September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: We All Have a Part to Play

One of my passions and something close to my heart is drawing attention to those suffering from a mental illness and the stigma therein. I’m still constantly learning, too, particularly as a reporter when I report on mental illness issues and the act of suicide, I want to make sure I’m doing it in the right way. It’s vital. Because suicide contagion is a real phenomenon.

This is a post I’ve been wanting to make since the beginning of the month, and naturally, being the procrastinator that I am, I waited until the end of the month to talk about September as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

I’m officially too old to be in the age bracket anymore, but suicide is the second leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15 to 24. That’s staggering to consider. Nearly 800,000 people overall die by suicide in the world every year.

In the United States, 47,173 Americans will die every year through the act of suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s almost 10,000 more deaths than from car crashes ever year.

And it’s going in the wrong direction, folks. Since 1999, the rate has increased 30 percent.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, here is a list of warning signs:

  • Increased alcohol and drug use.
  • Aggressive behavior.
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and community.
  • Dramatic mood swings.
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior.
  • Collecting and saving pills or buying a weapon.
  • Giving away possessions.
  • Tying up loose ends, like organizing personal papers or paying off debts.
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family.

Even in 2020, with years of research, advocacy, and awareness, and Septembers after Septembers after Septembers of hyper-focused attention on these issues, the stigma around mental illness and the act of suicide still persists. It’s just something we don’t talk about. It’s not baked into our culture to discuss our mental health — and that’s presuming someone even accepts the premise that things like depression and anxiety are real physical manifestations in the body that can be debilitating and kill people — and death itself is not something we talk about in our culture, much less the act of suicide (which again, the stigma is further enhanced with the act).

But someone being there and stepping in and noticing such red flags for what they are — particularly if those behaviors are coupled with a known history of mental illness or familial history — can quite literally save a life. NAMI recommends people talk openly and honestly, and remove the means from the equation for someone to do it.

I still think about a 2013 Newsweek article that focuses on a doctor, Thomas Joiner, whose own father died by the act of suicide, and so he dedicated his life to understanding why. The entire article is worth reading, but the main takeaway for me is how complex and perplexing the phenomenon is, and once it happens, it’s hard to discern the trail that lead to it sometimes.

All of the aforementioned risk factors provided by NAMI are important red flags to pay attention, too, but they’re also rather vague. Paying down debts? I could be doing that as a smart steward of my money. Buying a gun? I could believe in self-defense and the Second Amendment. It seems to me that the reason, aside from stigma (and that is a HUGE aside, mind you), one of the reasons preventing suicide is a huge ask is that those red flags are hard to see, and to take them in the aggregate.

Again, taken by themselves, they don’t amount to much. Put it all together and simplify it even further to Joiner’s theory, and you have the makings of a permanent act:

“People will die by suicide when they have both the desire to die and the ability to die.” – Joiner

But even as the author of the article notes, “On the contrary, suicide’s Venn diagram is composed of circles we all routinely step in, or near, never realizing we are in the deadly center until it’s too late. Joiner’s conditions of suicide are the conditions of everyday life.”

So then what? Awareness. Intervention. Prevention.

If we can mitigate even one of these circles, we mitigate the overlap and mitigate the final act.

But how? Talking. Being that smile. Being that hand that reaches out. I’ve heard so many stories about those who were steeped in suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide) and who had a plan, and quite literally all it took to prevent that next permanent step was getting a text from a friend or a smile on the street or whatever it is, to get their life to the next day. Just. One. More. Day. That makes the difference.

We all have a part to play in reducing the preventable act of suicide. Understanding what it is, why it is, and not fearing the talk is how we can save lives.

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