In recent years, over 30,000 Americans have completed suicide annually. The Center for Disease Control advises that it is the third leading cause of death amongst Americans between the ages of 15-24.
Many years ago, college campuses nationwide adopted policies making the minor holiday Columbus Day a long weekend. This was done in response to increased numbers of deaths amongst college students during the fall semester. Being away from home for the first time takes a toll.
Many colleges and universities host “parent’s weekends” in October. It’s an opportunity to not only see what our children are experiencing but also to reconnect and promote their well being. My wife and I enjoyed years of parent weekends but were always disappointed to find ourselves amongst very few other parents. We were blessed to become “second parents” to a number of outstanding young people.
Seriously, I don’t care how busy you are – go visit your kids. Then send care packages. Then fly them home if they’re too far to drive.
Here’s another way to support the world your children live in: The University of Maine Counseling Center & Touchstone Resources is sponsoring the annual Out of the Darkness Community Walks September 29, 2013 at 2 pm. These efforts raise awareness and funding in over 200 communities across the country, with the proceeds benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
Close to Home
From 2005-2009, there were 901 deaths by suicide in Maine. It is the tenth leading cause of death in our state, with an average of 180 deaths annually. (Maine.gov/suicide). Estimating the number of suicide attempts that are not completed has always been problematic in that we must isolate factors like accidental overdose and unintended harm from high risk activities like the “choking game” (asphyxiation while masturbating). According to studies published last year, about one in ten high school students in Maine considered or planned suicide in 2011.
Maine has led the way nationally in responding to reduce suicide rates amongst youth. The Maine Gatekeeper’s suicide prevention model has been well established since the late 90’s and has been used by other states. This year the Maine Legislature passed a bill requiring that all public school employees receive training designed to increase awareness and prevention efforts.
We’re gaining but we still have a long way to go. One unnecessary death is too many, much less 180.
What We Can Do
Maintaining connection allows us to remain attuned to our loved ones and to notice subtle changes in their way of being. Understanding red flags helps us know when to be concerned. Getting off eggshells and expressing our concerns directly is crucial.
The average layperson understands that those who attempt and complete suicide are almost always experiencing significant episodic and/or chronic depression. What is often misunderstood is that we expect that when people are depressed they appear sad, lethargic, and hopeless. Atypical presentations of depression often look nothing like sadness. They look like anger, angst, and detachment.
People often confuse self harm with being suicidal. It may seem counterintuitive but a person who injures themselves by deliberately cutting or burning is generally not suicidal. Seeing evidence of self harm is cause for concern but jumping to inquiries of suicide will often derail what might otherwise be a productive conversation.
What to Look for
- Anhedonia – a clinical term meaning loss of interest in once loved activities, hobbies
- Break Ups – loss of a long term relationship can be devastating.
- Use of drugs and alcohol to cope (“normal” college experimenting has become hard to gauge)
- Social isolation, excessive sleep, avoidance of responsibilities
- Significant change in body weight, decline in hygiene,
- Frequently overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or fearful regarding demands of daily living
- Attempts of completed suicides by those close to our loved ones and anniversary dates of past losses
- Struggling with sexual identity
- Unhealthy perspective – unduly pessimistic, catastrophizing
There’s almost never a clear perspective in the mind of someone who is planning suicide. There’s an old adage that they seek a “permanent answer to a temporary problem.”
What to Say
People tend to be very uncomfortable asking personal questions directly. We use euphemisms (“You’re not thinking of doing anything stupid are you?”). With good intentions we often go off course by asking, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” The person who is planning suicide is not thinking about inflicting pain but rather putting an end to their suffering.
The more ill at ease we are, the more words we tend to use. The best way to express our concerns is to reflect what we’re seeing and to ask very directly (“Are you thinking of ending your life?”). Better to ask and have to sort through a misunderstanding than to live a lifetime of regret for not having asked.
I’ve never had a client yet in therapy whose loved ones cared too much. Keep your eyes open, listen to your gut and just ask.
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