My experience with suicide began in 1988 with the loss of one of my students who was suffering from depression and anorexia, and continued with the loss of another student in 1997 whose family life had taken a jolting turn for him earlier that year. As unfortunate as these events were, they did not readily prepare me for the horror of what was to follow for me in 2006. I’d like to put a face to things for a moment.
This is Dr. Lara Barnett. This is her ID photo, taken shortly before she began her residency in Internal Medicine in July of 2006 at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, TX. We should all look this good in our ID photos, don’t you think?
What you can’t see in this photo are the deeply hidden feelings of inadequacy, shame, and despair that would cause her to believe the best thing she could do for those who loved her and cared about her would be to take her own life, which she did on September 2nd, 2006.
The reason I know so much about her story is because Lara was my wife, and as a result, I got an inside look at the disease that eventually took her life – depression.
Depression is a disease that does not discriminate according to race, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, educational level, or age.
For those of you who want hard data, here are some of the most recent statistics pertaining to depression and in the US:
- Depression affects nearly 10 percent of Americans ages 18 and over in a given year, or more than 19 million people.
- Depression is among the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses.
- Between 80 percent and 90 percent of people with depression respond positively to treatment, and almost all patients gain some relief from their symptoms.
- More Americans suffer from depression than coronary heart disease (12 million), cancer (10 million) and HIV/AIDS (1 million).
Here are some additional statistics on suicide:
- In 2016, there were 44,965 reported suicide deaths in the US.
- Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34.
- Someone dies by suicide every 11.7 minutes – 123 every day.
- The ratio of suicide attempts to completed attempts is estimated to be 12:1.
Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics for 2016.
Depression respects no geographical or physical boundaries. It is a disease that is insidious and evil, working its way into the mind of its victim disguised as a helpful voice. Anyone who has read the Inner Game books about tennis or music will recognize the precursor of this voice as Voice One. This voice is present in many of us; it’s the voice telling us we should have practiced more – that you’ve missed that note every time and are going to miss it again – that you are going to fail the next test, or worse. Over time, this voice can become more and more seductive and convincing, and can eventually stir thoughts of self-destruction of one’s finances, relationships, or even life.
Depression is a disease as real, as dangerous, and as life-threatening as cancer or diabetes, with the distinct difference that many times there are no visible symptoms of the disease, nor is there a quick fix provided by antibiotics, encouraging words, or tough love. Indeed, many of the prescribed medications for the treatment of depression may take days or even weeks to have an effect; and in the mind of a person suffering from depression, ten days might as well be ten years.
For those who have never suffered from depression, someone who does have the disease shares her perspective in this video:
The Causes of Depression
The causes of depression are many, often resulting from long-term responses to threats, whether real or imagined. John Medina is a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, and he provided one of the best explanations of this that I have found.
Our brains were designed to respond quickly to life-threatening events, such as a saber-tooth tiger attack. However, this was usually over within about 30 seconds or so (it might not turn out so well for the human, but the threat was over). In today’s world, life-threatening or life-changing events can go on for long periods of time, which can lead to the type of depressive behavior I wrote of earlier.
In the time since Lara’s death, I have read and learned more about depression and suicide than I care to know. In hindsight, the indications of major depression were all there – a loss of interest in things that she previously enjoyed, being constantly fatigued and wanting to spend all her spare time sleeping, expressing anxiety over what seemed to be easy decisions, believing herself to be undeserving of any praise that came her way, isolating herself from those closest to her (and compartmentalizing us to keep from each of us any hint of the severity of her pain), and finally, her feelings of hopelessness and desperation – feelings and thoughts that Lara masked so well in the photo above. Lara chose to keep these personal insecurities hidden for years, until they ultimately gained control of her thoughts and actions.
According to the American Association of Suicidology, the following warning signs may signal a suicidal crisis. In this case, “An evaluation by a mental health professional is essential to rule out the possibility of suicide and/or to initiate appropriate treatment.”
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Anxiety, agitation, trouble sleeping or sleeping all of the time
- Expressions of having no reason for living; no sense of purpose in life
- Feelings of being trapped – like there’s no way out
- Increased alcohol and/or drug use
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and community
- Rage, uncontrolled anger, expressions of wanting or seeking revenge
- Reckless behavior or more risky activities, seemingly without thinking
- Dramatic mood changes
- Giving away prized possessions
Again, according to the AAS, a young person is at critical risk of suicide if they:
- Threaten to hurt or kill themselves, or talk of wanting to hurt or kill themselves; and/or
- Look for ways to kill themselves by seeking access to firearms, pills, or other means; and/or
- Talk or write about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary.
Should a student communicate suicidal thoughts, the AAS suggests you get help immediately from a mental health professional or a professional in a hospital emergency department, or call 9-1-1.
How Can You Help?
There may be someone in your life about whom you are concerned that they may be depressed, or even considering suicide. I feel it’s vital that you to talk to them, ask them what’s bothering them, and respond without attempting to minimize their pain. It’s your job at that point to listen rather than offer advice.
If the person in question is one of your students. contact a school counselor.
Among your resources is the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which offers “free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.” Their number is 1-800-273-8255.
The Mayo Clinic offers these additional resources.
If you know someone who you suspect is suffering from depression, here are some ways you can help:
- Listen to the sufferer with no judgment
- Treat their disease as a physical illness
- Be there for them
- Communicate daily
- Encourage them to seek professional help
- Encourage physical activity
- Offer to take care of specific tasks as acts of service
Here’s another video, also from someone who has suffered from depression, sharing suggestions for those who are confronted with a loved one who is suffering.
If you retain information from this post, my hope is that it will include these three things:
- Depression does not discriminate. It can strike anyone.
- Depression is a disease and can be treated.
- There is hope for sufferers of depression as well as survivors of a loved one’s suicide.
Here’s hope as defined by Daniel Goleman:
“Hope is more than the naive view that everything will turn out alright. It is believing that you have the will and the way to accomplish goals, even if there are big challenges. Hope does not dismiss difficulties, it acknowledges them and moves forward anyway.”
Depression isn’t a hopeless diagnosis; nor is suicide the only potential outcome for someone suffering from depression. And for survivors, we don’t have to look very far to find fellow survivors. One of the purposes of this post is education; to hopefully remove some of the stigma associated with depression and suicide, and to let you know that one of the most important things you can do for someone like us is to reach out and make the connection. We may look just like a normal human being on the outside; however, many of us carry a kind of internal baggage. We would give anything to be relieved of this burden just for a while with a kind word or a sincere “How are you?”.
I encourage you to widen the scope of what you see to include those from whom some might avert their eyes. Help tear down the stigma against depression and suicide awareness through open, honest, and sincere communication. Sometimes the person most in need of it is right in front of you.
- American Association of Suicidology
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center
- International Association for Suicide Prevention