OPINION: Alaskans need to tell their suicide prevention success stories
September 16th | Carey Restino
We really don't need a day or a week or a month to be reminded to think about suicide and our need to find ways to prevent it. Those sad reminders are around us all the time, in the faces of our friends and neighbors, in the missing places where vibrant lives should have been. There's no glamour in suicide. Just sadness — and a whole lot of misperceptions about how to prevent it.
By-and-large, suicide is linked to two things — substance abuse and mental disorders, the latter of which includes a wide range of conditions that are understood almost as little as suicide. Depression ranks high, and is so often linked with both substance abuse and suicide that it's rare when this deadly trio do not go hand in hand.
But more important than understand why people commit suicide is developing strategies to prevent it. Here's the biggest, most helpful one: talk to each other. All too often, people are afraid to ask someone who is struggling if they are OK. Perhaps that's because they don't know what to say if the answer is, "No." Perhaps it's because they don't want to embarrass the other person. Perhaps it's because people in a suicidal state often aren't the most fun to talk to — they may be drinking or withdrawn.
Here's another fact: suicidal thoughts are not normal. We all struggle from time to time with life and express frustration over our circumstances. But any time you hear a friend or loved one — or a complete stranger, for that matter — talk about or threaten to kill themselves, that's a dangerous situation. Other warning sings include aggressive behavior, withdrawing from friends and family, mood swings, or impulsive and reckless behavior.
Often times with teens, one of the groups at highest risk for suicide, especially in rural Alaska, it can be difficult to identify when these are simply the erratic behaviors of a youth struggling with his or her identity or actually a deeper problem. In such cases, talking to a teens peers might be a good strategy. If they have noticed a change, too, it is probably time to take action.
Most people know the big red flag signs — people putting their affairs in order and giving away their possessions or saying goodbye to friends and family. Another big warning sign is a mood shift from despair to calm, which unfortunately can put friends and family at ease thinking that the hard times have passed. But in such cases, immediate action is necessary. Take your loved one to a health care professional in your community, a respected leader, or anyone who can help them access the help they need. Whatever you do, don't leave them alone.
Many people who have experienced loss from suicide over and over again may have doubts that it can be prevented. Perhaps once that seed is planted, it is destined to grow. But there are many within our communities who have overcome suicide, and those people need to speak up and tell their stories. Just like a friend who has overcome alcohol addiction and lived a lifetime of sobriety can inspire others to try to do the same, so would people who have overcome suicidal thought and found ways of coping offer a beacon of light to one who sees little hope. But we don't tell those stories about ourselves. Most of us are ashamed to talk about our darkest days, or biggest moments of despair, which is odd because so many of us have them.
The reason these personal connections with someone who has fought back against suicidal thoughts is so important, especially here, is that though there are many organizations and web sites and help lines out there to aid in a crisis, it is easy to pass those off as yet another impersonal resource that doesn't understand. For those in rural Alaska, where childhood trauma is layered over generations, an eye-to-eye conversation with someone who has truly been in the same shoes is critical.
As Alaska's rural communities head back into the dark of winter and the struggles that often come along with this time of year, it's fitting that we be asked to consider suicide prevention for a day. But we need to consider suicide prevention every day, to constantly be reaching out to those who are facing challenges of all kinds, offering love, a kind word, a smile, and asking with sincerity, "How are you? Come have a cup of tea and talk."
And for those who know those dark places intimately and learned ways to cope, offering your story publicly might save not just one life, but dozens. And that would be the best gift anyone could give.