Forty. 800,000. 38,000. These are just numbers on a page until you consider what they represent. “Every 40 seconds someone in the world takes their own life, a global tally of more than 800,000 suicides a year,” according to a landmark United Nations (UN) report.
The UN research found that “suicide killed more people each year than conflicts and natural catastrophes, accounting for more than half of the world’s 1.5 million violent deaths annually,” World Health Organization staff told reporters at its presentation in Geneva.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports: “Over 38,000 Americans took their lives in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Suicide accounted for 12 deaths for every 100,000 people nationwide, making it the country’s 10th leading cause of death. Unlike many other leading causes of death, suicide continues to claim more lives each year.”
A Community Unites to Support Suicide Prevention
September 10, 2014 was the annual World Suicide Prevention Day, sponsored by the International Association for Suicide Prevention, whose mission is to:
- Prevent suicidal behavior
- Alleviate the effects of suicide
- Provide a forum about suicide for academics, mental health professionals, crisis workers, volunteers, and survivors
On this day, the community of Doylestown, Pa. gathered for a candlelight vigil to acknowledge another number: 68. That’s how many people in the Bucks County took their lives in 2013. According to Alan Hartl, MS, chief executive officer of the Lenape Valley Foundation, the mental health center that sponsored the vigil, the number of suicides in the county in previous years ranged from mid-80s to low 90s.
Hartl provided sobering statistics. “Ninety percent of those persons who die of suicide have some diagnosable mental health condition,” he said. “A suicide is attempted every three seconds somewhere in the world. The deaths exceed homicide and war combined.”
Family Testimonials Bring Suicide Out of the Shadows
As the world still reels from the suicide death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, a vital conversation has begun around the once-taboo topic. Suicide survivors — divided into two categories: those who’ve attempted and didn’t complete, and the family and friends left behind when their loved one “succeeded” — are coming out of the shadows and sharing their stories.
On this day in Doylestown, one such story came from Lynn Keane, whose son Daniel ended his life in 2009. Daniel was like many others who made the same decision — he was bright, funny, with loving friends and family in his corner. But it wasn’t enough to combat the emotional and alcohol-fueled roller coaster.
“In 2009, our family had no understanding that our 23-year-old son was living with depression. His disease left him unable to concentrate — and the self-loathing, crippling,” Keane writes. “Five years ago we did not talk about depression and disorders of the brain, much less suicide. Today, we generally accept that mental illness is a disease and not a flaw in one’s character.”
Several other speakers took the podium, including:
- Moderator Sharon Curran of the Bucks County Crisis Intervention Team Task Force gave a hopeful tone to an otherwise mournful evening by acknowledging the supportive presence of family members, mental health consumers, and clinicians in attendance.
- Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, whose 16-year-old daughter Becky committed suicide nine years ago, commented on her choice of attire for the day, questioning whether she ought to have dressed more sedately rather than donning the brightly patterned dress that matched her yellow shoes, which had belonged to her daughter. “Today my grief is yellow,” she said. “It changes all the time, and it’s something that I carry with me. But it gets better.”
- Teresa Hollander, a nurse practitioner whose 19-year-old son Matt joined the staggering number of those who ended their lives, described her unimaginable loss. “The earth opens up and swallows me,” she said, to illustrate the unfathomable depths of grief.
The surviving family members spoke of their personal pain and how they transformed it into healing for themselves and other families who walked the same path. Hollander carried with her a photo of several who will be memorialized in the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, including her son.
Every attendee this day took home a votive candle that they were asked to light in the hope that if one life could be spared, so could countless others — and as Alan Hartl encouraged, to make suicide “a never event.”
If you or someone you know is at risk for or considering suicide, seek help immediately by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, by going to the nearest emergency room, or by contacting Suicide Anonymous.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW