Hope is the antidote to suicide
About 40 people who work in public safety and public health gathered at the community room at Woodside Village last week to hear a presentation by Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy. D., a nationally known expert in suicide prevention. The group included police officers, hospital workers, school guidance personnel, and those who deal with the elderly. They are individuals on the front lines of suicide prevention, those most often confronted by suicide and warning signs of suicide.
The forum was hosted by Beth Toomey, a member of the Youth Task Force, and Ann Wallace, executive director of Island Elderly Housing. Ms. Toomey told The Times that in her 16 years as chief of the West Tisbury police, she responded to "many, many" suicide deaths, attempts, or threats (she could not or would not provide a number). She also sometimes had suspicion that a fatal drug overdose or car crash was a suicide not reported in the statistics. She still gets calls.
Ms. Spenser-Thomas' brother, Carson Spencer, took his own life at age 34, a victim of bipolar disorder. He had been a brilliant entrepreneur, a star athlete, a charismatic risk-taker, but he also suffered deep depressions, which eventually cost him his successful careers, his family, and his life. Ms. Spencer-Thomas and others who have lost loved ones to suicide describe themselves as "survivors of suicide," a term that describes not persons who have tried to kill themselves and lived, but those whom a death by suicide leaves behind.
Ms. Spencer-Thomas, who lives and works in Colorado, told the group, "At least six people — at least six — are profoundly affected by a suicide or a suicide attempt, perhaps for the rest of their lives."
In frank and wrenching detail, Ms. Spencer-Thomas described the personal agony she lived through, beginning with the phone call that brought the news that her worst fear had been realized. She described the damage that her brother's suicide did to her own life for a time, the meteoric arc that had been her beloved brother's life, and her decision to form the Carson J. Spencer Foundation and do what she can to prevent suicide.
The goal of the forum was to "change the conversation" about suicide. Suicide is still often regarded as a shameful topic, just as cancer was 50 years ago, and families usually do not want the cause of death known. For that reason, many newspapers do not report suicide, and the obituary may say merely "died unexpectedly." On the other hand, when a suicide is reported, the death is often sensationalized, even romanticized in a way that may lead to copycat suicide attempts by persons in desperation. The media reporting of the suicide of Phillip Markoff, "the Craig's List Killer," is an example of the gory, explicit sensationalism decried by suicide prevention workers, according to co-presenter Maura Weir of the Cape and Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition.
"Changing the conversation" is a tricky challenge. Ms. Spencer-Thomas told the group we need to talk about suicide more — and less. She would like to see more public awareness of the prevalence of suicide, its effects on the survivors, and ways to intervene in troubled lives, but less dissemination of the details of deaths by suicide. "Private communication is good, but unsafe public communication can be dangerous," she said.
Most suicides are preventable
In 2006 suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 33,000 lives. Among teenagers and young adults, suicide is the third most common cause of death. In the last year the number of suicides among middle-aged persons, especially middle-aged men, has increased dramatically, perhaps as a result of a depressing economy.
Nevertheless, Ms. Spencer-Thomas told the group that most suicides are preventable, a view supported by Ms. Weir. Ms. Spencer-Thomas and Ms. Weir presented a plan in three parts to reduce the number of suicides: start with yourself, instill hope, and engage a wider circle.
The presenters advised the attenders to examine their own beliefs, and the forum included workshop sessions to challenge participants' beliefs and increase their knowledge of the subject. Ms. Spencer-Thomas quoted Dr. Thomas Joiner, author of "Why People Die by Suicide," who has identified 200 known risk factors for suicide, and developed a paradigm for assessing risk. Particular red flags are the belief of the person in distress that he or she is a burden to his or her loved ones, and a thwarted sense of belonging. Of her brother, Ms. Spencer-Thomas said: "His perception that no one would accept him was what killed him, not the mental illness."
Instilling hope is key at all levels of intervention. "All suicidal people are ambivalent," Ms. Spencer-Thomas said. Human beings have a strong instinct for self-preservation, and if a person can be persuaded to find even a single reason to stay alive, that may be enough to deter or defer suicide. "Hope is the antidote to suicide," she said.
The forum ended with a plea for the participants to engage a wider circle, to network with each other and with other suicide prevention groups. Participants took away materials listing risk factors, signs of depression, warning signs of suicide, and lists of resources. Ms. Weir promised that the Cape and Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition will be bringing more workshops and resources to the Island.
For more information, contact the National Suicide Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org), Suicide Prevention Resource Center (www.sprc.org), Suicide Prevention Action Network USA (www.spanusa.org), American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org), or National Strategy for Suicide Prevention (www.mentalhelath.org/suicideprevention).