A huge river cuts through the wilderness, teeming with life. Hundreds of species of fish swarm through the waters, merrily going about their business. At one juncture, the river splits, with a small stream flowing to one side. The fish who head in that direction are in peril. The stream is polluted to such a degree that most will not survive its waters for long.
Your job is to save those fish. What is your strategy?
You could rush frantically around, pulling fish out of the tainted water with a net or a pole as fast as you can, and carrying them back to the safety of the big river. You could also devise some method to induce the fish to swim back on their own.
This is what suicide prevention looks like in most people’s minds. As Dr. Thomas Joiner, author of “Why People Die By Suicide,” points out, we have become quite skilled at identifying and teaching early and late warning signs of suicidal thinking — disengagement from social activities, worsening depression, unexplained change in mood, writing a will, dropping hints.
But you can only chase those hints for so long before you start to wonder, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier to prevent all these fish from swimming down this suicidal stream in the first place?”
Thanks to Joiner and other scholars, suicide prevention is starting to do just that, while still refusing to abandon the unfortunate souls who already find themselves in toxic waters and cannot see a way out.
Three key risk factors lead to suicidality. One is repeated exposure to violence or injury. As Joiner explains, the more you do something dangerous, like firing a weapon in combat, skydiving, or intentionally injuring yourself, the more you get used to it. Fear gradually gives way to a thrill or a sense of peace or calm associated with it.
Another risk factor is perceived burdensomeness. The affected person believes (incorrectly, of course) that his or her death would bring relief for loved ones. Part of the mental illness associated with suicide is the delusion that “the world would be better off if I didn’t exist.”
The third risk factor is failed belonging. This is the area where prevention activists can have the most impact. Belonging means having a niche, feeling connected, being part of a group, and feeling accepted and loved for who you really are. Isolation is a significant red flag for anyone’s mental health, even if the other two risk factors for suicide are not present.
This means that suicide prevention is just as much a campaign for inclusiveness and compassion as it is a technical exercise of talking someone down from a ledge.
Notice that antiquated concepts of suicide as a result of some moral flaw are not part of the current research. A suicide attempt is not a black mark on a person’s character. This truth can be hard to disentangle from the distorted view presented in the media, where the only suicides we learn about are of notorious figures like Ariel Castro, Jovan Belcher or the latest radically crazed terrorist or gun-wielding psychopath.
Do not allow these figures to corrupt your compassion for the honest, decent and hardworking men and women who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. And there are many in our midst. Maine’s annual suicide rate of 14 per 100,000 is significantly higher than the overall suicide rate for the northeastern U.S. (9.3). Nationally, suicide rates have increased steadily over the last 10 years.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Maine teenagers and young adults, and the most common cause of death for active duty military personnel. These people are not cowards.
I am proud to serve on the organizing committee for the annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk for Suicide prevention. This year’s walk is Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at the University of Maine in Orono (starting in front of Fogler Library). The walk will raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which not only supports local mental health initiatives and research on suicide and provides resources for families impacted by suicide, but also works to end the stigma and taboo around suicide. Bringing suicide “Out of the Darkness” is a critical step in rerouting fish out of that polluted stream.
Suicide takes a huge toll on families and communities. Please consider sponsoring this year’s walk, even if you can only afford a few dollars. Visit www.outofthedarkness.org and click on “find an event near you” to register for the walk or donate. You can help put a dent in the misery caused by this tragic public health problem.
Charles McKay is a clinical intern and graduate assistant at the University of Maine Counseling Center and Touchstone Resources.