September is Suicide Awareness Month

Dear Marshall Family,

In our American culture, we don’t usually do a very good job of openly talking about death. I suspect that we’re not alone in this, because talking about it can sometimes make it seem more real, more present, more unavoidable, and perhaps even more likely. Maybe these and other factors combine to put a great deal of pressure on us to try to figure out how to talk about it without making people uneasy. But maybe we need to talk about it, anyway – even if it makes us uneasy – because when you think about, few things are more real, more unavoidable, or have a greater impact on loved ones, than death.

The issues that we have in talking about death are even tougher, of course, when it comes to suicide. But occasionally, something happens that turns everyone’s attention to this very difficult topic. For example, in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, there has been an enormous amount of media attention focused on suicide and suicide prevention (and on depression, and its treatment, as well). Most people seem to be accepting of this, and compassionate toward those who suffer with depression and/or loss. Some, however, have complained that the situation has been given too much attention. Others have gone so far as to make very disparaging remarks about people who experience depression, suicidal ideation, or suicide. Stigma such as this is a very powerful factor that makes it even more challenging to have caring, thoughtful conversations about suicide and suicide prevention.

There are many different opinions about suicide. Many are rooted in religious and/or cultural beliefs, and many are based on personal experiences with loved ones. Some are based simply on a lack of awareness and understanding. I won’t attempt to address or argue opinions, here. My goals here are only to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention, and to offer some resources for more information.

The situation with Robin Williams serves as a powerful reminder of how we can never know all that another person is going through, and of how we cannot always support someone, or intervene in someone’s life, in ways that successfully prevent tragedy. He had many people in his life who loved him, knew of his struggles with depression, and would have happily helped him in any way that they could. And yet, his final decisions and actions were, of course, his own.

While suicide may appear to the victim to be the only way to end their pain, its impact on loved ones can be quite the opposite. Although loved ones often suffer along with those who are seriously depressed, the suicide of a loved one can make it feel as though their (the survivors) suffering is only just beginning. The loss of a human life by suicide is tragic, and for those loved ones who are left behind, it is often also intensely traumatic. Along with being heartbroken, those who knew and cared about the victim are often left with feelings of extreme anger and confusion. They are also often left with burning, but seemingly unanswerable questions, such as:

  • “How could they have done this?!”
  • “Why didn’t I see this coming?”
  • “What could I have done differently, to keep this from happening?”

These questions can linger for years, and can sometimes be quite tormenting for the person experiencing them. This is more likely to be the case for those who do not feel able or willing to talk with others about the death, and so this is another reason that we need to be more open to talking about such situations and how they are impacting us, at least within our support networks.

Suicide is not always preventable, but in many cases, people who plan to attempt suicide will mention it to those around them. Having an awareness of how those around us are doing, and genuinely listening to what they are saying, may give us the opportunity to try to help them in a time of personal crisis. We can’t be certain of success in trying to help someone in such a situation, but we can try, anyway.

As I close this letter, I leave you with the following thoughts:

  • If you’re thinking about suicide, please don’t do it.
  • If you’re thinking about suicide, please talk with someone about it. Please call Crisis Services of North Alabama at 256-716-1000, call me at 256-544-7549, call your health professional, call a friend or a family member, call your pastor or other spiritual guide, or call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, for assistance.
  • If someone makes you think that they might be suicidal, ask them about it. Asking about it won’t cause someone who is not considering suicide to suddenly begin considering it. Be prepared to listen carefully, and listen without being judgmental or trivializing their pain. Let them know that you really do want to help. Be prepared to help connect them with other sources of support, or to help them get to a hospital or other care center, if needed. The resources listed below can be helpful to those who are experiencing suicidal ideation, and also to those who are trying to assist someone else who is experiencing suicidal ideation.
  • If someone that you know commits suicide, know that it is not your fault. Despite how much we might care about someone, and how much we might try to help them, the final decision of a suicide victim is theirs, and theirs, alone.
  • If someone that you know commits suicide, talk about it with your support network. It may hurt beyond any words that might possibly describe it, and it may be extremely hard to face, but trying to deal with such emotional pain alone tends to make it worse – not better.
  • Just in general, talk with your friends and loved ones about how you’re doing. They do care.
  • Also talk with your friends and loved ones about how they’re doing. Show them that you care.
  • Maintain a kind spirit in your dealings with others… you don’t know what they might be going through.
  • Learn more about suicide and suicide prevention (some links are provided, below).

Sincerely,
Dr. Terry Sterry
MSFC Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Coordinator
Building 4249, Room 126; Office: 256-544-7549; Cell: 256-698-9589; Email: terry.w.sterry@nasa.gov(link sends e-mail)

Alabama Department of Public Health: http://www.adph.org/suicideprevention/(link is external) or http://www.adph.org/suicideprevention/Default.asp?id=2157(link is external)

Crisis Services of North Alabama: http://www.csna.org/(link is external) or http://www.csna.org/#!__suicide-prevention(link is external)

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://www.afsp.org/(link is external) or http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs(link is external)

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/(link is external) or http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/gethelp/someone.aspx