Clearly we need to do more to invest in research and prevention. Those numbers are going in the wrong direction right now. —Robert Gebbia
Editor's note: The Deseret News and KSL have explored the issue of suicide in-depth, and this article is part of an on-going effort by the Deseret News and KSL to prevent suicide and help those affected by it. Previous articles now online at www.deseretnews.com include: "Push for solutions underway to Utah's suicide problem"; "Suicide discussion leads to calls for help"; and "Battling the stigma of suicide." Go to www.ksl.com to see a video broadcast of “Breaking the Silence of Suicide.”
Mandy Aiken Draney had just turned 24 when her father took his life in 2002, but the American Fork resident had seen her loved one struggle with depression and an addiction to prescription drugs for more than a decade.
"It was tragic but not surprising," Draney said. "It doesn’t make it any easier. Suicide is such a traumatic way to lose someone. There are just so many questions."
A one-time successful businessman, Aiken’s life began to spiral downward as his depression and addiction to prescription drugs grew, his daughter said. Yet despite Aiken’s troubles, Draney said he was an amazing father who loved his five children dearly.
“We were best friends,” Draney said. “I didn’t hang out with other kids. I hung out with my dad.
“When he passed away, devastating doesn’t even begin to cover it because he was so much a part of my life.”
After his death, Draney said she struggled to find support in her grief.
“People wouldn’t even talk about it," she said. "After the funeral, that was it. No one would talk about anything. I didn’t want the way he died to overshadow him — to define him.”
Early in the morning of June 2, Draney was far from alone as she joined nearly 2,000 others affected by suicide to cross the finish line of the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk for suicide awareness and prevention.
A walk for hope
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has sponsored the 16-mile walk for the past 11 years. Normally, the walk rotates to a new city each year, but this year it returned to the site of the first walk — Washington, D.C.
When signing up for the overnight event, walkers pledge to raise $1,000 for educational outreach programs, prevention and research. Most raise closer to $1,500, according to the AFSP.
Participants vary in age, faith and hometown. Many, like Draney, travel across the country for the event. But all have had their lives touched by suicide.
Some have lost friends or family members. Others have struggled with suicidal thoughts themselves.
The walk allows individuals to know they are not alone.
“We all say you find a family in the people who are survivors,” Draney said. “It’s not a group you ever wanted to be a part of, but they become your family.”
A rising trend
This year’s walk occurred just weeks after the Centers for Disease Control released data showing an increase in the number of suicides.
More than 38,00 people died of suicide in 2010, the most recent year on record from the CDC, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the country.
To put that in perspective, according to the CDC's report, more Americans died by suicide than in car accidents in 2010. The AFSP estimates that every minute someone in the country attempts suicide, and every 13.7 minutes a person dies from the attempt. This year the CDC has projected that the number of suicides will rise to 40,000.
While suicide still is relatively rare, accounting for 2 percent of national deaths, its recent increase is causing concern, especially for AFSP’s executive director Robert Gebbia.
"Clearly we need to do more to invest in research and prevention," Gebbia said. "Those numbers are going in the wrong direction right now."
But suicide is often still shrouded in silence and misunderstanding.
Silence and stigma
The AFSP is working to combat the stigma of mental health issues by "understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy," according to the foundation's mission statement.
According to AFSP, nearly 90 percent of suicide victims had a treatable mental disorder at the time of their death.
After losing her father, Draney said she began to see how little others understand about mental health.
“So many people say, ‘Why can’t you just be happy?’” Draney said. “It doesn’t work that way. You can’t control it.”
Whether the pain is the result of chemical imbalances or traumatic events, Gebbia said many still struggle to see mental illness as “real” illness. According to Gebbia, there is a historical trend of societies being fearful and uncomfortable with mental illness because of a lack of understanding.
"One of the misconceptions is that (the feelings) aren't real or that you can't get better," he said. "They are feeling real pain. But there's hope. You can get better.”
Just as people experiencing illness would contact their doctor, those struggling with their mental health should seek care, Gebbia said, even if the symptoms wax and wane.
“(Symptoms) can flare up,” he said. “You’re not getting terrible chest pains, but you’re getting something. You’d go see your doctor.”
He also encouraged family and friends to be watchful of the signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.
“There are signs,” Gebbia said. “We just don't show them well enough.
“If you see that they are not themselves and this is persistent for a while ... that's something to take seriously,” Gebbia said. "It may be nothing, but it's better to err on the side of caution."
While most people struggling with depression or other mental illnesses do not commit suicide, suicide victims normally have underlying mental health issues that have been compounded by outside factors.
“Those that make an attempt, it's almost like a perfect storm,” Gebbia said. “Clearly, we do know that those who die by suicide cannot take the hopelessness and anxiousness that they feel. If you could treat those symptoms — with good treatment — you can intervene and you can do quite well."
Suicidal thoughts can be triggered when someone already suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental heath issues faces a period of intense stress. This could stem from financial issues, bullying, the death of a loved one, abuse or a number of other factors.
In a recent Daily Beast article, Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor and suicide expert, talked about some of the symptoms of these stressors that can lead to suicide.
According to Joiner, the perfect storm occurs when three states of mind collide:
1. The individual is experiencing feelings of “thwarted belongingness” such as aloneness and hopelessness.
2. One begins to feel that he/she is a burden to friends and family.
3. The person has the means and capability to die.
During a crisis, helping someone escape one of these spheres can save a life.
“The most important thing in that situation is that they don't have means and they are not alone,” Gebbia advised.
The AFSP website has a list of suggestions to help friends, family and those who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
When someone is in crisis, stay with them and help them calm down. Remove any objects that could cause harm. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If necessary, help them check into a medical facility.
Those left behind
When the worst happens and someone dies from suicide, their loved ones are left struggling to make sense of the loss.
"Often, we forget about those left behind and the terrible toll they take. They need help, too," Gebbia said.
When Draney lost her father, there were no support groups for suicide survivors near her.
“When I lost my dad there was nowhere to go. I had no idea how to do this.”
Today, Draney serves as a board member of Utah’s AFSP Chapter. She helps organize survivor support groups and educate the public about the realities of suicide.
This year was Draney’s third walk — once as a volunteer and twice as a walker. Each year, the sense of physical and emotional support is overwhelming.
“We’re strangers from all walks of life," she said. "You have your moments. It’s an incredible experience, but you get emotional."
During the walks, strangers hug and comfort each other, knowing what the other has been through. Many walkers wear shirts with a loved one’s name and photo. As they walk, survivors share stories about the people they have lost.
“Halfway through your feet hurt and you’re struggling,” Draney said. “You need that boost (from others) to get not only emotionally but physically through it.”
According to Draney, ending the silence surrounding suicide was key to her healing. She said she wanted others to know they are not alone, that there are resources out there to help and that all they need to do is ask.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I did, but by talking about it, we save lives,” Draney said. “It’s incredibly healing to know that what we are doing is making a difference.”
For Gebbia, the number of people like Draney now speaking out shows a change in how society looks at mental health. He said he hopes it encourages people suffering to feel less ashamed of their struggle and others to be more willing to support and help them.
"It's starting to chip away at the stigma. More and more people being public about it. ... I think it's a hopeful sign," Gebbia said.
For more information on suicide prevention and ways to help, visit afsp.org.
Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @harmerk