We're doing everything we can with suicide, just not enough

Posted6/12/2018 5:33 AM
  • In 2016, Anthony Bourdain won this award for his "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" television show. Now, his death by suicide has people taking a deeper look at the causes of suicide, and the ways to prevent it.

    In 2016, Anthony Bourdain won this award for his "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" television show. Now, his death by suicide has people taking a deeper look at the causes of suicide, and the ways to prevent it. Associated Press

Most fatal diseases come with a game plan. We receive a dire diagnosis and willingly surrender responsibility for our treatment to the professionals. They are the ones who cut out cancers, order chemotherapy and radiation, prescribe medicines, implant devices and donated organs, determine precisely what we need and when we need it, and give it their all.

When it works, we give thanks. When it doesn't, we take comfort in knowing that "we did everything we could."

Suicide isn't like the rest of those fatal diseases. We generally don't see it coming, and we want to assign (or accept) blame for a death by suicide. Couldn't her husband have seen this coming? Couldn't a co-worker have recognized he was struggling? Couldn't somebody have said something that would have prevented the death? Couldn't the newspaper have told people where to get help?

We did everything we could. We just didn't do enough of the right thing.

"Society is talking about mental illness more than ever, and yet the rate of mental disorders and suicide has never been higher," notes Anne Gulotta, a Barrington woman who started suicide-prevention programs in suburban schools and with military groups and serves as a board member for the Illinois chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Nearly 45,000 people in the United States killed themselves in 2016, an increase of nearly 30 percent since 1999, making suicide the 10th-leading cause of death and one of the few on that list that is still on the rise, according to a report last week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What is it going to take to stem this? I don't know. It's discouraging," admits the Rev. Charles Ruby, founder and director of the LOSS program (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) that is operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Ruby, who has spent 40 years working with the tragedy of suicide, says it's important to know that people don't want to end their lives, "they want to end the pain."

While he suggests that limiting access to guns could prevent many suicides, he sees long-term success coming through an increase in mental health research.

"What we need is a Jonas Salk for mental illness," the priest says, referring to the doctor who created the polio vaccine and turned the nation's greatest health scare into a rarity almost overnight.

Gulotta and Alyssa Relyea, a fellow board member with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Illinois, say they'd like to see a lot more money poured into research on suicide prevention and mental health. Last year, the National Institutes of Health spent $35 million on preventing suicide, which killed about 45,000 people, and $42 million on West Nile virus, which killed 121 people. The federal suicide-prevention grants for states haven't increased since 2013.

"As we do more research, that's going to be key to getting more help," Relyea predicts.

A generation ago, cancer carried a stigma. Polite people didn't discuss it in public, and funding for research was lagging. "Now, everyone talks about cancer from brain to breast to colorectal cancer," Gulotta says. "There are tests and scans. There are cures. There's hope. It's more tangible."

The willingness to talk about cancer and generate money for cancer research helped lead to a 25 percent drop in cancer deaths from 1990 to 2014.

A decade ago, suicide often was wrongly treated as an act of weakness, cowardice and selfishness. The death by suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams in 2014 signaled "a bit of a paradigm shift," Relyea says. Society became a bit less judgmental and more understanding. If research funding follows, maybe we can cut suicide deaths by 25 percent during the next decade.

In the meantime, we will talk about suicide, demand increased funding for mental health research and suicide prevention, and reach out to each other.

Publishing a list of places for people who realize they need help and want to get it might be all we can do, but it just isn't enough.

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