Understanding Suicide

By Janet S. McCord, PhD, FT

Marian University
Associate Professor of Thanatology
Chair: Edwin S. Shneidman Program in Thanatology, Psychological Autopsy Investigator: United States Marine Corps (USMC) Suicide Prevention Psychological Autopsy Project

“Anyone who willingly enters into the pain of a stranger is truly a remarkable person.”

Henri J. M. Nouwen, In Memoriam

Suicide is difficult to understand, an act that seems senseless to some, selfish to others, and one that affects friends and family members deeply. In 2010, over 38,000 people in the United   States killed themselves. That means that there are 105 suicides every day, and someone in the United States kills him or herself every 13.7 minutes. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death (homicide ranks 16th), and the 3rd leading cause of death among youth (behind both accidents and homicides).  In the military, suicide is at an all-time high. Among active-duty, reserve and National Guard members, there is a suicide every 18 hours, and the number of suicide deaths outnumbered deaths due to combat in 2012.

Of the 38,364 suicide deaths in the United States in 2010, over 30,000 were males, nearly 35,000 were white/Caucasian, nearly 6,000 were elderly (over age 65) and nearly 5,000 were between age 15 and 34. Approximately one million Americans attempt suicide every year, one every 32 seconds. Wisconsin ranks 27th with 793 suicides in 2010, with a suicide rate of 13.9 per 100,000. Fond du LacCounty’s suicide rate is 13 per 100,000, mirroring the National rate. Suicide can happen to any family, anywhere.

Cause of Suicide

Suicide is a multi-faceted event with no single cause – most suicides occur because of a combination of risk factors, predisposition, and access to means. The actual cause of any given suicide is unique to that case, and causal elements vary widely. Common risk factors include demographics (white, native American, male, older, separated, divorces, early widowhood); a history of suicide attempts; prior suicidal thinking; a history of self-harming behavior (including in the family); substance abuse; hospitalization for any major psychiatric disorder; divorce; history of trauma or abuse; and history of impulsive or reckless behavior. There are also certain factors that can predispose a person to suicide, including a variety of psychiatric disorders; Traumatic Brain Injury; low self-esteem or high self-hate; a tolerant attitude towards suicide; exposure to another’s suicide death; bullying; and lack of familial or self-acceptance of sexual orientation. Contributory causes of suicide include firearm ownership or easy accessibility to firearms; acute or enduring unemployment; substance use; and stress (such as job, marriage, relationship). Any real or anticipated event causing or threatening to cause shame, guilt, despair, humiliation or loss of face can be a trigger, as can legal or financial problems, and feelings of rejection or abandonment.

After the fact: Surviving suicide

A “survivor” is someone who experiences a high rate of distress after a suicide death. It is estimated that there are 4.5 million survivors in the United States. Survivors of suicide often find themselves struggling with feelings of guilt, responsibility and blame, and are likely to experience isolation, rejection and stigma from neighbors and family. We also know that survivors of suicide have an increased risk of suicidal thinking or action.

What can you do?

It truly takes a village to prevent suicide, and every individual can help to prevent it in his or her community. Together as a community, we can help prevent suicide. Here’s what you can do:

  • Attend a “Gatekeeper” training: Anyone can take a Gatekeeper training such as QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). QPR training takes just 90 minutes and is offered free throughout Wisconsin. Gatekeepers are people who regularly come into contact with individuals in distress, and are in a position to recognize a suicidal crisis and the warning signs of someone who may be contemplating suicide. Gatekeepers include teachers, police officers and health care workers, but are also include shopkeepers, grocery store clerks, volunteers, librarians, co-workers in every walk of life. The goal of gatekeeper training is to enhance the probability that a potentially suicidal person is identified and assisted – before an adverse event happens.
  • Encourage your local schools to offer ACT training for youth: ACT is a gatekeeper training for youth. It stands for “Ask and Acknowledge;” (Youth are encouraged to ask what is wrong if someone they know is differently,  to ask what is wrong and acknowledge feelings, rather than minimizing them); show Care and Concern (If the person says “yes,” “maybe,” “sometimes” or some other answer that makes the youth think they may be considering suicide, they are instructed to reassure him or her that the youth will be there to help and really listen to what he or she is saying) and Talk (youth are encouraged to seek help immediately from a trusted adult if they have concerns about a person harming him or herself, and to stay with the person until help is found).
  • Encourage families to participate in YScreen: Emotional health screening and support in accessing mental health services for youth, available through YScreen, formerly known as TeenScreen, is offered to 9th grade students at every school throughout Fond du Lac County and any student ages 12 and older can be screened by request. For more information on youth emotional health screening in Fond du Lac County, visit www.csifdl.org or contact the YScreen office at 906-6700 extension 4714.
  • Secure your firearms.  One of the best things you can do to prevent the risk of suicide by use of firearms is to reduce the access to lethal means. Another preventative measure is to use gun-locking cabinets accompanied by gun locking mechanisms on the firearms. Trigger gunlocks are available FREE at the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office, 920-929-3390 and from Marian University Department of Thanatology, (920-923-8952). If someone in your household may be suicidal, it is best to remove guns from the premises.
  • If you are a survivor or know a survivor: Support groups can be helpful for those bereaved by suicide and are available throughout Wisconsin. If you know someone who might benefit from support services, locate a support group and offer this information. Support groups can be located through the following websites: http://suicidegrief.save.org/SBSG_Database (by zip code or state); www.afsp.org; and www.suicidology.org
  • Get informed. Following are important resources that will help you understand how real, common and treatable some mental health disorders are:
    1. Comprehensive Service Integration of Fond du Lac: Information and local resources for mental health and substance use concerns www.csifdl.org
    2. Suicide Prevention Resource Center www.sprc.org
    3. Mental Health of America  www.mhawisconsin.org
    4. Prevent Suicide Wisconsin  http://www.preventsuicidewi.org/
    5. Center for Suicide Awareness  http://suicidepreventionandresourcecenter.org/
    6. Helping Others Prevent and Educate about Suicide  www.hopes-wi.org
    7. National Mental Health Information Center  http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/
    8. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  http://www.afsp.org/
    9. American Association of Suicidology  www.suicidology.org

Other Resources:

  • Fond du Lac County mental health crisis line is 920-929-3535 and is available 24 hours a days, 7 days a week.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. Virtually all calls to this helpline are answered in Wisconsin at a crisis center closest to you. Otherwise contact the person’s physician, a local mental health professional, a clergyperson or another trusted professional.
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