I’m going to ask you to do something that may be difficult and upsetting, but these kinds of conversations can never be easy. I want you to take a moment to think about the people that you have lost. Dig deep into the corners of your heart, where you have had to safely store their memory without allowing the intoxicating power of loss to encompass your life. However life managed to take them from you, I guarantee you’ve thought through the distant possibility that maybe you could have saved them. Maybe if they didn’t get in the car that night, they would be here. Maybe if you paid more attention to their health earlier on, you would have had them with you longer. Maybe there was something, anything, you could have done to jam a glitch in the continuum and change the future.
We need engineering and general education to change the safety of vehicles and other disastrous mechanisms for accidents. We need medicine and science to improve our understanding of health and disease. We need law enforcement and government to constantly improve upon and work towards a better, safer world. We need a lot to protect ourselves from death and tragedy in so many ways.
However there is only one fate we can make a difference for with a sheer quantity of compassion, respect and conversation.
Suicide is trapped in the musty shadows of the conversations we need to be having. It dwells in a place hidden by fear, shame and social stigma, as many difficult conversations once have. Possibly the most tragic element of this problem is that we don’t hide it because of a lack of solutions, we hide it because we refuse to accept that each of our role in their solution is pertinent.
Recognizing the facts is the first step.
According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. That means for the majority of your life and of the lives of those around you, they are most likely to have their life taken in an instant by a tragic accident, and second more likely to take their own life by a tragedy that lived inside of them long beforehand; a tragedy that could have been prevented.
80% -90% of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully using therapy and/or medication (TAPS). That means that 80%-90% of the lives lost could be saved. 41,149 people died from suicide in the US in one year’s time (CDC). Between 32,919 and 37,034 of those people could still be alive.
From the age of ten until the rest of your life, you are more likely to take your own life than to have it taken from you by someone else, as homicide ranks lower in the leading causes of death in every single age group (CDC). With all of the time, conversation and energy dedicated to a focus on crime and homicidal violence, one might question why we are so afraid of others when the larger threat lives inside of our hearts and minds. It’s just the treat that’s more challenging to rationalize.
We don’t treat suicide and mental illness like the threat it is. Suicide isn’t a masked man standing above your bed with a gun pressed to your forehead. Suicide doesn’t get plastered on the evening news and written about instantly by every news outlet that could possible relate to the tragedy, unless it’s a celebrity, in which case we still for some reason treat it like a rarity.
We don’t treat suicide and mental illness like the medically-proven, heavily-studied disease it is. No one calls you a survivor and gives you a ribbon when you walk out of a hospital with bandages on your wrist or months of treatment and medication. No one cheers for you or exclaims to family and friends that you beat an illness and reclaimed your life. No one knows how to send you flowers or what to say when they come to visit you. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about it, and that is why it’s killing us.
An estimated 8.3 million adults in the US reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year of their lives (CDC). That is the people who admitted to it, because the vast majority wouldn’t even go that far. That is why 41,149 people died last year. In this country, we promote independence, competition and strength of mind. We praise the highly successful and constantly strive for a sense of betterment that may often be utterly unachievable. We used to exclaim our successes to the masses by word-of-mouth and now we plaster our best moments all over the Internet and keep the “dirty laundry” where it belongs, unseen. Therefore, we make people feel like dirty laundry, kept only in the company of their own shame and isolation. The good news is that we have the potential to move forward, and in a lot of ways we starting to.
My grandmother is amazed by the falling boundaries of privacy for the shadowy parts of all of our lives. She can’t believe how much everything is changing. When she hears what I write about, she is astonished by how willing I am to admit my own weaknesses and struggles for the world to see. I explain to her that being open and honest about pain is how we all heal. It’s how we eliminate the kind of isolation and embarrassment that causes suicide and self-injury. Every time that I have hung my dirty laundry out on the line, an outpour of individuals, ranging from strangers to prominent professionals at my company, have come forward to me with their own stories.
People don’t want to be alone. People who resort to extreme measures to end their own lives, didn’t want it to be that way. They didn’t want to feel overtaken by a disease they feared getting help for. No one wants to be plagued by mental illness, but it’s alive and fiercely attacking the people of this world. People want to be listened to. They want to know they aren’t alone. They want to reach out. They want a world that makes them feel unafraid to do so. I want that too.
We need to start talking about suicide and mental illness.
We can create a culture that heals. We can be brave enough to share our own stories, and compassionate enough to understand the stories of others. We can be vocal enough to inspire open conversation. We can be cognitive of the real power of this issue, and regard it as the aggressive battle it needs to become. When we shine light into the dark parts of the world, nothing goes unseen. People don’t fall through the cracks. Loved ones don’t slip away into a seemingly invisible evil.
If we shine light into the darkness, then darkness really isn’t darkness at all, it’s simply a different shade of light. It’s a light we can all walk in, together, if we decide to fight for it.