Suicide is a stubborn illness. But a growing willingness to talk about it, seeking help without shame, and more programs to help suicide victims and their families is expected one day to drive down the number who take their own lives, said keynote speakers at the 13th annual Naomi Ruth Cohen community conference aimed at reducing the stigma of mental health problems.
For every 100,000 U.S. citizens, 12.4 committed suicide in 2010, down just slightly from the 12.5 who did in 1990, noted David Clark, Ph.D., a member of the International Academy for Suicide Research. “With so much stigma around suicide, it’s important to get solid information out and have people talk about it. Our grandparents never talked about suicide, but signs of more public discussion like this conference subtracts a little bit of stigma.”
Heidi Bryan is a suicide attempt survivor doing more than her share to keep the issue, however uncomfortable, in the public eye. She travels the country with a message for everyone enduring suicidal thoughts. “There is help. There is hope.” For her, the realization she wouldn’t kill herself finally came in 1995 when her brother committed suicide.
“What must his family, his wife, his kids, his co-workers, his friends have thought? Did he really believe we’d all be better off without him? I knew right then he and I had mental illness, and for me, suicide was no longer a strategy.” She said suicidal impulses still occur, “but I can just let them go now. They’re no longer a real threat.” Bryan serves on the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and wrote a book about her life-long struggles entitled, “Must be the Witches in the Mountains.”
Catholic priest Charles T. Rubey founded Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide 35 years ago. He said the notion that people who kill themselves are somehow “cowards or sissies” must be discarded. “In truth, if they had any other way of coping with life, they would. Suicide is really an act of desperation, not cowardice. They just can’t go on. Pain absolutely engulfs them. But there is help. Life is bearable. We have to spread this word, particularly among our adolescents.”
Cheryl King, Ph.D., director of the Youth Depression and Suicide Research Program at the University of Michigan, told the hundreds of attendees, “Suicide prevention takes constant messages of hope and lifelong strategies with a special focus on the young.” She likened humans struggling with challenges to plants. “They’re not all equally strong. So we water them, support them, nudge them however we can.
“Just that little bit of help can be enough over time to allow plants to flourish and grow strong,” she said. “That’s the same way mental illnesses tied to suicide can help reduce suicide numbers.” She noted young suicide victims often use alcohol and drugs to ease their pain. “But these are depressants and only make their problems worse. So adults in every setting – home, school, work – have to look for and recognize these co-morbid conditions and intervene on our youngsters’ behalf.”
The Program was attended by over 250 and the responses have been overwhelming.
Next year’s conference will be held on Sunday, Jun e7th, and the subject will be STIGMA.