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Coping with suicide as the number of deaths rise

Suicide is certainly not a new phenomenon but its familiarity doesn’t make the subject any less difficult or disturbing to wrestle. When a suicide occurs, people often find themselves on a painful wheel of emotion. Shock. Sadness. Confusion. We’re left to sort out what happened and attempt to come to terms with it.

Suicide not only has a lasting effect, it’s far-reaching as well. Many people were deeply affected by the news that fashion designer Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, a chef, foodie and TV personality, took their own lives. They were both wildly successful and had outwardly fabulous lives. Ending them seemed incomprehensible.

Dr. Kristyn Gregory, the medical director of behavioral health at Blue Care Network and a psychiatrist, offers some professional insight as to why their deaths were so jarring.

“While we may not have known them personally, their celebrity did make us feel we ‘knew them’,” she said. “At first glance they appear to have great lives, successful careers, financial success, and it’s difficult to consider the part of their lives we were not privy to that led to suicide.”

Even when the person is a close friend or family member, suicide rarely makes sense and people find themselves asking the same questions. How could this happen? What did I miss? And finding answers in the aftermath of a suicide, whether it was a friend or celebrity who seemed to have it all, is never easy.

What do the numbers say?

The research on suicide is far from conclusive though the numbers are clear. In a study last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 30 percent increase in suicide in half of U.S. states between 1999 and 2016. Michigan experienced a 33 percent uptick during those years.

Globally, suicide rates have increased by 60 percent in the last 45 years, according to the World Health Organization. This global measurement amounts to one death by suicide every 40 seconds. WHO estimates that rate will increase to one every 20 seconds by 2020.

Why the rise?

Where the data gets murky is when it’s trying to determine cause.

“The increase in the suicide rate is an alarming statistic with no one answer that can be considered causative,” said Gregory.

Mental health clearly looms large in this space. However, CDC researchers found that 54 percent of those who died by suicide in the studied timeframe didn’t have a known mental health condition. They listed a suite of issues that factor into the decision, including relationship problems, substance misuse and job and money struggles.

As people have battled life challenges for centuries, these causes do little to explain rising suicide rates on a deeper level.

Dr. Lyndon Good, a psychiatrist at the behavioral health company New Directions, acknowledged the difficulty in determining a root reason for the spike.

“These are stressful times and the cause is likely to be multifactorial,” he added.

Researchers are still in the process of identifying the many possible drivers of suicide that may help explain the rise, studying the opioid epidemic, for instance, and other forms of substance abuse.

Practitioners are also looking within the health care industry. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention published a guide earlier this year that health care organizations can use to better support people at high risk of suicide. The guide identifies gaps in the system that contribute to suicide deaths and offers proven solutions health care groups can adopt.

Everyone can help

Perhaps what we ultimately glean from the research is that suicide is an immensely complex issue, and it’s best to focus on the steps we can all take to prevent it.

“From individuals and communities to employers and healthcare professionals, everyone can play a role in efforts to help save lives and reverse this troubling rise in suicide,” CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D., said in a statement.

Everyone can offer support to friends and family and recognize the warning signs of suicide. Some are easier to spot than others. The National Prevention Suicide Lifeline lists several.

They include:

  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing their use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves.

“Anyone can help someone at risk,” Gregory said. “Begin a conversation, listen, help them connect.”

Seek help for you or someone you know by calling:

National Prevention Suicide Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

Many employers also include an Employee Assistance Program in health plans. An EAP offers help for a variety of issues including behavioral health. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, for instance, partners with New Directions to provide counseling and assistance on life challenges such as depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol problems.

Surviving suicide loss

You can also use these resources if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide. Survivors of suicide loss are at a high risk of developing depression, Good said.

A Psychology Today article by the psychologist Deborah Serani reminds us that suicide is a death like no other. The issue of fault, who’s to blame for this tragedy, is always at the fore. Friends and relatives face a daily dose of overwhelming guilt thinking about what they could have done to prevent the death. Survivors often get angry at their loved one for the sense of abandonment they feel.

For those who’re coping with suicide, here are a few ways to manage in the aftermath.

  • Don’t isolate yourself. Stay connected to friends and family.
  • Consult your primary care doctor for advice and assistance, and consider therapy.
  • If appropriate, consult a spiritual or faith leader.
  • Plan for especially difficult times such as holidays and anniversaries.
  • Join a support group for survivors of suicide loss.
  • Focus on being kind to yourself and remember what happened isn’t your fault.

When communicating with a survivor of suicide loss, remember to listen closely, be patient and encourage them to share their feelings.

Photo credit: Paisley Scotland

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