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One Suicide Too Many, MINDSETTER™ Matt Fecteau

Monday, June 11, 2018

 

CNN star Anthony Bourdain of the television show “Parts Unknown” sadly decided to take his own life, and while any death is tragic, one suicide is one too many. We need to erode the stigma associated with professional help and mental illness, but this requires a sustained community and individual effort.

In the United States, the statistics related to suicide are just shocking. Suicide is up 30% from 1999, and a number of high profile celebrities – including the aforementioned Bourdain and also fashion designer Kate Spade – have taken their life recently. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 44,193 committed suicide in 2015, and it is one of the 12 leading causes of death since 1975. Most gun deaths – 60% – are notably attributed to suicide.

Some television shows tackle the issue of suicide such as Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’ by showing the emotional roller coaster leading up to a suicide, but unlike on such shows, not everyone experiences such egregious trauma. Bourdain lived a lavish life, astonishing life; he was worth millions, traveled the world, experienced remote cultures, and touched the lives of millions weekly. The same could be said for Spade who justifiably be someone considered very, very successful. By all accounts, these people should be happier than most of us – right?

In the past, suicide touched my life as well. My aunt Jackie decided to take her own life in 2015. She left behind our family which is still trying to emotional rebuild. We often wonder what we could have done. Hindsight is 20/20 and sometimes the warning signs just aren’t present though. Even before Spade’s suicide, her father talked to her the night prior and nothing appeared wrong.

In the U.S. military, suicide continues to outpace that of civilian counterparts. The Department of Veterans Affairs says that roughly 22 veterans a day on average die because of an apparent suicide. Some theorize the reasons are related to military members facing increased stress from constant deployments and lack the social support network.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, Gladwell talks about how suicide is like a contagion or virus. He uses the example of the islands of Micronesia where suicide was almost non-existent until a wealthy scion decided to end his own life. From there, suicide became more common. Gladwell reasons it was because of this one idea went viral through the press coverage like a disease and spread across the islands of Micronesia; making suicide an attractive option. 

We need to erode the appeal of the “idea” that seeking professional help is a weakness. Seeking “help” or counseling is something that shouldn’t be associated with inferiority, but encouraged. Talking about our challenges with a medical professional is something that could, in fact, prevent another tragic death. That is one less family that will have to mourn the loss of a loved one, and one less child without a parent.  

Perhaps we can learn something from the military as well?  To address the epidemic of suicides, the U.S. Army created what is known as "Ask, Care and Escort" Intervention Training Program. If a fellow Solider is concerned about a peer, he or she must ‘ask’ their peer if they are suicidal by specifically asking “are you going to commit suicide?” (the military doesn’t recommend asking ambiguous questions like “are you going to harm yourself” or “do something stupid.”). Then, ‘care’ for that comrade if the answer is “yes” by ensuring there is no means to harm him or herself (also, make sure that individual isn’t a danger to others). Subsequently, ‘escort’ him or her to a superior officer, mental health specialist, or religious figure. This program isn’t perfect, but it does give the U.S. Army one avenue to address the tide of suicides in its ranks.

Life is a fragile, amazing thing, and everyone does feel hopeless and lost sometimes. However, suicide should not be an option. The CDC recommends talking to a professional; we also must be prepared to reasonable intervene – take the ACE approach – if that person shows signs of suicidal thoughts. We cannot prevent all suicides, but we create an environment where the potential for suicide is at least unlikely by being there for each other and encouraging them to seek help.

It is sadly too late for Bourdain and Spade, but their tragic deaths can be a lesson to all of us: now is the time to be there for each other. Now, let’s work to encourage dialogue that could save a life.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, please talk to someone you trust or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor that can assist you.

Matt Fecteau ([email protected]) is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an Iraq War veteran.

 

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