As a suicide survivor, I have a unique vantage point from which to speak on this this very difficult to discuss topic. Not only have I survived three suicide attempts myself, the first being when I was only seven years old, I have a very close family member who successfully completed hers. There are so many myths and misconceptions that people hold about this subject which fueled my need to write this blog post.
I’ll begin by citing some sobering statistics. These stats are only for the United States, but they reflect what must be happening around the world.
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in adults
- For every completed suicide, there are 25 attempts
- On the average, there are 121 competed suicides per day
- There are approximately 44,193 people who take their own lives per year
- 50% of all suicides are completed using firearms
- 7 out of 10 completed suicides are done by white males
Those general statistics are sobering enough and I was stunned when I read them, but read on and you’ll find even more tragic stats, this time about children who attempt or complete suicide.
- Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 10 and 24
- 6 million youths die annually
- On average, one precious youth dies every 12.3 minutes
- 15,050 kids between the ages of 5 and 11 are hospitalized annually for suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- It is estimated that only 20% of children who need help for their emotional distress receive it
While I was overwhelmed by the above statistics, I was not too surprised. Having attempted suicide by standing on the window ledge of a very tall children’s hospital at age seven, I knew that suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children are all too real. While I do not readily recall the day I stood on that ledge, but I have heard of the circumstances surrounding this event. I know that at that time I had been very ill, and that I had just been allowed to leave my bed due my illness. I also know that I had been visited by one of my abusers and that he had spent time with me alone shortly before the nurse discovered me standing outside my window. In case you may be wondering, the year was 1967 and hospital windows opened because many rooms did not have air conditioning in them at the time. What would cause such a young child to think of taking their own life? I have knowledge of the emotions I was feeling that day, and they are grave. I was consumed with feelings of hopelessness. I had realized the abuse wasn’t ever going to stop, and that the adults in my life could not or would not listen to the cues I was trying to give them to ask them to help me. Faced with overwhelming feelings of being trapped with no way to escape, I decided the only thing I could do was to kill myself. To think of a girl of seven coming to such a drastic conclusion makes me extremely sad. What is even sadder is that I was probably not an anomaly. While statistics on child suicide completions and attempts are sketchy for 1967, as you can see above they were probably staggering.
One way we can combat the silent epidemic that is robbing our world of the minds and hearts of our citizens, is to address the many myths surrounding suicide. I’ll attempt to debunk a few.
“People who talk about suicide don’t really want to and won’t do it”
I shiver to think of how many times this statement has been wrong. People, including young children, who verbalize that they wish they were dead or that the world would be better off without them, are in danger and must be taken seriously if lives are to be saved. Never, ever brush off such statements from anyone, regardless of their age.
“If a person is determined to kill themselves, there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.”
Whoever began this monstrous myth, I hope they changed their opinion. People who have reached the decision to take their own lives will waver at the appointed time because the human drive to live is very strong. Sometimes just a kind and caring interaction, even with a total stranger, can and does change their course. Don’t give up on people who are suicidal, instead support them by getting them the help they need and being there without judgement when they get back on their feet.
“If I talk about suicide with someone, they are more likely to do it.”
The opposite of this statement is true. If you have an open and honest dialogue with someone who is having difficulty or showing signs they may be contemplating self-harm, you can disrupt their stinking thinking and help them to gather the strength to NOT do so. By talking about these things. In doing so, you show you care, and this can save a life.
“People who attempt and do not complete suicide are not serious, they are only trying to get attention.”
While attempted suicide is a cry for attention, it is not so in the way one may think. The person who has tried to take their own life doesn’t want people to notice them, they want to get someone to help them end the tremendous emotional pain they are experiencing.
Let me interject here some the experience I had with one of my own suicide attempts. When I was in my late thirties, I took an overdose that nearly ended my life. I do not remember taking the medications, I do remember looking down at my medication box and being surprised to see that all of the bottles were empty. I remember sitting back in my chair and feeling like an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had an overwhelming sense of relief. I got up and went to bed wholeheartedly believing I would never wake up again and being so glad about it. The knowledge that I wouldn’t have to suffer any more with the trauma of overcoming my childhood abuse issues, and that it would be wonderful to be free made me feel all warm and fuzzy. Does that sound like someone who is trying to garner attention or is not serious?
The backlash after a suicide attempt is quite harsh. Not only did I have to face my own demons upon awakening in the hospital, I had to face the anger of those who knew me. I can’t describe how incredibly embarrassing it was to live. It is no wonder that the greatest danger period for a person who has attempted suicide is the following year. I had people who would avoid me altogether, and those who would only complain about how they were affected by my attempt. I heard over-and-over again from a family member about how selfish I had been to make her feel so horrible. This didn’t end within a short time period, it went on for years. Demonizing someone who has attempted to take their life is like beating a dead dog. It’s senseless and useless. The person who has awakened after an attempt to the knowledge that they are alive, they are not in any position to fulfill your need for explanations or to promise they will not do it again. What they need, I know this from experience, is people who will show them genuine love and respect. They need to talk about what happened without someone interjecting how horrible they were made to feel by this person’s actions. Their self-esteem is trashed, so they need someone to believe in them and say so.
I was fortunate, I had a wonderful therapist who cared deeply and worked with me to rebuild my self-image and to help me understand that death is a final solution to a temporary problem. Shaming someone will not help them not complete suicide, but it may force them to do it.
One in five, 43.8 million people in the United States will experience a mental health crisis in any given year. If you think that you are somehow immune, I beg to differ. People of any age, be they very young or very old, are vulnerable to suicidal ideation. I don’t care what your profession is, how much you earn, what god you pray to, or how settled you believe your life is, you are not invulnerable to falling into the abyss. A mental health crisis can be caused by the death of a child, a parent, the loss of a job, retirement, or any number of things that are unforeseen in a person’s life. Don’t kid yourself into believing you are too strong, smart, wealthy, or well-established to fall victim to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, the statistics tell a different story.
My last attempt was in 2005, that was twelve years ago. I have gained so much insight into myself that I now consider my life very precious and not to be squandered. I’ve learned through my travels that it isn’t the grand things such as lots of money and possessions that make a person content, rather it is enjoying the little things that occur in everyday existence. There is beauty all around us, but we must notice it and choose to enjoy it. The stars at night, the sounds of children playing, the warm breezes of summer, the chill sweet air of winter, these are only a few of the wonderful things in life that are both beautiful and free to everyone.
Like I was told by my wonderful therapist, “Shirley, you might as well enjoy life, none of us are getting out of it alive.”
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
The Parent Resource Program/ The Jason Foundation
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention