Recently, twenty-one-year-old Tyler Hilinski inexplicably committed suicide. On the surface, he had been an outgoing and enthusiastic backup quarterback at Washington State University. His death made national news and sparked a conversation in the media about suicide prevention, a topic long overdue. I have been touched by suicide at various times in my life: at age 15 when my friend, Scott, told me his father had killed himself, again at age 35 when one of my best friends from high school drank himself to death, and recently, someone I loved dearly for 38 years ended his life with a pistol. For the family, friends, and even survivors themselves, suicide begs a single question, “WHY?”
In recent history, a number of famous people ended their life without a note to tell us why: Robin Williams, Don Cornelius, Junior Seau, Kurt Cobain, Hunter S. Thompson, and Ernest Hemingway. These successful celebrities came from all walks of life and their deaths left us shaking our heads. We ask, “They had it all. Why would they do that?” What follows are some theories of mine based on research, observation, and inquiry. I am writing this for myself in an effort to understand and heal.
One of my favorite sports writers, Matt Calkins, recently discussed his bout with depression in an honest article in the
. After years of therapy and different combinations of drugs, he has found some peace. He wrote, “I feel good now, really, but I’ll likely have to treat my mental health for the rest of my life. Why am I telling you this? Simple—because there shouldn’t be a stigma attached to admitting this stuff.”
According to studies by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one in five Americans suffer from mental illness each year. Moreover, half the adults in the U.S. will develop a mental illness in their lifetimes.
Why is there such a reluctance among people to take action or talk about their illness? Simple; their reluctance is based on FEAR. When asked by Calkins, University of Washington professor Jennifer Stuber, who co-founded Forefront Suicide Prevention, responded, “Who wants to have a broken brain?” Calkins ends his article with a strong admonition we all need to hear: “Suffering from depression and admitting it doesn’t make you weak; if you are in a seemingly insurmountable funk, seek help. It won’t always be a quick fix, but I promise you’ll get better and eventually feel normal.” You can read the entire piece here:
What are the factors that lead to someone taking their own life? Having studied “Mental Management” for over 35 years, here is my take. We’ll talk about this without fear.
1) No Hope.
When a person feels there is no longer any hope, that their situation is intolerable, things will get worse, and any effort to affect change is fruitless, a shift occurs. That person gives up because they can no longer handle the pain caused by emotional abuse, a physical ailment, an inoperable diagnosis, or a spiritual crisis. Moreover, no one just wakes up one day and says “I’m going to end it all today.” The act is planned, thought through hundreds of times before it actually occurs.
2) The Habit of Isolation and Secrecy.
Twelve-Step programs around the world tell us, “We are only as sick as our secrets!” Keeping secrets is fostered by the fear of criticism. We worry, “What will people think (or say?)” So we keep the bad stuff inside, never to see the light of day. A life of isolation means living a lie and acting like it’s all okay on the outside while a cancer (literally or figuratively) eats us up on the inside.
3) The Absence of a Support Group.
Without a strong support system of close friends, family, and co-workers who share our values and interests, we can feel alone and afraid, which leads to further inward isolation. When we share our fears, we cut them in half. If we are to help others, we must listen, watch, and pay attention to body language and seemingly casual comments. The truth is we never have to go it alone. Someone else out there shares your pain. Let’s seek professional help. The Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 800.273.8255. It’s there to provide short-term assistance.
4) Depression is Anger Turned Inward.
I first heard that phrase in an episode of
. I thought, “Huh? That is so interesting.” In 1982, I read
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
by David D. Burns. I self-diagnosed extreme depression with the Beck Depression Inventory. Aaron T. Beck’s advice? “Call someone immediately!” I did. What followed was a few years of counseling and eventually AA. My discovery was hard to see at first because my anger was ever and always directed outward. I directed my anger first through sports and then toward anyone who didn’t meet my expectations of who or how they should be or act. Acceptance and forgiveness of others has come slowly, but has come due to a great deal of work on myself. Depression is a kind of soul sickness. It turns resentment, fear, self-pity, and doubt against yourself instead of dealing with them. It’s a kind of self-mutilation of the heart and head.
5) Fear of Ill-Health.
The fear of infirmity and a future dependent upon others, or surrounded by other old, sick, or disturbed people, is too much for some people to take. The idea of being in a nursing home and subjected to mental or emotional abuse also terrifies some people. Some people see this as a “fate worse than death” and “no way to go out” when they are no longer self-reliant.
6) An Absence of Meaning or Purpose.
In the Old Testament, the Book of Proverbs tells us “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Each of us needs to feel we are contributing to others, that our life has meaning, and that we are making a difference, even if it’s only in the smallest of ways. Feeling you are of little or no value to others leads to self-talk like “What is the use?” or “I’m just a burden to others” or “What’s it all for?” or the worst one, “I’m no good to anyone…” These “Rational Lies” mark the beginning of the end, especially if they are kept a secret and repeated over and over again.
