice as many suicides in the United States than homicides in 2017. These numbers are gut wrenchingly high! Instead of asking ourselves why they do it, we should ask how can we help prevent it?
One of the ways we can work toward a world that is suicide free, is to be aware of the warning signs. One sign to be on the lookout for is a preoccupation with death. Maybe your loved one is obsessively watching movies or reading books about dying. Perhaps they are talking a lot about what happens after they die. A suicidal person might try to get their affairs in order. They may make a point of giving away beloved possessions or making the rounds to say goodbyes to friends and family. Another sign of suicidal thoughts includes, conversation centering around their deep emotional pain, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or feeling like a burden on their friends and family. This person may wonder what point their life has. The easiest and most urgent sign is when the person talks about or writes about their plans to kill themselves.
If your loved one is telling you they want to die, particularly if they have a plan for how to do it; take this seriously. This is not attention seeking behavior, it is a cry for help! At this point your loved one is likely at the end of their rope. They are grasping for anything to give them a reason to hold on. Talk with them, let them know you will listen, and tell them that you don’t want them to do it. Help them get a hold of their therapist, doctor, or a peer. If you feel that they are a danger to themselves or others, call the police and ask for a CIT officer. CIT officers are specially trained to help deal with mental health crisis situations including suicide related incidents.
Many people won’t talk about how they feel because of the stigma and shame associated with mental health and suicide. In these cases, their actions may speak louder than words. Your loved one might become more aggressive, impulsive and reckless. Their decision making could become more and more atypical and wild. Some people start or increase their alcohol and drug use. They might sleep all the time or hardly at all. A suicidal person might have dramatic mood swings. One day they are deeply depressed and won’t leave their bed and the next they are cheerful and sunny with tons of energy to spare. My son chose to isolate himself from everyone. He spent more and more time in his room with his only friends being online connections. He refused to spend time with other people and he didn’t answer calls or texts. It was like he just disappeared.
Knowing how to recognize the signs of a friend, family member, or even a stranger in crisis is a great step in the right direction. However, if we truly don’t want to lose another life to suicide, we need to be proactive. Let’s not wait until our loved ones are in crisis. There are a lot of ways you can help support good mental health and suicide prevention. Volunteer your time or donate to support your community mental health advocacy groups such as NAMI or FOCUS. Take one of the NAMI classes such as Family-to-Family so that you can educate yourself further. FOCUS offers a mental health first aid class. Share what you learned with friends and loved ones, pay it forward. Put a sticker on your car with the crisis text line number on it; NAMI offers them for free. Share this blog. Support good mental health in your city, state and country by voting for bills that help mental health. Take the time to check in with people you know that live with mental health. Let your friend or family member know they can talk with you about their bad days. Make sure they know that when they come to you it is a judgement free zone. You don’t have to have all the answers. Most people just need to know someone cares and is there for them.
The goal is to normalize conversation about suicide and mental health; taking the stigma away from it. Mental health is a brain disorder not a weakness, and for some suicidal thoughts are part of that disorder. Ask them if you can make a deal with them. You could say something like, “Will you allow me to ask you how you are doing and if you are feeling suicidal? I would like to be there for you and check in with you.” If they are feeling down find out how you can help. Does your loved one need a ride to their doctor? Maybe they need help with some paper work or housework? Perhaps they just really need to get out of the house and do something different for a while. If they are feeling suicidal don’t hesitate to get them the help they need. Most importantly never give up hope!
I have hope that we can come together as a community to create a better environment for mental health. We can eradicate suicide by supporting and loving those who struggle with suicidal thoughts. My son is on his way to better mental health. He is currently taking a Peer-to-Peer class and going to Connection Recovery Support Group. He sees a therapist and takes his medication. He is willing to share his story to help normalize the conversation about suicide and mental health. Because we have normalized this conversation, he knows he can come to us without fear of judgement. We are here for him and we will uphold our end of the deal by checking in on him. I will keep the promise I made my son when he was a tiny infant in his hospital bassinet. I will always love him and be here for him!
In conclusion, I want to take this one step further. All life is precious and deserves the chance to grow from infant to elderly, so I will make this deal with you. I am giving you my permission to ask me how I am. I give you permission to check in with me if you think I may be feeling suicidal. I am also willing to listen if you need an ear. I will do my best to help you find the help you need. I will continue to share my story, educate, and advocate for mental health and suicide awareness. I will never give up hope!
If you are someone you care about are in crisis these numbers may help:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 this number is available 24/7 (press 1 if you’re a veteran)
TTY number 1-800-799-4889
Text TALK to 741-741 or
VISIT the website for online chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org
You can all call RAINN at 1800-662-4673 if you’re a victim of sexual assault or 1-866-331-9474 if you’re a teen in an abusive relationship
SAMHSA offer support for substance abuse at 1-800-662-4357