Farmers are committing suicide as you read this article. In countries like India, the rate of farmer suicides has become a national crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) is particularly concerned with farmer suicides because of the impact it is having on families. WHO estimates that one person commits suicide every 13.3 minutes.
The death of comedian Robin Williams last month sparked a worldwide discussion about suicide, its underlying causes and how it might be prevented. And, with World Suicide Prevention Day taking place Sept. 10, the subject is certain to generate more debate as people seek to understand this important health issue. Having spent 10 years researching the subject while working as a professor of psychiatry, I believe there are things we can do as a community to tackle this problem. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what researchers have learned over the years about strategies for preventing suicide.
Robin Williams didn't die from suicide, he died from depression. Zelda Williams eloquently wrote, "... I'll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay..." She summed up the words of loved ones left behind beautifully. Rehtaeh didn't decide one night to kill herself -- she died a slow, painful death from a disease of the soul that kills close to 4,000 Canadians a year. Teenagers are talking about suicide and we need to make sure theirs are not the only voices in the conversation. Sadly, the very voices needed the most are the ones missing. The voices of teachers, parents, psychologists, doctors, police officers, mental health workers, and community leaders. We need to talk about suicide.
I have my own ideas about what it means to control your own life and the right a person should have to end that life if they choose. But I'm not writing this to spout my opinion on suicide. I'm writing this to tell a story I'll never have the chance to tell Robin Williams, as if I would've had a chance of ever meeting the man.
On March 11, 2001, a woman named April died by suicide. Her friend Jenn was the one who found her. It was an extremely traumatic event in Jenn's life. It transformed her entire world. Let's encourage others to have careful and candid conversations about suicide. For Jenn's family, suicide exists at the dinner table and at every family gathering, because there's always an empty chair. But most families are not having these conversations.
I read Zelda Williams's tribute to her dad. I could barely focus on the accolades because my mind zeroed in on the few words "While I'll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay..." Because that's the bottom line. His children loved him deeply, and he loved them, and yet, all that love was insufficient to keep him here...Or rather, the pain was just too much. That scares me.
I understand why people kill themselves. I think about it every day. That's not an exaggeration. It varies how much I think about it each day, but there hasn't been a day in the last six months that I haven't thought about it, and it's been this way since I was about 10. Very very occasionally I get a day where I'm struggling really bad, but I don't want to be dead. But it's not often.
I cried a lot, and slept when I could, and felt like shit. I can't even tell you how shitty I felt because there's actually no way to articulate it. I didn't want to die, but I felt like I was completely out of control, because I was, and that shit is scary. And of course, no one knew. I told no one. I acted fine, just like I still do, because I don't really like to talk about this kind of shit. Those emotions have been catalogued and put away.
Go ahead and post that suicide hotline number. I've used it and I'll continue to use it. But even better, recognize that this darkness is a monster that -- even with all the help and resources and puppy cuddles -- is lonely and demoralizing and confusing and exhausting to fight. And please recognize all of the work we do to stay alive.
Depression forms its own secret society. We're afraid of the consequences of our bosses, co-workers, family and friends finding out about our depression on Facebook. What is the worse consequence? People finding out you are depressed or you committing suicide? All it takes is one soul among friends to speak out.
I will tell you that I know you've tried what feels like everything to create a tolerable existence, but it hasn't worked thus far. I also know that you have hoarded your past expired medications in your toy hamper waiting for this day when you finally get "the nerve" to go through with ending it all. Please don't let today be your last, I want you to experience what it's like to smile for real again and you'll be taking that opportunity away.
Rare are the moments where reading of an actor's passing does much more to me other than illicit a half-shrug before I carry on with my day, but in the case of Robin Williams it stopped me straight in my tracks. Williams depression wasn't new. He was an alcoholic with a long history of substance abuse. He dodged consistent allegations of stealing jokes throughout his years as a stand-up comic. He suffered. Despite and through the laughs, he suffered.
The moment a celebrity or somebody takes his or her life we, as a society, are all over it. It makes me think if we talked about suicide this much when it wasn't in the news due to something like Williams' death we would be better off. In addition to talking about Williams let's also talk about the thousands of other "normal" people who also died of suicide today.
Suicide isn't "giving up" or "giving in." Suicide is a terrible decision made by someone whose pain is so great that they can no longer hold it, and feel they have no other option in life but to end it. It's a decision you can't take back, and a decision that will affect your friend and family forever. It is not taken lightly. For someone looking in, it does seem like a waste -- especially in the case of Robin Williams, who was a brilliantly funny man and a talented actor. But imagine, if you will, feeling so desperate, so desolate, so incredibly sad and hurt that you honestly cannot see a way out. Williams did things in his life that touched people to their core. It is a sad, sad loss, but it is not a waste.
Farming is a fairly isolated occupation with a small, close-knit community of co-workers and family. In the small farming community, the saying that everyone knows everything about each other is true. Going to a mental health professional or admitting you are depressed quickly becomes the news. This reduced sense of confidentiality ensures farmers don't talk about their depression.
This past year has seen me in the lowest of emotional states. I was diagnosed with depression in October, 2013. Somehow, some way, through the guidance and help of the team of doctors monitoring me psychologically and medically, the stabbing in my chest is subsiding. The depression may be lifting. I'm hopeful.
He had suffered from a period of depression which had developed into a psychosis. When the news reached me, my world collapsed. The days that followed were spent in a state alternating between something dream-like and an acute, painful awareness of the reality of the situation. So many questions were asked. So few answered.