7) Low Self-Concept.
The Self-Concept consists of three elements:
. This is like a thermostat that regulates our actions and behavior. It’s how we see ourselves. It’s often reflected in how much money we make or the grades we made in school or whether we feel loved by others. The good news is, it’s not fixed. We CAN adjust the thermostat to a different and better setting.
. This is an emotional barometer. It’s how we FEEL about ourselves, especially in the solitude of our own mind.
. This element is the sum total of the other two and how it translates to our relationships with others and the level of contribution. “He is a loving father,” people might say to validate our own belief. Her friends ask, “How does she get it all done?” If we find ourselves on the receiving end of “gaslighting,” that is, being manipulated by someone else into thinking we are crazy or unworthy, we begin to believe it. We must learn to stand up for ourselves and assert our own worth. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel bad without your permission.” How true.
It’s the opposite of Optimism. The distinction is critical to understand; Optimism can be learned (see Martin Seligman’s book
). You see, Optimists believe that bad things are temporary and that the individual can affect change and create a new or better future. Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that bad things will go on forever, they are permanent, will only get worse, and they have no chance or opportunity to change it. They feel stuck, in the molasses of doubt and fear.
A complete lack of empathy. A kind of narcissistic self-absorption that infects and spreads. With no regard to how the ultimate selfish act of suicide might impact and affect others, the person victimizes friends, family and peers. No closure is a kind of curse to the victims; and yes, to those left behind to ponder WHY? They are, indeed, victims forever.
10) Accepting There Is No Shame in Admitting a Problem Exists.
We all have challenges of some kind. No one I know is completely healthy. We eat too much, we drink too much, we smoke too much, we gamble too much, we have too much sex, and each of us struggle with self-pity, resentment, doubt, and fear. The difference between a Broken Brain vs. Normal is how long you stay there! Getting to normal begins with honesty and acceptance, followed by positive and healthy action.
When someone we love dies, we start the grieving process. Grief is time out of mind, a kind of suspended animation. We must go through the five stages: Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Acceptance. Sadly, we cannot manage our grief or that of others. We don’t “get OVER it.” Instead, we “get THROUGH it,” or it gets through us. Time takes time.
Suicide is the answer
To many questions asked.
It hides inside of you
But it will be unmasked.
It knows it has power
Over many girls and boys.
It treats people as
If we were little toys.
So will you listen to suicide
And one day take your life?
Think hard before you
Decide to pick up the knife.
I write this to help me and others understand the causes and their corresponding opposites that might serve in prevention for future generations. If we HOPE, if we TALK IT OUT, if we DEVELOP FRIENDSHIPS, if we GET HONEST, if we CHANGE or ACCEPT aging, if we FIND MEANING, if we LOVE OURSELVES, if we CHOOSE OPTIMISM, if we choose EMPATHY, if we PAY ATTENTION TO OUR MOODS, THOUGHTS, AND ACTIONS, then we make giant leaps forward in understanding WHY someone takes their own life and how we might “Survive Suicide” in the future.
A few simple strategies have helped me cope with “Old Tapes” that run in my head, though I don’t hear them much anymore.
- Listen to positive audio programs while you drive (Windshield U).
- Play uplifting classical music (Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann).
- Pay attention to your thoughts, words, and actions, both positive and negative. Consider writing them down.
- Write down positive things that occur, both processing the grief, setbacks, and challenges AND capturing the positive WINS in a journal.
- Make a weekly “Gratitude List” of the things and people in your life.
- Read best-selling books on wellness and mental health (see the book list below).
- Pray and meditate daily to the God of your understanding.
- Journal your thoughts and feelings. (I know, I repeated this one on purpose!)
- Set up a support group of friends (book club, 12-Step program, Bible study) that you can talk to on a regular basis. I call them my “If I Was in Jail Friends.” (They are men I can call anytime and talk about anything!)
- Seek professional help.
- Make time to reflect, walk in the woods or on the beach, go on a getaway for two to three days, or go on a spiritual retreat.
- Understand you are not alone and you never have to suffer in silence.
- Learn to laugh every day. Laughter is healing. A relaxation response comes over the body. It bolsters our immune system.
One of my favorite films (and book) is
A River Runs Through It
by Norman McClean. Near the end of the story, the father, a pastor, addresses his flock in a sermon that serves as a thinly-veiled attempt to explain his son’s self-inflicted death:
Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question, “We are willing to help Lord, but what if anything is needed?” For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them; we can love completely without complete understanding.
And so it is. We can still love them and we can love ourselves.
Suggested Reading List:
- Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, M.D.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- The Bible
- The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
- The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden
- Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them by Jay Carter
- Your Perfect Right by Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons
- The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra
- Freedom from Fear by Mark Matteson
You can “Survive Suicide.” You decide because, in the end, we are all children of God, and we deserve a meaningful life filled with joy, peace of mind, and serenity.