Suicide: Are We Failing as a Society?

Am I failing to do my job?

Two suicides in one week. Two people who had access to medical attention and the money to pay for it but still felt that a permanent silence was more palatable than asking for temporary help. The two acts of desperation ramify through the world of psychology. Decades of efforts to ring the suicide prevention bell for the moment felt silenced and all the work felt futile. As a mental health provider am I failing to do my job?

Over the weekend at a birthday celebration for my wife, we celebrated her life. Eventually, the conversation drifted to the ending of two lives. “I can’t see how those people could take their lives,” a close friend proffered. The birthday cupcakes suddenly lost their sweetness.  Success can help protect someone from depression, but it is not the only protector. People can be fragile. Sometimes, we really don’t know how much pain they are feeling. Why hadn’t I communicated this to him? Had I not taken an opportunity to talk about a topic that needs to be discussed with the people we treasure? Have I failed to be a close friend?

On Wednesday, shortly after the news broke that Kate Spade had taken her life, I received a text request from the CBS affiliate in Houston to come in to talk about suicide, depression, and women. They have been using me as their mental health and wellness expert. It was an open house for the new hospital where I work as a Director. I couldn’t leave my workplace, but I would have had much to say. I could have impressed upon them the importance of saying a person “completes suicide” or “dies by suicide” instead of using “committed suicide” which implies that a law has been broken and a crime has taken place. I would have suggested that reporters vacate the “active voice” of writing which means saying a person “commits suicide” as opposed to a passive voice saying a person “has completed suicide.” Most of all I would express to anyone watching TV that shame can prevent you from asking for help. Shame can kill. I never got a chance to communicate this. Had I failed in my job as mental health expert? 

On Friday morning following the second suicide I was flooded with memories of the suicide of a co-worker. In the mid 1980’s in another career as a reporter, I befriended a reporter from a competing TV station. During the week a group of us got together for a meal and made a plan to see one another on Saturday. Later in the week, I got the call telling me that he had shot himself to death. Had I failed to be a good colleague? 

Later that Friday I attended a meeting at my psychiatric hospital. I wanted to communicate that as directors in psychiatric health care, we must take care of our direct reports so that they can take care of the most vulnerable of our population.  In the haze and pace of opening a new hospital, I tried to see my way through the public waves of shock of the week of suicides, and the personal waves of feelings, but the words didn’t come. Did I fail as a leader that morning?

Two people who had different lives, different personalities, and different public personas chose the same horrifying solution to their problems. That week the CDC reminded us that despite our efforts we are losing the fight for lives. The rate of suicide has increased 28% in the US in fewer than 20 years. If heart attacks, a latte, or the price of a gallon of gas increased at the same rate there would be outrage. Are we failing as a society?