Friday, June 22, 2018

The Surround of Silence

If past celebrity suicides are an indication, all the noise about suicide and suicide prevention of the past few weeks will soon subside into the usual uncomfortable silence that surrounds the topic. “This silence about suicide can be deafening,” writes Stacey Freedenthal on Speakingof Suicide , “making it exquisitely hard to hear those whose cries most need to be heard.”  

In the five years since losing my son, Noah, to suicide, I’ve learned there are many varieties of suicide silence. Most often, it’s the silence of stigma that needs to be broken, again and again, so that it’s no shame to admit to suicidal feelings and seek help. We need to Send Silence Packing, as the organization Active Minds signals with its exhibit on youth suicide that travels to college campuses. The huge collection of backpacks represents the 1,200 American college students who die by suicide every year, including Noah in 2013. I gazed down on the exhibit last month from a terrace at UCLA, sobered by the many long lines of backpacks radiating across the lawn. Up close, other visitors and I browsed among the photos and stories of young people attached to each pack. Some accounts were upbeat biographical sketches; some, anguished outcries—each story different and tragic. Between the packs were signs from Active Minds, which works to destigmatize mental illness on college campuses: Seeking help shows strength. It’s OK not to be OK. Keep asking and keep searching until something helps; something will. Your story isn’t over yet.

What if this exhibit had been on view at Noah’s college? What if he’d strolled by and leaned down to read about a student whose desperation reminded him of his own? Would he have been emboldened to tell us about his terrifying anxiety attacks or to tell a therapist that he was feeling suicidal? My hunch: not likely. I think he would have avoided the exhibit, fearing exposure or another anxiety attack. He would have walked right past posters with crisis line numbers, though secretly, he may have longed to call them. As he told me a month before his death, he felt he should “man up” to his problems. Many young people who are struggling agree, though surely campaigns like Send Silence Packing give many others the courage to speak up and seek help.

What if Noah’s friends had seen an exhibit like this or called a crisis line to voice their worries about him? I’m grateful to his hometown friends who contacted me in concern when Noah was having a psychotic episode. What if they’d broken the code of silence with my husband and me before it was too late—before the once exuberant, adventurous, witty conversationalist that we all loved sunk into alarming silence? Better a mad friend than a dead friend, youth suicide campaigns insist.

Then there are the forms of silence that come after a suicide. The helpless silence of friends and family who don’t know what to say to the mourners, especially after a child’s suicide. Though honest and well-intentioned, “there are no words” can feel hollow to loss survivors; try asking us instead how we’re taking care of ourselves or if we’d like to talk about what’s on our mind. Or give us a hug and sit or walk beside us in shared grief and loving silence.

Incredibly after five years, there is still the dismaying silence of relatives who can’t speak Noah’s name or reminisce about him at family gatherings. They fear that doing so will upset Bryan and me by reminding us of the tragedy, when, in fact, it’s their silence that upsets us and we need no reminders for what is always in our hearts.

And of course, there’s the inexcusable silence of public policy and medical research on the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. And the baffling silence of media on how gun violence results in nearly twice as many suicides as homicides in this country. We need to lift the weight of all this silence with information and support, research and advocacy, compassion and understanding—a sustained national conversation and action plan. (Kudos to CNN for hosting a one-hour town hall, “Finding Hope: Battling America’s Suicide Crisis,” this Sunday, June 24, 2018, 7pm ET, both on cable and streaming live on, with an impressive panel of guests.) 

Like many fellow survivors, I’m helping promote more informed public conversation around suicide while still haunted by the most private of silences: When our loved ones didn’t tell us how much they were hurting. When we didn’t ask if they were suicidal, or did and fumbled our response. Worst of all, the endless silence that reverberates after they’re gone.

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