Over the past few weeks, our small island has lost four people to suicide. Although I was not close to them, I join many in our community in a collective gasp of shock and grief.
My heart aches with the knowledge that they decided the only relief from their suffering was to end their lives- desperate acts that ended their suffering, but also ended the chance of ever feeling hope, love or joy. My heart aches for their families and friends, who are left with unanswerable questions and the burden of carrying on without their loved ones.
Although the loss of a loved one brings grief no matter what the cause, suicide can bring an added dimension of suffering to those left behind. Guilt, anger, shock and confusion often accompany grief as family, friends and the community struggle to understand why someone would choose to end his own life.
Since those answers are often known only to the person who died, it can be very hard to resolve our feelings. It is important to stay close to each other, talk about our thoughts and feelings, and share hugs and laughter as we begin to heal.
A large percentage of people who commit suicide suffer from mental illness, usually depression or bipolar disorder. These illnesses distort thinking and problem-solving abilities, and increase feelings of despair and hopelessness.
Suicidal individuals usually see no other solution to their problems than to end their lives. At these moments, they often feel so hopeless and worthless they cannot comprehend the devastation they leave behind.
Common risk factors for suicide include mental illness (especially untreated), alcoholism or other substance use disorder, previous suicide attempts, family history of suicide, terminal illness or chronic pain, recent loss or stressful life event, social isolation or loneliness, and a history of trauma or abuse.
Suicidal thoughts are more likely to occur when individuals feel isolated or marginalized, including young people who are bullied (especially GLBT youth), adults without strong connections to family and friends, and elderly people who struggle with loneliness, illness and/or chronic pain.
However, there is no exact formula for knowing if someone has suicidal thoughts or intent. What can we do to help? If we're concerned about someone, the most important thing we can do is to reach out.
Ask how he/she is doing. Express your caring and offer emotional support. Include him/her in activities. Don't be afraid to ask if he/she is having thoughts of hurting him/herself- asking about suicidal thoughts does not make a person want to hurt himself; rather, it may provide an opening to talk about thoughts and feelings that have been kept secret.
There are a number of resources available for immediate and longer-term help. If someone is in imminent danger of hurting him or herself, call 911 for immediate assistance. If you or someone you know needs to talk to a crisis counselor, you can call the Volunteers of America Crisis Line at 1-800-584-3578. They will also help determine if the person needs to be evaluated for possible hospitalization. It is important to remember that even highly suicidal individuals often feel very conflicted about ending their lives. Given time, support and (possibly) medication, people often realize there is hope for a better life.
Helpguide (helpguide.org/mental/suicide_prevention.htm) is an online resource with excellent information about suicide risk factors, tips on recognizing when someone is at risk, and when to ask for help.
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline also has helpful information as well as a crisis line, which is 1-800-273-8255.
Hospice of San Juan Island is sponsoring a Grief Support Group, which starts Sept. 10th, for those who have lost a loved one. Contact Lenore Bayuk at 378-3636, ext. 1, for more information.
The ripple effect of suicide generates suffering, but can also awaken love, caring and support as families, friends and the community seek to heal. Let's carry those feelings forward to help prevent the next suicide, and to make our community a stronger and more inclusive place for all of us.
Barbara Starr, LICSW