Battling the stigma of suicide

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 9:40 p.m. MDT

Arianne Brown talks about her sister, Megan Einfeldt, who committed suicide six years ago. Brown sits in her home in Eagle Mountain on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Arianne Brown remembers a time when she thought suicide was something that only touched other people.

That was before Nov. 5, 2006, when Brown's older sister, Megan, went down into her parent's basement and committed suicide.

"It's been almost seven years, but it still feels fresh," she said. "You think, 'She knew we loved her and that we cared. Why wasn't that enough? … I know if my sister knew what it was like for us after, she wouldn't have done it."

Suicide impacts Utah families every year and the problem is growing worse. In 2005, the Utah Department of Health reported 350 suicides. Preliminary data from 2012 places that number at 540 for Utah residents and the trend has continued through the first quarter of 2013.

The number comes as no surprise to Utah's Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey.

"How many days do I have without a suicide? I'm thinking, maybe, zero most days?" Grey said. "I've had days where I've had five deaths downstairs and all of them were suicides."

Suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages one to 44 in 2011, according to the state's public health statistics. For teenagers in Utah, the numbers of suicide attempts are equally startling, totaling about two a day among kids ages 10 to 17, according to health officials.

But that doesn't mean everyone is talking about it.

"That's one of those dirty little secrets that doesn't get waved around, and every family goes through it as if they're alone," Grey said. "It's really sad. If there was a running tally in the paper you could bet by March people would say, 'Why aren't we doing something about this? And by November there would be an awful lot of people screaming that this is unacceptable."

He's the first to say it's a complex issue, made worse by one of its biggest obstacles: Stigma.

"There's certainly a reluctance, at best, to discuss this issue publicly and widely," Grey said. "One of the very common responses I'll get from families is saying, 'You can't call this a suicide.'"

It's a stigma that becomes part of the memory of the suicide victim and with the family members left behind.

"And when you have that kind of reluctance to look at the issue, to admit that it exists, how are you ever going to try and solve this problem?" Grey said.

Losing a sister

Brown said it was difficult to explain that her sister had taken her own life and that the news was often received with more judgment, and less compassion.

"Sometimes, too, you feel self-conscious. What did we do wrong? What's wrong with our family?"

Her sister Megan Einfeldt was quiet, but loyal, a beautiful, educated and talented woman who was a devoted mother to her three children. She was 26 years old when she moved to her parent's home in Utah with her three young children, Brown said.

Her family had noticed a change in Einfeldt before she moved home, but felt something was really wrong when they saw her. She had lost weight and was rarely speaking. She seemed to lack confidence and was almost childish. She questioned herself as a mother and sister.

"You're kind of like, 'OK, snap out of it,'" Brown recalled. You're trying to build them up: 'You are beautiful, you are good, you are all these things.' And they don't believe you."

It never occurred to her that her sister might take her own life. She said it seemed like a worst-case scenario and that she didn't let herself go there.

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