BY SUSAN TODOROFF
My dear friend Sue had a wonderful life by almost anyone’s standards. She was married to her mutually proclaimed soul mate, lived in a beautiful natural setting in a truly lovely house, and she and her husband had both recently retired with plans of traveling the U.S. with their little camper, named Trixie, in tow. Her stepdaughter, who she was close with and helped raise, had recently had a baby girl so she was a new grandma. Sue felt one with nature and had a deep connection to plants, trees, birds, and environmental issues. She volunteered for political issues she deeply believed in, and she chose to see the good in everyone she met. She dove deeply into self-improvement books, spirituality and music, and she had an infectious passion for life.This past June, for reasons I can’t fully comprehend, she took her own.
I knew she had struggled with depression 30 years ago while in college, and I knew that depression had wormed its insidious hole into her brain on and off recently. I knew before her death that she was going through a particularly hard time. I was still shocked to my core that this beautiful woman, so filled with joy and excitement and adventure when she was well, would suddenly end her life. There was no note, and no immediate indication to her husband that she was that close to suicide.
We’ve heard similar stories in recent years with the suicides of celebrities like Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Robin Williams. People with seemingly wonderful lives who lost the fight against a darkness that many of us can’t understand, are suddenly gone. I asked Sue’s husband, “What happened? Please help me understand this, even a little.” He explained that she felt like she had a terminal illness and would never get better. She felt she would never again be the person who she really was. She knew who she wanted to be and worked hard at it, but it was like a demon took over her brain and she couldn’t control it. Her therapy and medication at the time only had so much impact. No one really knows what went through her mind as she made the decision to end her life.
According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, suicide without warning is not uncommon. The decision to commit suicide might be made just minutes or hours before the act. Sue’s husband had a dentist appointment and he wanted her to come along. She assured him she would be OK, even mentioning some things she wanted to do around the house. In the hour or so he was gone, she took her life. Understandably, her husband suffered overwhelming grief and guilt.
More than 100 Americans die by suicide every day, leaving behind an array of people who loved them, who tried to help them, and who will forever ask the question to themselves, “What if…?” The uncomfortable answer is that we have little control over other adults and if they want to end their lives fervently enough, they will attempt it. That said, it’s important for loved ones to know the triggers, behaviors, warning signs and risk factors, and also ways to support a loved one.
Triggers vary from person to person but may include episodes of depression, psychosis or anxiety, the death of a partner, the loss of a job, a serious illness, and exposure to suicidal behaviors of others.
Suicidal behaviors can show up as saving pills, suddenly purchasing a gun, or giving away possessions. Warning signs can be an increased use of alcohol or drugs, dramatic mood swings, and withdrawal from family, friends, and activities. Certain risk factors can also increase someone’s desire to end their life. These include a family history of suicide, a history of drama or abuse, and heavy drug and alcohol use.
You can find a full list of warning signs, risk factors, and ways to support people with suicidal thoughts on the NAMI website. Contrary to what many people believe, it can actually be very helpful to directly ask a loved one you are worried about if they are having suicidal thoughts. Asking them directly shows that you care and that you are aware of how they may be feeling. If you are witnessing a suicide crisis it’s important to call 911 immediately. Don’t debate or try and “talk the person down.”
Trying to understand how and why someone with a seemingly great life would end it has been an ongoing struggle for me and others. A harsh reality to me is that depression can reoccur at any age. A predisposition to it is a risk factor loved ones need to take seriously. A passage from an article in “Psychology Today” online by Dr. Deborah Serani helped me. It is as follows:
Based on the accounts of those who have attempted suicide and lived to tell about it, we know that the primary goal of a suicide is not to end life, but to end pain. People in the grips of a suicidal depression are battling an emotional agony where living becomes objectionable. Most people who die by suicide have a significant depression narrowing their problem solving skills. Corrosive thinking reduces optimism, the hope of possibility and increases feelings of helplessness. The depressive illness itself makes it virtually impossible to hold onto any semblance of pain going away. While some may argue that a person who dies by suicide has done so by their own choice, I argue that serious mental illness, in fact, limits choice. Studies of those who have survived their suicide attempt and healed from their depression report being astonished that they ever considered suicide.
For those who don’t experience depression, understanding the degree of pain and anguish it inflicts is almost impossible. What we can do is recognize the signs of suicide, be aware of the risk factors, and reach out to loved ones who are suffering. We can’t prevent 100% of suicides. But by reducing the stigma of mental illness and depression, working toward a society that truly cares, and staying aware of those around us, maybe we can help someone realize that there is hope. And we can hold on to the hope that some suicides may be prevented by loved ones willing to engage.