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Foss: We need to talk about suicide

Foss: We need to talk about suicide

In many quarters, suicide remains taboo
Foss: We need to talk about suicide
Photographer: ShutterStock image

I didn't know that the last time I saw my brother-in-law Tom it would be at a family gathering in March, at my aunt and uncle's house in Massachusetts. 

I expected to see him in May, at my niece's birthday party, and in July, on a family vacation in New Hampshire, and in August, on a camping trip to Vermont. 

Just 41, in the prime of his life, with two children, a good job and a passion for playing the mandolin, I assumed Tom would be a part of my life for decades to come. 

Then the telephone call came, informing me that Tom, who married my sister in 2010, had died by suicide. 

How many people have received a telephone call like this? 

A lot, judging by the numbers. 

In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, making it the tenth leading cause of death in the country. The number of suicides in the U.S. has been rising steadily for years: In 1999, 29,199 people died by suicide. 

These deaths aren't anything I feel like talking about.

I'm talking about them because of the possibility that it might do some good. 

In many quarters, suicide remains taboo - a confusing and painful topic people would rather not discuss. 

Also see: Remembering John: Schenectady woman advocates for suicide prevention

This reluctance might be understandable, but it's also damaging, because it perpetuates the stigma associated with suicide, and makes it hard for people to ask for help when they need it. As a 2015 Atlantic Monthly article observed, "... the stigma of suicide is so strong that it's often an issue left unspoken, even by doctors." 

Is this changing? 

Nicole DeCelle, area director of the Capital Region & South Central New York chapters of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, believes that it is. 

"I think we're at a tipping point in our country now, where we're starting to talk more openly about suicide and prevention and mental health," DeCelle told me. "But we have such a long way to go." 

She added, "The more that we talk about it and normalize the conversation, the quicker the stigma goes away. ... The reality is that we all struggle with our mental health at different phases in our lives." 

In the weeks since Tom's death, I've been amazed at the number of people who have opened up to me about their own experiences with depression or a loss of a colleague, friend or loved one to suicide. 

Suicide might be taboo, but it's also pervasive - something that's touched the lives of most everyone. 

Getting people to share their stories might go a long way toward reducing the suicide rate, and lead to a much-needed shift in how we think and talk about suicide: as a public health problem, rather than a big, dark, horrifying secret. 

Of course, there are other tools for preventing suicide. 

Knowing the risk signs and warning factors of suicide can also help. 

While there's no single cause of suicide, groups with a mission of suicide prevention highlight the stressors and health issues that often converge to create feelings of hopelessness and despair. According to the AFSP, "Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, and it is often undiagnosed and untreated." 

Warning signs include changes in behavior such as increased drug or alcohol use, withdrawing from social activities and visiting or calling people to say goodbye. If a person talks about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live and being in unbearable pain, they might be at risk of suicide.   

AFSP offers a number of programs that are designed to teach how to recognize warning signs and respond to them. The More Than Sad program is aimed at students, while Talk Saves Lives focuses on groups of adults, such as community groups and businesses.

"We want the generation coming up to be the first generation that does talk about it," DeCelle said. 

There are resources available to people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, but many people will never access them. If we want to reduce the country's disturbingly high suicide rate, that has to change.    

Since my brother-in-law died, I've learned more about his struggles with depression and some problems he was having at work. This information has helped me make sense of his suicide, although I doubt it's something I'll ever fully comprehend. There are still mornings when I wake up and can't believe it really happened.  

What I'll always regret is that Tom didn't receive the help he so clearly needed - that he didn't call a hotline, or dial 911 or express what he was feeling to a friend, colleague or family member. 

There are always reasons for hope.

I wish I'd had the opportunity to tell Tom that. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.   

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