STORIES OF SUICIDE: MYTHS, RISKS, AND HELP-SEEKING IN THE CREATIVE COMMUNITY
September 8–14 is National Suicide Prevention Week, an annual campaign sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology that recognizes suicide as a major public health concern and promotes the message that suicide deaths can be preventable. In the U.S. alone, nearly 40,000 people take their own lives each year. That’s an average of 105 deaths per day. Yet, unlike the campaigns focused on the 9 other leading causes of death, suicide prevention isn’t just about raising funds and improving treatment. Suicide is associated with stigma and misconceptions that often close the dialogue and prevent us from learning how we can overcome this epidemic. We don’t talk about it. We are scared to ask about it. We simply don’t know what to do.
It is undeniable that all of us are thinking about suicide. We thought about it when Hank Pym (Ant-Man) contemplated ending his life after years of stress on his constantly-morphing body. We thought about it when Roy Harper (Red Arrow) was tormented by his phantom limb pain and overdosed on painkillers. We thought about it when Bruce Banner confessed that he could no longer withstand the internal destruction caused by the Hulk, but when he put a bullet in his mouth, “the other guy spit it out.” Everyone who’s read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman can stand up. You’ve thought about it, too. Constantine. Deadshot. Mr. Terrific. Rorschach. Nearly every character in The Walking Dead. The list of narratives goes on, some more explicit than others.
Fiction is one of the most common ways we openly explore suicidality and connect with feelings of hopelessness, despair, and depression. Comics allow us to participate in the subversive in a way that is culturally acceptable. We break that rule and seem to enter a place of insecurity and isolation when we begin admitting our own feelings of anguish and thoughts of self-harm.
Misconceptions About Suicide
When actor and comedian Robin Williams died by suicide on August 11, 2014, the creative community was momentarily paralyzed. Questions poured out of us as we experienced a strange combination of feeling shocked, yet unsurprised.
What went wrong? I thought he was doing better. He didn’t look depressed. I thought only those who were depressed commit suicide.
For those of us in the mental health field, these questions aren’t new. We know, for instance, that people who are not clinically depressed attempt suicide (dealing with chronic pain, drug and alcohol dependence, anxiety disorders, and other mental health problems can also lead to suicidality). We know that some people take their own lives in periods of happiness. We know that people contemplate suicide in euphoric states. We also know that people die while in our care. Half of individuals who die by suicide had seen a medical doctor within the last month. Over a third of people who die by suicide had seen a mental health professional — yes, a person who should be qualified to recognize warning signs — within the last 30 days.
If you’re already feeling frustrated and confused, you should be. Every time we lose someone to suicide, I’m asked, “Why aren’t officials in the mental health system doing something about this?” The truth is, they are.
In June, I was invited to Washington, D.C. to participate in something called the Zero Suicide Academy. Launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense, the Academy was created to enhance the national infrastructure for suicide prevention. Scientists-practitioners and mental health professionals were gathered from all over the country to learn strategies and interventions. It was like the Hogwarts for suicide prevention, only instead of learning magic we were learning how to save lives.
The word “zero” is a firm response to a deeply held belief in our society that we cannot save everyone, that suicide “will inevitably happen.” Some even believe, ”If someone wants to die, who are we to stop them?” I can understand that this question stems from a culture that values free will, individualism, choice. The problem is that the person contemplating suicide and deciding that ending their life is an option may not know about other options available to them that can also end their pain. The Bridge, a film project that explored suicide attempts at the Golden Gate Bridge revealed that the few survivors of the near-fatal fall never tried to kill themselves again. The goal of zero suicides, therefore, supports the idea that everyone who considers suicide fundamentally wants to live. Something inside of us wants to spit that bullet out.
If you or someone you know is suicidal, contact a mental health professional or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).