Jul/Aug
2015

WEATHERING THE STORMS OF LIFE: SUICIDE AWARENESS AND PREVENTION

Written by By Cindy Mennenga
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SUICIDE

The word alone makes most people cringe and recoil. Many of us have been impacted by the loss of a friend or family member to suicide. Survivors are left with a gaping hole in their lives, guilt, sadness and the gnawing notion that they should have been able to prevent the tragic outcome. What would push a person to end their own life?  Is it an undiagnosed mental illness? Is it situational? Suicide is final, an unfathomable end. If we look at our lives through a different lens, could we pause, regroup and perhaps choose another option?  

 

LIFE TRANSITIONS CAUSE STRESS

Dr. Kevin Weber, clinical psychologist at Olmsted Medical Center, says suicide attempts are often the culmination of several factors that reached a tipping point where the person “wants the unbearable pain to go away.” However, he says, “Suicidal impulses are often short-term in nature and do eventually go away.” 

Dr. Weber says the age groups at the highest risk of suicide are those in the largest life transitions. People 65 and older are at a higher risk of committing suicide because they are more often isolated and lonely, possibly experiencing illness or disability, the death of a loved one or the loss of independence or purpose. Young adults, ages 18-24, are also undergoing major life changes. Many are living on their own for the first time, experiencing relationship stress, struggling with academic pressures, suffering from substance abuse issues or feeling uncertain about how to put together the jigsaw puzzle called life. 

If you believe a loved one may be suicidal, Dr. Weber stresses the importance of taking it seriously and not minimizing the person’s concerns. He also says it’s important to seek help as quickly as possible. This includes accompanying the affected person to see a professional. Dr. Weber indicates, “Ninety-five percent of people considering suicide don’t want to die.” 

WARNING SIGNS

Courtney Lawson, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Southeast Minnesota, says, “Warning signs may include threatening or looking for ways to hurt him/herself, talking about death and dying, hopelessness, acting recklessly/engaging in risky behavior, uncontrolled anger, anxiety, feeling trapped (like there is no way out), increase in substance use, withdrawing from family/friends/activities previously enjoyed, marked changes in sleeping/eating/mood patterns or feeling no sense of purpose.” Ms. Lawson also indicates, “Studies have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of people who die by suicide—90 percent or more—had a mental illness at the time of their deaths. Often, though, these illnesses had not been recognized, diagnosed or adequately treated.”

MOVING FORWARD WITH LIFE  

The Semicolon Project, a nonprofit organization, offers support for people experiencing depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. They encourage people to reframe their thinking and to look at their life differently. Their mantra is, “A semicolon represents a sentence the author could’ve ended but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

A couple of years ago, Kayla Fjelsted reached a dark place in her life. After high school, she chose to live at home and attend college in Rochester, while most of her friends went away to college and began new lives. Kayla felt as though she had been left behind. While at home, she helped care for her dying grandfather, with whom she was very close. Shortly after her grandfather passed away, she and her boyfriend broke up. 

Following these stressful events, Kayla noticed her behavior change. She wasn’t happy and had unsettling thoughts like, “Would my friends miss me?” and, “Can I handle this pain?” Kayla felt embarrassed that she had a wonderful life with great family and friends but felt profound pain and sadness that wouldn’t go away. 

After a couple of months, Kayla sought professional help. She began confiding in her friends and discovered that many were experiencing similar feelings. Talking about it helped Kayla move forward with her life. She transferred to a college out of town and has learned to see joy in her everyday life.

IMPACT ON SURVIVORS

In February 2012, Brice Currie’s 16-year-old-son, Wyatt, committed suicide. Brice says Wyatt was a happy-go-lucky kid, had applied for a job the day before and didn’t leave a suicide note. He was just gone. When his son passed away, Brice says, “[The] order of life changed in a minute.” He had to move forward, but, Brice says, “Nothing will ever be normal again.”    

As the oldest child, Brice Currie Jr. was 7 years older than his brother, Wyatt. He says that his brother’s death made him stronger and molded him into the person he is today. While Wyatt’s death made Brice Jr. sad, angry and frustrated, he insightfully articulates, “Someone else’s actions can’t dictate the way I live my life and how I conduct myself as a person.”  

GIVE AND RECEIVE SUPPORT

For those who have been affected by suicide, Ms. Lawson recommends “attending a support group, like Survivors of Suicide, which meets monthly in Rochester. Families and friends often feel stigmatized when they have lost a loved one to suicide and fear speaking out, so connecting them with a safe place to share feelings and get support is critical. No one should have to suffer alone.” Brice reveals that attending a support group helped him realize that he was not alone.

Suicide has long been considered a taboo topic, and survivors often grieve in shame and silence. In recent years, suicide awareness and support groups have made their way into the mainstream. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) hosts annual walks all over the country to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide. The walk is aptly named the “Out of the Darkness Walk.” The Southeast Minnesota walks will be held in Red Wing, Rochester and Winona. This is a great opportunity to show support for anyone impacted by suicide and help shine light on this topic. 

If you or someone you know is suffering, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a crisis line operated 24/7/365 for people who are suicidal and those concerned about them. Their number is: (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Cindy Mennenga, owner of Straight Talk Wellness, is a Health Coach and freelance writer based in Rochester.