On Mental Health and Poverty: Suicide Prevention ‘Everyone’s Business’

When I was a young teenager, a friend of mine lost his mother to suicide. I didn’t know her well, mostly through the carpool our mothers participated in. But I do remember she always seemed upbeat and chatty, and that she whistled a lot as she drove us to and from school.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I don’t recall ever saying a word to my friend about his mother’s death. Not one single “How are you doing?” or “What can I do to help?”

I didn’t ignore him. We continued to hang out and talk during and between classes. We continued our quest to rate the quality of the school’s water fountains and conspired to undermine our German teacher’s authority. I do remember feeling badly for him, even sad. I also remember having an awkward conversation about his mother’s death with a mutual friend, one where neither of us could quite articulate what we were feeling.

This memory came to mind as I began to write about last month’s startling news from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment: the state’s suicide rate had climbed 31.5 percent in one year, from 384 in 2011 to 505 in 2012. Wyandotte County, thankfully, did not join this trend; 26 people died by suicide here last year, compared to 27 the year before. Still, that’s more than two dozen lives lost, more than two dozen families grieving.

Initially, I was going to write about why this number jumped so suddenly and so shockingly. But then I talked with Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters, Inc., a Lawrence nonprofit organization that operates Kansas Youth Suicide Prevention and Headquarters Counseling Center. Headquarters is staffed by professionals and volunteers, all of whom receive more than 100 hours of suicide prevention training.

Marcia has studied and practiced suicide prevention for most of her adult life. It’s important, she said, to recognize that our speculations about this recent increase can have the effect of further isolating, and possibly encouraging, those at risk of suicide.

“If you say it’s about the economy, then you make it that much easier for someone who’s having financial problems to say, ‘Well, all those other people gave up.'”

Besides, and perhaps more importantly, we simply don’t know why the suicide rate increased. To be sure, Marcia believes we need more information about those who die by suicide so we can better understand what causes them to overcome, and defy, the powerful instinct to survive. But she also believes that, with or without that information, there is plenty we can do to prevent those who are contemplating suicide from choosing to end their lives.

“Suicide prevention is everyone’s business,” she said. “It’s so important for people to focus on what we can do to make a difference in somebody’s life.”

She continued: “We really are talking about very simple things…all of them fit under the label, ‘Be kind.’ Be aware of how the people around you are feeling emotionally and how they’re acting. Be aware of it for yourself, too. When you ask, ‘How are you doing?’ look the person in the eye and let them give a real answer.”

That last part is important. Too often, we ask the question without wanting the honest answer. But if we do mean it, if we do give someone a chance to open up about their pain, then we’ve helped the person take that first step toward feeling less isolated.

Likewise, we mustn’t shy from asking friends and family members we’re worried about if they’re thinking of killing themselves. This isn’t an easy thing to do. And even when we think we’re doing it, we still might be giving ourselves an escape from really confronting the issue. We might ask something like, “You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?” rather than, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

Don’t worry about planting the idea when you’re this direct. You won’t be. And if the answer is, “yes,” stay with the person until he finds help. If you don’t know where to turn, you can always encourage the person to call a 24-hour crisis line (Wyandot Center’s is 913-788-4200) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), which is answered by Headquarters Counseling Center for Kansas callers.

I don’t know whether anyone reached out to my friend’s mother before she ended her life. I don’t know anything about her struggles, whether she lived with a serious mental illness or was facing a different kind of crisis. What I do know is that the prevailing shame and stigma associated with suicide prevented me, my friends and my family from talking about what happened. We shrouded the reality of that family’s pain in silence.

There isn’t much I can do about that today. After staying in touch into our college years, my friend and I lost contact. I’ve made a few stabs to track him down, but without luck. If I could find him, I’d tell him that I wish I would have reached out way back when. I’d ask him how he’s doing today, and listen, truly listen, to his answer. And I would tell him that I can still hear his mother’s whistle.

(If you want more information about suicide prevention, these sites are wonderful resources: the Suicide Prevention Resource Center: http://www.sprc.org/; and, on the local level, Suicide Awareness Survivor Support, serving Missouri and Kansas: http://www.sass-mokan.com/.)

Comments, questions? Send them to Mark at wiebe_w@wmhci.org.

This editorial originally appeared in Wyandot Inc.’s November 2013 eNewsletter. Republished in its entirety, and with permission.

Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006