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Making Sense of Suicide

Many people are talking about suicide this week. We lost a beloved icon in Robin Williams, who ended his own life by suicide. For a number of reasons, it’s important to talk about this difficult topic. As we struggle to make sense of this death, we come up against confusing and painful questions – why did he do it? He always seemed so happy – what changed? Was it depression? Drugs? A diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease? All of the above, or none of the above? We understand deaths from heart disease, or cancer. Suicide…? Not so much.

So we talk about suicide because it’s frightening and it doesn’t make sense. We want it to make sense. We look for reasons so that we can move on to closure. The truth is, suicide is something we may never truly understand. We can talk in generalities, such as the high numbers of people with untreated depression who take their own lives. Or the studies which have shown that people who attempt suicide and survive are glad they did. But generalities won’t help us understand what happened to Robin Williams, or to a friend or family member whom you have lost to suicide.

So. We do know for certain that losing someone you love to suicide is an excruciatingly experience. Let’s start there.

When someone takes their own life, we are left with all kinds of doubts and questions. Did I miss the signs? Could I have done more? Maybe it’s my fault. So not only is your world turned upside down by the loss of a friend or family member, you may be agonizing over these types of thoughts. The important thing to know is this: you did not cause the suicide. There are a number of support groups, including those that are online and free of charge, for suicide survivors. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, please reach out to others who know what it’s like. Grief, in any form, is difficult, but grief when there has been a suicide is very complicated. Take care of yourself and reach out.

One myth that exists about suicide is that the person who takes their own life is selfish or cowardly. I believe a couple of public figures actually made comments about Mr. Williams to that effect. These types of statements show ignorance and disrespect, and contribute to the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. Again, I am speaking in generalities, but typically the person who takes his or her own life is desperate to end emotional pain. They want the pain to stop, and for whatever reason, they cannot perceive of other solutions. To make judgmental statements about them after the fact is uninformed and cruel – to the deceased and their survivors.

Another myth about suicide centers on the assumption that if the deceased could have only been more resourceful or positive, they would still be with us. Quotes like “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” make sense – unless you are suicidal. So what does help?

If you have someone in your life who is suicidal, here’s what may help. Listen to them. Let them talk. Don’t jump in with solutions right away. Take them seriously and let them talk as much as they need to. When you are talking to someone who is suicidal, offer encouragement, be gentle, and try your best not to be shocked or judgmental. Ask them what they need. Help them find a doctor or therapist if needed. If they are not in immediate danger, check back with them regularly to make sure they are all right. Remember, talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide.

If you feel they are in immediate danger, or if they clearly have a plan, a timeline, and the means to kill themselves (such as a gun, or pills), call for help immediately. Call 911, or 1-800-SUICIDE, or 1-800-273-TALK. Those numbers and other resources will be in the description bar below. Write them down and save them. Don’t hesitate to contact professional help. A qualified mental health professional or physician can intervene and get the person the help they need.

Finally, I want to touch on one last piece of the Robin Williams story. After his death, news came out that Mr. Williams had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. A number of people reacted with comments like “Oh, now it makes more sense. He didn’t want to live that way. I understand better now.” I’m not sure it does make more sense now, actually. Maybe this diagnosis played a part in the suicide of Robin Williams, but maybe not. Either way, as devastating as it can be to receive a diagnosis of a serious medical condition, people can and do live productive, happy lives even with disease and disability. A diagnosis does not mean suicide suddenly makes sense.

Suicide never makes sense. There are always other choices and there is always hope. This may be impossible to see, for the person struggling with so much pain that they believe suicide is the only option. What can get them there is support and treatment for whatever is causing such pain. I have heard time and time again from people who didn’t die, even though they believed at one time it was their only option, that they are grateful to still be here.

If you are feeling suicidal, please pick up the phone and call for help. Allow someone to help you. Stick around, please.

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