Sunday, June 17, 2018

Too Much Suicide

Suicide seemed to be everywhere the first week of June. The suicides of two beloved celebrities dominated the media, prompting soul-searching and tweets of “RIP” and 24-hour crisis line numbers. I purposely didn’t overload on the media coverage, partly because I barely knew the work of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I heard about some irresponsible news stories that focused on the means of the suicide and used the term “committed suicide” rather than “died by suicide”—both counter to suicide prevention media guidelines . But the media pieces I saw were thoughtful and compassionate, stressing the importance of help-seeking and putting a face on suicide by giving voice to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, as well as suicide loss survivors both famous (Karl Rove!) and not so famous. 

At the same time, the CDC released a new report on a 25% increase in the U.S. suicide rate since 1999. This brought broader context to the deaths of two famous people and a factual basis to a national conversation that needs to be urgent and ongoing, rather than sporadic. Because we should be saddened about the other 862 Americans who take their lives each week and turn that sadness into policies and programs that give suicide—the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.--its due as a public health crisis. 

Friends gingerly wondered if I was having a hard week. I was, but not because of the media frenzy. It was a hard week because I was immersed in suicide for too many hours each day. I attended three suicide-related meetings, where everyone was processing the public deaths, the media coverage, the people they knew who had been triggered. I was working on a project that involves reading and editing articles about suicide loss. I was emailing a dear friend whose daughter had just lost a middle-aged aunt to suicide and planning a dinner for new friends whose son’s death anniversary is this week. And I was slogging through messages on a suicide listserv that had accumulated while I was out of town. As I’ve become more involved in suicide prevention, I’m learning that I need to dose myself by limiting the time that I focus on suicide —just as loss survivors need to “dose” our bouts of grieving when it becomes overwhelming. I also need to take care that I’m not over-compartmentalizing by tamping down my own reactions. 

In the early months after losing my son, Noah, any news of suicide could be traumatizing. It was scary how much suicide there was in the world. Still raw with pain and obsessed with my loss, each well-publicized suicide seemed to magnify my own private nightmare. But over the past few years, as grief has become more integrated into my life, my mind has filled with other emotions and preoccupations. I can still be triggered by talk or images of suicide—I had a terrible flash of the scene of Noah’s death about a week after Bourdain's death--but the upset is more fleeting. 

Maybe friends and family of survivors worry about us when there’s a media frenzy over suicide because it reminds them of what we can never forget. 

To my fellow survivors: I’m sorry if recent suicides in the news have made your loss even harder to bear. Let’s hope these stories open up conversations with others who sincerely want to help and understandand spur action to save lives and spare other families.

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