The subject of suicide has long carried many stereotypes along with it. Frequent terms we might hear about are the selfishness of the act or that it was what the person wanted. There are many reasons individuals have died by suicide, but the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is changing the way people view suicide by creating a conversation about it to include the general public, first responders, medical and research communities.
Every late summer and fall, the AFSP’s Out of the Darkness walks begin across the nation. They create community support for those who have lost someone to suicide and for those who have attempted suicide. The walks are a memorial for those lost, but it’s also a celebration and a chance to support each other in the void of grief.
For Dorie Morris, the organizer of the seventh Out of the Darkness Walk in Spokane, the walks are a way to create awareness, eliminate the stigma and offer hope to survivors, both of loss and of prior suicide attempts.
“It’s really to remember those we’ve lost,” she said. Morris lost a brother and a close friend to suicide. “We try to reach out to lots of different people. Last year, we lost lots of young people.”
People from all sorts of backgrounds come to bring awareness to suicide prevention. Many walkers wear shirts with their loved ones’ photos and names. Colored “honor” beads are distributed with each color symbolizing why the walker is participating. Morris wears orange, purple and blue beads: orange to symbolize the loss of a sibling, her brother; purple to honor a friend and blue to show support for the cause. This year, she said the Honor Guard from the Fairchild Air Force Base will perform the opening ceremony. Several suicide survivors will speak about their experiences as a way to reach out to those who can relate. The event will also have booths with representatives to reach out to adolescents, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community and veterans.
“The LGBT community is very prevalent in our walks (as well as) veterans’ organizations and mental health resource organizations,” Morris said. “We just try to reach out to the community. It’s all about making sure that attempt survivors and those who struggle with mental health conditions know that there is hope for them. (The walk is) a way to help get rid of the stigma of suicide. If people learn to talk about it – they’re less likely to go do it because they’ve got the support,” she said.
Suicide is all too prevalent in Idaho and Washington, and the numbers are startling. In Washington, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports it as the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34 years and that more people die by suicide than by homicide in the state. Similarly in Idaho, suicide is also the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 44 years but is ranked as the sixth highest state in the nation for suicide. In 2015, one out of five youth in Idaho reported having seriously considered suicide.
There’s no single reason that people take their own lives. The underlying cause could be depression or anxiety, according to Grace Finch, the Washington Area Director for the AFSP.
“Nine out of 10 people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition (not diagnosed). That’s why we push for mental health needs to be equal as physical health … it’s our best first line of defense,” she said.
What’s most important – with anyone you think is at risk for suicide – is to keep the lines of communication open. Mental illness and suicide have been such a source of taboo in many cultures, but AFSP aims to erase this taboo.
Some warning signs that should raise a red flag include: talking about suicide, increased risky behavior such as with drugs or alcohol and a change in mood to depression, anger or anxiety. Also, having a history of mental health conditions or family history of suicide can make someone at an increased risk for suicide. Again, however, some people don’t display any of these signs which is why talking about what’s troubling someone is the best way to help them.
Out of the Darkness
To help combat the stigma of mental health, AFSP organizes walks throughout the nation. These Out of the Darkness walks are a great way to find other people who have experienced a suicide loss or who may be struggling. In Washington, the Spokane Walk is September 17 at Riverfront Park and the Tacoma Walk is October 8 at Wright Park in addition to six other walks in the state.
“(AFSP) was founded by survivors of suicide loss and a long time were the voices around the table, but in recent years, more people with experience – who struggle or are attempt survivors are participating as well,” Finch said.
She said although AFSP still supports survivors, its scope has expanded more toward prevention and education. The AFSP’s website has a number of resources for parents, teachers and concerned individuals to learn from and tailor to their needs. AFSP’s main message is that suicide is preventable.
“Some people think that a person will die by suicide no matter what. There’s a misunderstanding that if you talk about it, it will encourage it, but what we’ve found is if you talk, it helps. Let the person know you’re concerned but also provide (resources) to mental health services,” Finch said.
