The Way We Talk About Suicide Could Have A Big Impact
In most academic literature, it’s taken for granted that reporting about suicide, especially glamorizing it and reporting on exact location and means of death, leads to imitation and a rises in suicide rates. In the study, “The Media and Suicide,”published in Academic Psychiatry in January 2014, data supported an increase in suicides “from media accounts of suicide that romanticize or dramatize the description of suicidal deaths.” Another study from the 2012 British Journal of Medicine’s Journal of Epidemiology and Health found that, hands-down, “reports on celebrity suicide are associated with increases in suicides.”
But there’s a flipside. In USAToday, John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, says that, “What creates a contagion effect is when the media focus mostly on the suicide and the way the person killed themselves. If people are more open about talking about coping through suicidal experiences, and the media highlight those stories, the evidence is very clear that this has a very positive effect on getting people through a suicidal crisis.”
We’d like to do what Draper suggests: talk about coping through suicidal experiences. It is possible to cope through suicidal thoughts and suicidal ideation. It’s possible to make it through suicide attempts. You can come out on the other side and be okay.
Believe me, I’ve done it. The first time, in earnest, was after my best friend, my boyfriend, the man I loved to the moon and back, died without warning our sophomore year in college. Friends had said glibly that I would end up “in the ward or the morgue.” I wanted to die. I wanted to go and be with him. I made plans every night: how to do it, when to do it. But I knew that if I did it, I’d prove everyone right. They would win. I refused to let them win. And so I gritted through, by the skin of my teeth, living each day out of pure spite. It wasn’t pretty. But I lived.
I lived again later, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When the lows hit, so did the terrible thoughts. I was worthless. I was a terrible mother. I deserved death to make room for a more competent, better, happier stepmother. I was a burden on my family. A burden on my husband. I was ugly, useless. But I did what my doctor told me to do: I took extra medication, which was designed to stop the racing thoughts that screamed specific plans in my mind. I lay in bed and slept. And when I woke up, I felt better. Not amazing, not perfect, but better. Small victories.
Molly has a different story. She started to get into funky moods where nothing seemed right. She tried to convince herself that everything was fine. But she had just quit her job to stay home with her kids and babysit, and she and her husband were fighting a lot.
“I just kept falling deeper and deeper into a hole,” she says. “I hated everyone and everything. I was constantly stressed out.” Money was tight. One night she and her husband had a bad fight, and she got close to the edge. He found her, stopped her, and they entered counseling.
Hayden’s story is different. He was suicidal in high school but got through it because he was afraid of what his death would do to his parents. But mostly, he finally started to connect “with a tight group of people who actually cared about me for who I really was, and that connection help show me that I had something inside me that was worth loving and worth preserving and could contribute positively to the world.”
Hayden’s second suicidal bout was worse. He was trapped in a toxic marriage that had isolated him from family and friends who cared about him. He was depressed; his wife told him it was his fault. He felt that he hadn’t lived up to his potential; that he would pass an emotional distance or toxicity to his children. Nothing made him happy. He started thinking, “It would be easier for everyone if I just stopped being alive.” He flirted with means and methods, and admits, “If I had access to a gun then, I wouldn’t be here now.”
One day, however, he woke up, and “It was like … a storm had passed. It wasn’t all the way clear but I got this little sliver of a thought like a ray of light. I just thought ‘I’ve got to hold on to myself, I’ve got to hold on to the real me that is buried under all this shit, I’ve got to start being the real me for my kids and for myself and stop trying to be what everything else wants me to be, because that’s what’s gotten me to this point.’ So slowly, I started to get back into the things that used to make me happy. I started reconnecting with things in my life that gave me happiness when I was younger and it was like I was rediscovering myself.”
By reconnecting with old friends, taking up old habits, and doing the things he loved, Hayden came back to himself.
Jennifer’s suicidal thoughts come differently. For her, they aren’t one event, but more of a series of intrusive thoughts. She says, “The first time I had it that I can remember, I was in a kitchen with a friend and saw the knife block. I told her I needed her to take it away and hide it from me, because I feared what I would do with it.” She talks about how it’s triggered by heights and vehicles, and how when she’s driving over bridges, she gets the feeling like she’s going to drive off the bridge. She copes by focusing on the middle of the road, and telling herself what a therapist long ago told her: “I know you wouldn’t do that.”
There is a way out. It means seeking professional support from your physician/psychologist, and usually it means taking the appropriate medication(s). It might mean seeking counseling, like Molly. It could mean realizing how sad your family and friends would be without you, or finding pleasure in what used to make you happy, like Hayden. It could be using a mantra, like Jennifer. But the Werther Effect doesn’t have to hold true.
If we tell stories like theirs, stories that help those of us who are depressed, isolated, hurting, and feeling ashamed know that we’re not alone, it’s possible we can give people strength to seek out professional support, give them the tools they need to start working through their own demons. Rather than succumbing in the moment, they can push through and push past, using the arsenal of coping mechanisms they’ve heard others talk about.
These stories have value. They have meaning. They show that the media can push people towards life too, a responsibility those in power should take seriously. We need more of these stories of hope, seeking support, and crawling our way out of the trenches. We need more courageous people willing to share their stories. They should be all over the internet, on every channel, throughout newspapers. Not just when one of our favorite celebrities dies by suicide, but all the time. So, we have the chance to see hope in the darkness.
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