- How big a problem is suicide among young people?
Suicide is a serious issue no matter what age group is being discussed, because, for the most part, it is a preventable death. Among young people (ages 15-24) specifically, there were 4,189 suicide deaths reported during 2006, the most recent year for which we have national statistics. In my mind, that’s 4,189 more than there should be, and that’s why I do the work I do. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for this age group.
- Why do you feel so passionate about this cause?
It started because of personal experience. When I was 17 and a senior in high school, my father died by suicide. My family didn’t know what the warning signs were, and we didn’t know how to cope with such a traumatic, violent and unexpected death of someone we loved dearly. He was the center of my world. Now, 36 years after his death, I find that most people still don’t know the warning signs and still don’t think suicide could happen to someone they know and love. Until we all learn that suicide can be prevented, and that we all have a part to play in saving a life from suicide, then change will continue to come slowly.
- What’s the hardest part of your job?
Easily, it’s doing what I can every day – in the company of thousands more like me – to reduce the number of suicide deaths only to see change coming so slowly. I can illustrate it this way: there are twice as many deaths by suicide in the United States as deaths from HIV/AIDS, and nearly twice as many suicides as homicides. Now, consider how much money is spent on research and prevention of HIV/AIDS and murder. Only an equal investment of money, time and determination will advance the cause of suicide prevention as well.
- What would you say to a person considering suicide?
First, I would listen closely to everything that young person had to say, and then I would tell him or her that when things feel overwhelming or hopeless, we often can’t see the light in the midst of darkness, but that with help that is available he or she is most likely to weather the crisis.
- What should someone do if their friend is thinking about suicide?
First, stay with the friend by whatever connection there is – telephone, texting, email, etc. The best thing is to be physically with the friend or to find someone who can be there.
Then, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273- TALK (8255) where anyone can speak with a trained telephone counselor who is available 24/7. Get a trusted adult involved and never agree to be the only one who can help or to keep a secret about a friend’s thoughts of suicide.
- What can the Do Something generation do to address mental health issues?
They can begin to understand it in the same way they understand and view other illnesses. The brain is just like any other organ of the body, and it can malfunction or not be adequate to keep a person healthy. The mind is the psychological aspect of the brain, and it can malfunction as well. The support of family and friends is also important for anyone trying to cope with a mental illness.
- How can we get issues like suicide out into the open?
Seems like you’re doing it now! Educate yourself and educate others, know the warning signs, insist on having opportunities to learn about preventing suicide, stop the myths and speak the truth … depression, bipolar disease and other mental illnesses that can lead to suicide are diagnosable and treatable, and we all can be part of the solution.
- How can students get their schools to really talk about suicide prevention?
Express your concern and ask for it. Start with a trusted teacher or counselor to create opportunities to discuss suicide as openly as cancer, diabetes, and the like.
- How can schools be more responsive to kids in crisis?
Most, if not all, schools have a crisis management plan. Prevention of suicide and similar crises really requires having a pro-active attitude about the total health of everyone in the school to reduce the likelihood of a crisis taking place. Take advantage of our School Suicide Prevention Accreditation program. Every school can have an accredited person to design and manage a school-based suicide prevention program.
- What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about people suffering from suicide-related thoughts or about those who have died by suicide?
People whose lives are impacted by thoughts of suicide, and those who attempt or die by suicide, are not “selfish” or “cowards”. They are suffering from unimaginable pain (physical and/or emotional), have no hope of things getting better, and may believe that no one cares if they live or die. They can get better with adequate care and support – including therapy and sometimes medication – and they need understanding.
- Do you think we'll be able to solve this problem?
When I was young, the word ‘cancer’ was taboo. It wasn’t talked about, and if the subject came up, ‘cancer’ was said in hushed tones. We didn’t even know about HIV/AIDS, and I remember very well the stigma around the disease, and reading all of the misinformation that preceded today’s concerted effort to prevent and treat it.
So, I challenge today’s young people to eradicate suicide. Go ahead, make my profession obsolete!