A Reflection on Suicide - When Empathy is the Only Answer

Posted on June 21, 2018

by Betty Eastland, MSW

Just days ago I received a text from one of my oldest friends: “Call me. I have some bad news.” I called him back and was told that our mutual friend, one of my best friends who supported me through graduate school and for whom I was present at her pre-natal exams while she was pregnant with her daughter, was on a breathing tube after overdosing on medication from a suicide attempt. “I don’t know if she’s going to make it; her liver may be failing,” my friend said over the phone.“I can’t believe she did this; she has a daughter,” he said.

The fact of the matter is that suicide kills nearly 45,000 people per year.  It is the tenth leading cause of death for people up to 34 years old and the fourth leading cause of death from ages 35 to 54. It doesn’t discriminate. A person may have a great fulfilling life, a loving spouse, a husband, their dream job, wonderful children, and pets. Suicidality does not care.

My friend sees her psychiatrist weekly, she attends support groups, she reaches out to friends and family, she takes medication religiously. 

I saw my friend four nights ago. She seemed hangry – you know the anger that comes as a result of hunger. This is completely normal. There was no way for me or her family to tell she was suicidal. 

Being a newly minted social worker, I can attest to how absurd suicide prevention is.  If someone were to come to my office saying they want to commit suicide I need to stop the session and ask them emotionless questions on whether they have a method or a time line. And then I have to call 911.  I don’t get to ask them why, or what led them to this point, or to hear their story and guide them through.  I have to send them off to strangers in a restricted environment where they are stripped of rights and the ability to come and go as they please. 

That’s not what I want to do – and that’s certainly not how I build trust and understanding.  I want to get to the bottom of why and what is going on right now.  Is the person ashamed of something?  Are past traumas triggered?  Are they embarrassed because they haven’t become the person their parents and mentors wanted them to be?  Have they suffered a financial, vocational, relational or social set back? Has someone close to them recently committed suicide?  Are they in an abusive situation?  Have they opened up to a helping professional about trauma they have suppressed for years?

We have this idea of suicide we are taught from novels and movies. That it is a drawn out, emotional battle for years.  That is simply not always the truth. Suicide is often impulsive.  There are often little to no warning signs.   

No one should be blamed for it. It wasn’t my friend’s husband’s fault for not picking up on it.  It wasn’t my friend's fault for trying. It wasn’t my fault for not picking up my friend's hangry for anything other than being hungry.No one owns this.

Suicide is a part of life. It’s not going away. No matter how much you wish it, no matter how many hotlines exist or how many status posts letting people know we’re here to listen, suicide will continue.

This statement is not intended to lose hope; we can reduce rates if we address what is actually causing suicide. Unfortunately, the media often attributes suicide to life circumstances or mental illness, as if mental illness is a cause of suicide. Suicide rates are much higher for people with mental illness, but this increase may be due to higher rates of childhood and adult trauma, stigma and discrimination, and unemployment. Whether a person has or does not have mental illness, suicide is usually a result of life circumstance. Getting to the bottom of what in a person’s life has brought them to the point of feeling that they and the world would be better off without them, and helping them overcome the trauma or the life circumstance causing the pain is the only way to prevent suicide. 

Much of the time family and friends do not know what to do when someone is in the hospital after an attempt.  Many friends slip away at this difficult time. I have called my friend’s husband to offer to feed the cat, to babysit their child while he visits in the hospital, and to bring food.  Today I will visit her. And though I am deeply hurt, I am not going to judge her, or her family, or her doctor or her friends. I’m going to ask that she seek additional help to uncover why she made this choice at the time she did, so that she can protect herself in the future.   




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