The recent death of Robin Williams once again thrust suicide into the American conscience. Can some good come from such public tragedies?
My hope is that Robin Williams’ death provides a window of opportunity for us to take a look at the problem of suicide and use that window to improve prevention, intervention, and postvention efforts nationally. Suicide is such a culturally stigmatized problem and, for that reason, very difficult to look at and try to understand. Suicide is always a tragedy when it happens to a private citizen, but when it happens to someone who touched all of our lives – and some of us in a very profound way – is almost unspeakable. There is great pain and loss there. I think Robin Williams’ death amplified the feelings of helplessness and confusion that people often feel in the wake of these deaths, because it was shared by so many and impossible to ignore. As Americans, as people who were touched by his work for decades, we all shared in this loss to some degree. So, in that sense, it is forcing us to look at a problem that is oftentimes swept under the rug and ignored.
More than 650 Kentuckians die by suicide every year, and their stories typically don’t make the headlines. But what are the consequences for the affected families and close friends?
Because of research done by my UK colleague, Dr. Julie Cerel, and research I’ve been engaged in with her, we know that about 40 percent of Kentuckians know someone who has died by suicide. So suicide affects more people than we currently realize. If you are exposed to suicide – either personally or distantly – you can feel a range of emotions including shock, confusion, anger, sadness, guilt, and even relief. You can also experience psychological problems from the trauma, including sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression. You might also have thoughts of suicide. These reactions usually go away with time, but, if they continue for more than a few weeks, it is important to talk to a trusted and competent health care professional. I co-facilitate a suicide bereavement support group in Lexington. Every week, I spend time with close family members and friends of individuals who have died by suicide, and the consequences for these individuals are profound. I would encourage anyone who has had this experience to reach out to a variety of supports, including health care professionals as well as participating in a suicide bereavement support group. Sometimes being with people who are going through what you are going through is one of the best healing experiences.
When people engage in suicidal thoughts or behavior, what are some of the most common underlying patterns and symptoms?
They say there are “many roads to Rome,” right? Well, suicidal people are no different. The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that lead an individual to suicide are just as different. That’s why it is important for clinicians who are treating suicidal people to uncover the unique reasons that are driving that particular individual’s suicidality. It’s also the reason why I am engaged in training clinicians in a protocol called “The Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality” which was developed by my research advisor, Dr. David Jobes, at Catholic University. CAMS is developed to uncover these unique “drivers” for suicide and then targeting them in treatment.
What have you learned from your research that might surprise many people? What are some of the more common misperceptions and misunderstandings related to suicide?
I’m engaged in investigating something “posttraumatic growth” that occurs in the wake of some individuals who are bereaved by suicide. Posttraumatic growth is an outgrowth of the Positive Psychology movement from about 20 years ago, but is a concept that has been around for centuries. Essentially, it is phenomenon that occurs after a “shattering” event in a person’s life, where they have to wrestle with understanding the event and reconstruct their own lives to accommodate the new reality of this experience. From this process, growth and a kind of wisdom is developed and often are manifested in five ways: strengthening of relationships, new possibilities (jobs, roles, and relationships), spiritual change, increased personal strength, and increased appreciation for life. Some people have more of it than others, but the paradoxical part of posttraumatic growth is that it takes a certain amount of trauma to produce it. I’m interested in the posttraumatic growth of the suicide bereaved, because I experienced this growth in the wake of my own husband’s suicide 18 years ago. You can learn more about posttraumatic growth on my website at www.posttraumaticgrowth.com .
Campus communities certainly aren’t immune to suicidal thoughts and behavior. What are some common warning signs, and what steps can be taken to lessen the likelihood that it will happen to a member of the EKU family?
Warning signs aren’t really very helpful in trying to predict suicide. What is helpful is being able to ask the question, if you feel someone is in crisis, “are you having thoughts of suicide?” in a non-judgmental way. Getting someone to talk about their thoughts and feelings of suicide is important. It will not instill a dangerous thought, because it is already there, but it might make the suicidal person feel heard and understood. Suicide is so culturally stigmatized and we are all programmed to shut suicidal people down when they want to disclose to someone. So, we have to learn how to address our own fears, if we are ever to help someone who is truly in crisis. When someone is talking about suicide, it is important to take them seriously. Never discount or leave someone who is talking about suicide or looking for ways to kill themselves alone. Making sure they talk to someone who is competent to work with them is important. At the very least, I would call the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) and ask them how to handle it, if you are uncertain what to do. Taking the individual to the EKU Counseling Center or to the emergency room, if this occurs after hours, are things to also keep in mind. The most important thing is to take an individual who is talking about suicide very seriously and not leave them alone or in the presence of lethal means.