"No one commits suicide because they want to die."
"Then why do they do it?"
"Because they want to stop the pain.”
--Tiffanie DeBartolo, "How to Kill a Rock Star"
I've never been in so much emotional pain that I wanted to take my own life. Thank God. But I wonder: if I ever did get to that desperate point, would the folks in my life who love me have the courage to actually ask me, out loud, directly, if I was thinking about hurting myself? Committing suicide?
I know that's a jarring, scary possibility to ponder. To know a friend or family member or co-worker. To be worried that they may actually be contemplating killing themselves. Should I say something? What can I do? What if I'm wrong? What if I'm right?
As a helping professional for almost thirty years, I've been in the middle of far too many such situations. I've seen the terrible aftermath of suicide: the devastated family, the unanswered questions, the raw and ragged heartache of loving someone who faced into so much inner pain, that they finally decided they had no option but to die by their own hands, to leave this life.
So awful. So sad. So heartbreaking.
Suicide has been in the headlines and on our national consciousness these past weeks. Two high profile celebrities and cultural bright lights committed suicide: author and chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade. So too the Centers for Disease Control released a report on suicide in the United States with sobering statistics. Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 25 percent. In 2016, 45,000 Americans committed suicide; most took their own lives using a firearm. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Men account for three quarters of all suicides. In Massachusetts the suicide rate increased by 35 percent in the last twenty years.
Beyond the numbers, of course, are the people. Our aging parents, our beautiful sons and daughters, the person we share a pew with at church, the neighbor next door. Folks so caught up in the downward spiral of emotional anguish, mental illness and deep despair, that these tortured souls see no way out, no relief from the pain but death.
The danger is that we, their relatives, their friends: we might think we are powerless to prevent such tragedies. But we are not. First look for warning signs. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, these include: if a person talks about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or facing unbearable pain. Behaviors can signal risk: increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from activities, sleeping too much or too little, or isolating from family and friends. A person's moods are red flags too: depression, anxiety, irritability, or humiliation and shame.
If we are worried for someone, then comes what may be the toughest, but perhaps the best thing we can do for them. Ask. Just ask. Say directly to them: "Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about taking your own life?" And if that answer is "yes" then connecting them with health care professionals and resources to get them the help they need.
Yes it will feel awkward. Yes it might be the hardest discussion you've ever had. Yes you may be wrong and risk embarrassment or even angering another. But: what if you are correct in your feelings? What if your one loving and caring outreach actually saves a life?
Think about that.
So if you are worried about someone you love, if you have suspicions something is wrong, if you think suicide may be on someone's heart or mind: ask. Talk to them honestly and forthrightly. It just might be the most important conversation you will ever have.