We live in a country that doesn’t like to talk about suicide. Before we really get into this let’s throw some numbers out there to highlight the scope of America’s suicide problem using data is from the CDC and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In 2013, that meant 41,149 people ended their own lives and 650,000 hospital visits were classified as caused by self-harm behavior by the CDC – though it is important to recognize the significant difference between self-harm behavior and suicide attempts, about which the CDC does not keep statistics.
We live in a country where Kevin Briggs, a highway patrolman, was trying to talk a potential jumper down from the Golden Gate Bridge when he was interrupted by passing drivers yelling “Go ahead and jump!”. Yes, that is an actual thing that happened, presumably more than once. While this scenario is just anecdotal, It speaks to several important characteristics of America’s prevailing attitude towards suicidal individuals. First, that there is nothing we can do to help if someone wants to take their own life. Second, and more fundamentally, that we do not understand suicide.
In the absence of widespread, substantive dialogue about suicide prevention or the realities of the suicide problem, there is ample opportunity for misconception. About 90% of suicides are committed by those who are suffering with mental illnesses like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. The fact that those health issues tend to be silent killers, and do not manifest physically in ways that are visible, contributes to the mythology that nothing can be done about suicide. Furthermore, discussion of suicide tends to take place in the past tense, because in many cases the warning signs are not apparent until after a suicide has occurred.
In the case of cancer, to use an example with a much greater level of public recognition and unified support, we do not have that same impression. A cancer diagnosis usually carries with it the possibility of recovery and there is a well understood physical cause for that condition. Mental illness, on the other hand, is much harder to understand. In the words of Ian Stewart, “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.” Most people who have never seriously considered suicide genuinely cannot even imagine it. Without empathy, you lose one of the primary motivators to be an activist or donate to organizations that fight suicide.
Internationally, the United States does not have one of the highest suicide rates, but this is not a sign of successful policy. A prevalent stigma against depression and suicidal ideation persists in American society. There is a fairly common misinterpretation that suicide or attempted suicide are indicative of weakness or failure. This sort of negative social climate makes it more difficult for affected individuals to seek help, which is essential to combating the epidemic. The continued existence of this climate is a national failure to confront uncomfortable topics.
Until public institutions start taking the suicide epidemic seriously and Americans stop dismissing suicide as inevitable, we live with this reality: every 13 minutes, another hopeless American will kill him or herself.