When I was about 15 years old, I wandered into my parents’ bathroom and found my mom sitting on the floor with a handful of pills. I startled her and she was horrified. I don’t think we ever talked about it, and I don’t recall talking about it with anyone else until years later with my brother.
We both knew my mom was unhappy. I remember once she told me, “If I ever cut my hair short again, you’ll know that I want to kill myself.” I don’t remember the context for the comment, but I’ll never forget the words. After I’d gone to college and moved out of the house, I dreaded seeing her again each time, until I knew that she hadn’t cut her hair short.
She did not kill herself, but I don’t think she was sorry to die. That made her death even harder than it already was. She died as a result of medical malpractice, and I’ve often wondered if she tried to find the worst doctor she could. It seemed like suicide by doc.
In contrast my uncle did take action. He killed himself when I was in college in the same town where my dad was a police chaplain. Chaplains are often on-call to respond to tragedies like suicide, going to the scene and then to report and respond to family members on the events.
My dad had just gotten off his shift when his brother’s suicide was called in. The difference of a few hours could have meant that he was a first responder to his own tragedy. I can still hear my father’s voice when another chaplain broke the news. He said “no” over and again, and then he asked, “Why?”
It’s a hard question to answer. Millions of people suffer from mental illness and addiction, survive trauma, injury, and abuse, are victims of crime and disaster. We are weighed down by life, by failure, by crisis, and by genetics. Some are treated through counseling and psychotropic medications. Many respond by self-medicating with alcohol and illegal drugs.
Only some choose to kill themselves, and practitioners can’t predict which ones. Last summer, the New York Times published an article about Matthew K. Nock, the director of Harvard University’s Laboratory for Clinical and Developmental Research, who is researching the causes of suicide. He is seeking to develop a test to determine who is most likely to act.
The article is fascinating, and I’m grateful that someone is attending to this research. Suicide has touched my family, close friends and students. Our local high school has been hit hard this year, too. It is a devastating phenomenon. If we knew who was most vulnerable to taking action, then we might be able to respond more effectively.
Nock’s most powerful insight here, at least from my perspective, is what he’s learned from those who attempt to kill themselves and fail: they’re glad they did.
This is what drives him to turn levers, to keep asking people who attempt suicide, “Why?” As individual as their responses are, they tend to share at least one detail. “Virtually all of them,” he said, “say, ‘I’m glad I didn’t die.’ ”
May is mental health awareness month. I encourage you to attend to those around you who are suffering. My hope for anyone thinking about suicide is that they can hear the voices of others saying, “I’ve been there. I tried and I failed. And, I’m so glad I didn’t die.”
If you or anyone you know is suffering and needs someone to talk to, please call for help.
Suicide Prevention/Crisis Intervention, 1-800-248-7475
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
When you Need Someone To Talk To, Covenant House Nineline, 1-800-999-9999
Crisis Prevention for Gay Youth, Trevor Helpline, 1-800-850-8078
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