Admit it: Not all Suicides are Preventable

"How do people keep themselves safe?"asks a reporter to Inspector Lestrade in BBC Sherlock's first episode, "A Study in Pink." "Well, don't commit suicide," he quips. Then he takes a softer tack: "Obviously, this is a frightening time for people, but all anyone has to do is exercise reasonable precautions. We are all as safe as we want to be."

Sherlock Holmes then texts everyone in the press conference with the single, emphatic word, "WRONG!"

What can we do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe? Parents are terrified of the specter of teen suicide. In Utah, my new and old homestate, the teen suicide rate has tripled since 2007. It has the 15th highest suicide rate in the country.

The response to alarming statistics about suicide is to bulk up prevention programs and access to mental health. The school where I did my initial student teaching 13 years ago, Lone Peak High School in Alpine UT, responded to a contagion of suicides by hiring a full time counselor, holding rallies, and involving parents (source).

I'm sure it feels good to take action like that. How do we stop suicide? We tell people not to do it. We share the suicide hotline information on facebook. We make blanket statements of encouragement: "You are never alone."

 "Some say they feel stigmatized by such statements … as if others now look at them as having failed to do enough." (Source)

And that's how it feels.
Just don't do it, don't kill yourself. Even if you're thinking about it all the time, even if you're waking up from attempts horrified at what nearly happened, screwing your courage to never ever do it again, even if your mind is constantly flooded with death-pornographic images of your own violent death. Even if the things you do to quiet that insistent jackhammer of self-violence only feed the monster that's urging you toward's the cliff's edge, just... don't do it.

Up until the moment of death, suicide is preventable. That's the party line.

It's a terrible party line. It robs us all.

If I had known Matt was dying, I would have lived with him differently. If he had known he was dying... Well, he did. But he couldn't admit it. He just felt himself jolting inexorably towards that cliff's edge, each secret attempt bringing the inevitable closer.

I didn't know. He hid it well-- behind ordinary grumpiness, work stress, family busy-ness. I knew he wasn't okay. I didn't realize that "mildly depressed" (the diagnoses he admitted to) could be deadly.

Matt thrashed and struggled against his own death. He went, hating every second, to a counselor who told him about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She sent him home with a book called "Feeling Good" which he tore in half with his bare hands, and then tore in half again. He came with me to three different counselors and a psychiatrist. He said it was like sitting under the eye of Sauron, or like being sent to the principal's office. He was smart and he was in pain and he was terrified.

Later, after his death, those counselor's told me his prognosis was never good.

I wish I had known that-- all the little statistical towers piled up-- he was high risk across the board. Even his ethnicity-- "mixed race"-- put him in the highest risk racial group for suicide. Add in everything else, it echoes in my mind: "His prognosis was never good."

I can't change what happened. But I can be a noisy little wasp in the ear for other people.

You might lose them. You MIGHT. If you can't stop it from happening, what do you do? How do you make room for pleasure and delight when that fatal shadow is looming?

A friend called me the other day. Her husband was on his dozenth suicide attempt of the year. Should she leave him to spare herself the ragged shredding of her heart? Who knows. But I told her what I wished I had known. I wish I had known he was dying. I couldn't have stopped it, but I would have savored those last brutal months with him, just as I was able to savor the last months of my mom's life as she died of cancer.

There is an alchemical transformation of suicide death, and fault.

Up until the point of completion, the suicide was a non-thing. A non-disease. Not like a tumor that has given you another day. But maybe we should think of suicidal depression that way. A growing tumor. It might be healed, with vigorous treatment. But it probably is the death sentence.

That inevitability of the backwards look means that things were coming to this. Looking forward the road ahead is infinite splits-- a tessellation of possibilities. But looking backwards the forks are invisible-- alternate universes shadowed, and only the path we took is the one illuminated. That makes it feel like there was only ever one path.

That single path changes the blame. There was nothing else that could have happened.

And pronouncing glibly that suicide is preventable is a horror and put the burden on the surviving family members.  "he who is bent on ending his own life, on some level, must first re-gain a modicum of clarity in order “to be saved.” In some small way, that person must be willing to open up just a little and let someone in. To make a gesture. Reach out. To ask for help." 

I don't feel blamed for Matt's death. I feel baffled and knocked out of orbit and my heart is in tatters. I don't feel responsible for it. With the information I had, with the resources I could muster, I did everything I could. But I still wish I had known that not all suicides are preventable beforehand, and that, as the therapists said, "His prognosis was never good."


  1. Great sad but wise.

  2. Becca, thank you for writing. I found your blog several years ago and appreciated the idea of "settling in gently" to a new culture, a new place. I hadn't been back here to read for a long time until today. I am so sorry for your loss; words cannot express... Prayers for you and your girls as you continue to try to settle in gently to another new culture, an entirely different place.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Malihini 101

Fresh Grief: How to Help When People are Grieving

Travel Thinky Thoughts