Individuals struggling with the idea of suicide may not show any outward signs of it. It is difficult to ask for help. AFSP is changing and also adapting to the ways people communicate via social media. On Facebook, for example, if you are concerned about a post, go to the site’s help menu and search for “suicide.” You will get a number of options from which to choose, including where to get help if an individual is considering suicide. There are also apps where individuals can text or chat online and get help that way as well, like the Crisis Text Line.
“The way people seek help according to demography and age require a broad approach and different technology for that. From everything we do, if we can get that person through that low point when they’re seriously contemplating suicide – whether it’s restricting means or talking –they can recover,” Finch said.
Into the Light
A huge beneficial byproduct of the walks is the fundraising aspect. AFSP’s Out of the Darkness walks raise thousands of dollars to fund research and state suicide prevention efforts. At the local level, a portion of the money raised go to designated education programs. The other portion is donated to the national AFSP office for research grants. AFSP has become a supporter of potentially promising research that they believe will produce viable evidence to prevent suicide.
“We fund researchers who are doing a lot of up-and-coming research that is not ready for the National Institutes of Health,” Finch explained.
Also funded by the AFSP is Project 2025 with a goal of reducing the suicide rate by 20 percent by the year 2025. As a start to its comprehensive effort, it has conducted a burden analysis study to analyze the numbers and statistics behind suicide losses at a very high level and see what areas society can focus on to reduce the suicide rate.
In Washington, there are a number of preventative efforts underway such as safeTALK and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIST) programs (livingworks.net), which hosts free or low cost training for anyone older than 15 years of age to become a suicide-alert helper. Another area of prevention is training to screen for suicide risk during emergency room intake procedures.
“We know the statistics from the burden study and see that as a point of opportunity,” Finch said.
Another area of concern AFSP focuses on is reducing the number of suicides by firearm. Anecdotally, the numbers show that most deaths by firearms aren’t accidental. For that reason, it’s important to have suicide prevention literature available in gun shops for vulnerable individuals contemplating suicide who have access to a firearm. AFSP does not advocate for gun control but rather gun safety. Washington’s Safe Homes House Bill 2793 addresses gun safety and education. Part of the bill’s focus is to create a task force consisting of members of suicide prevention organizations, the firearms industry, law enforcement, the National Rifle Association, suicide attempt survivors, the Department of Health and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Their work would involve gun shops in an effort to prevent suicide by firearms.
“A lot of (what the bill contains) is education about the risk factors and warning signs, carrying information to encourage safe storage, and emergency plans,” Finch explained.
In Idaho, the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, located in Boise, is a separate organization working to reduce suicide. Although not affiliated with AFSP they have a team that participates in the Out of the Darkness walk in Boise. The organization closed in 2006 because of lack of funding but was able to reopen in 2012. The most recent state legislation passed nearly $1 million for suicide prevention efforts. The state funds 60 percent of the hotline’s budget. The call center is operated by 60 volunteers and is available 24 hours every day of the week. Volunteers are trained and monitored by a professional in suicide prevention. The organization aims to grow with an ambassador program to have statewide outreach, explained John Reusser, director of the hotline.
“We always need people to spread information about the hotline and are trying to have an ambassador program to find events have (where we can have) representation,” he said.
It is prevention efforts such as these in the two states that are eliminating the stigma of suicide and bringing mental health to the forefront. Getting recognition and support from state legislatures is important for raising awareness and getting people trained in how to handle individuals at risk for suicide.
The message we all need to share is that no one is alone and help is available. Be that person who lends an ear to someone’s problems and assist them in the direction of professional help. It’s not a simple, quick answer, but it’s a start in the conversation.
“We are getting more people trained in suicide assessment and prevention. People are beginning to come together with hope and solutions to save lives,” Finch said.
For more information about AFSP and Out of the Darkness walks, visit, afsp.org. For the Idaho Prevention Hotline, visit idahosuicideprevention.org or search for them on Facebook. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).