On Wednesday, the younger sister of a close family friend ended her life. 18 years old, about to graduate high school and so full of promise, she must have felt so hopeless to choose to exit this world.

As a parent and a sibling, I feel enormous pain for the parents and siblings of this beautiful young woman. There is no sweeter or more powerful bond than the bond of our immediate family, nurturing each other from birth and investing in shared learning experiences as we grow and become adults. I am heartsick for their loss.

As a person, I am shaken by the idea that hopelessness, isolation, and an unkind inner voice could potentially lead any one of us to her same conclusion. I am wary of my own mental health given all of the negativity and overwhelm that seems to have grown exponentially inside this pandemic, with a cacophony of bad news about the weather, our planet, the invasion of Ukraine, our economy, and the divisiveness in our country, too. I am shaken by the frailty of the human mind.

As a leader, I am searching for anything I can do to support this family and for ways that I might help others who may feel a similar hopelessness right now. As I have reached out for resources to support the family, I have begun reading about the reality of suicide in this country. According to Hope is Oxygen (www.hopeisoxygen.org), every 11 minutes, someone in this country takes their own life. Our suicide rates are at their highest since World War II, and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we have had an almost 50% increase in suicides among people aged 15 to 19 since 2000. I am shocked by our nation’s suicide rate, especially among young people with so much potential. I’m also disappointed that I haven’t paid closer attention to this national epidemic until it hit so close to home.

Suicide Warning Signs

Experts encourage us to watch for the signs or symptoms of suicidal behavior, which aren’t always present or visible but might appear for some. Those signs, according to Mayo Clinic include:

  • Talking about suicide — saying things like "I wish I were dead" or "I wish I hadn't been born" or being preoccupied by death or dying
  • Accessing things that can lead to death like a gun, or stockpiling pills
  • Withdrawing from social contact and wanting to be alone
  • Showing swings in mood, such as begin really pumped or “up” one day and very down the next
  • Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation or their circumstances
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Changing their normal routine, including eating, or sleeping patterns
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things, such as driving recklessly or intentionally not doing well at work or school
  • Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order for no reason
  • Saying goodbye as if they won't be seen again

While I gathered these ideas, they made me think of people in my life who are exhibiting one or more of these symptoms. Up until now, I haven’t stopped to do something about it – or really known what to do either.

Possible Preventative Actions

“Let the echo of your footsteps spark a ray of hope in the heart of the hopeless and appear as help to the helpless.”                                                                                                                         -Abhijit Naskar

Most resources agree that when we are concerned about someone’s mental well-being or fear that they may be suicidal, we should:

  • Express how much we care about them
  • Ask the person to honestly share their feelings and listen, without attempting to solve. Having someone to talk to can really help
    • Questions we can ask include “Have you been unhappy lately? If so, how come?” “You’ve seemed unhappy recently, tell me what’s going on” or “Are you considering hurting yourself?” Resources suggest that asking about suicide won’t put the idea in someone’s mind, but might remove the fear or stigma of talking about it with you
  • Tell an authority (family, friend, school counselor, or doctor) right away what is going on
  • Seek help from a trained professional or counselor as soon as possible. As scary as it sounds, causing the person to be hospitalized for a short time might be the best answer to ensure they get the help they need
  • Have the person call a suicide hotline, or if we’re not sure what to do, we should call the hotline number. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. If the person is a veteran, they can call that same number and press "1" to reach the Veterans Crisis Line
  • If we strongly suspect that a person might commit suicide:
    • We are encouraged to stay near that person and not leave them alone
    • If we fear for their safety now, we should call 911 or our local emergency number right away. Or, if possible, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room

Steps to Take Those Grieving

“Grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”            - Vicki Harrison

When someone in our community suffers the painful loss of a loved one from suicide, grief sources suggest that we:

  • Stay in close contact with our friend
  • Encourage them to share their feelings and speak freely and often about their loved one
  • Give the person the space to share their stories as many times as needed
  • Avoid platitudes or trite statements about the loved one’s death
  • Avoid expecting grief to end at a certain point – not having our own time limits on another person’s grief
  • Find ways to bring fun and laughter into the lives of those grieving
  • Try to be comfortable with strong expressions of grief and emotion that will surface without warning
  • Suggest that our friend seek counseling or group therapy with those experienced in suicide grief

As usual, I am processing my feelings by reading, learning, and writing – my winning formula for problem solving. I’m also spending time with my family members crying and giving ourselves grace and space to sit with the sadness we feel for our friend whose family has lost this beautiful daughter, sister, friend, teammate, and student.

And, I’m committing to no longer pretend that suicide isn’t in our midst, to pay close attention to warning signs and take action when I see or feel them, to provide compassionate support to those who have lost a loved one to suicide and to study ways that we can bring hope and possibility to those who are suffering at school, work, church or in our families.

This national and mostly silent suicide epidemic will continue to grow if left in the dark. Let’s shine light and hope on this subject by learning, discussing, and acting and reverse this terrible national trend.