FEATURE: Turning Away from the Ledge

By on June 21, 2016

Why the focus has to shift from the aftermath of suicide to prevention.

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JACKSON HOLE, WYThis is not the suicide story you are used to.

By now, many Wyoming residents know that the Cowboy State has the highest rate of suicide in the nation, averaging more than 20 deaths per 100,000 people (nearly double the national average). Teton County’s rates are not as high as the rest of the state, but still rank high compared to the country, with 13.4 deaths by suicide per 100,000.

The media’s approach to reporting on suicide tends to focus on alarm and despair. However, because of a new initiative by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, media now has tools to avoid promulgating misinformation and to instead communicate a hopeful message.

“News and entertainment media often convey negative narratives about suicide, especially given the newsworthiness of sensational deaths, system failures, and the like,” the Action Alliance notes.

According to the Action Alliance, some types of stories can increase risk among vulnerable individuals. A recent article on the National Geographic blog, “Why Are Ski Towns Seeing More Suicides?” although well researched, made the cardinal mistake of describing details about how an individual killed himself.

“Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method,” the Action Alliance states.

“Describing a suicide method gives people a model to follow,” explained Jacob Richins, a local community prevention specialist. “Someone might think, ‘that guy is just like me.’”

The Action Alliance recommends that media outlets and others focus on positive narratives, not ignoring the issue of suicide but instead highlighting that it is preventable.

Richins agrees. “Most people who are suicidal choose to live,” he said. “Most people survive.”

Mark Houser, who facilitates a peer support group for survivors of suicide loss, sponsored by the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, says most people who are suicidal don’t want to die.

“Primarily they want the pain to go away, and they don’t know another way to exit the pain,” Houser said.

Houser acknowledges that just saying the word “suicide” can be triggering to some. “But you can’t break stigma without writing about the issue,” he said.

So here is an article that focuses on stories of hope in an attempt to break the stigma. The Planet spoke to a few individuals about how they survived bleak times and what friends and family can do when they suspect someone is struggling.

OK to use the ‘S’ word

Each month Richins and his colleague Matt Stech teach at least two “QPR” suicide prevention training sessions that teach people how to help a person who is suicidal. QPR stands for “question, persuade, refer.”

The training teaches people to recognize the signs of suicidal thinking and behavior. They are encouraged to ask a direct question. Houser, who has also led prevention training sessions, said people shouldn’t be afraid of bringing up the word “suicide.”

“We know that asking someone if they are suicidal will not move them closer to suicide,” he said. “It is actually a way of de-stigmatizing suicide.”

Persuading someone to get help starts with simply listening. In the QPR training Richins and Stech offer the notable example of Kevin Briggs, a California Highway Patrol Officer whose successfully persuaded nearly 200 people not to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. One of those individuals, Kevin Berthia, said Briggs listened to him for 90 minutes.

Richins, who spent several years in the Marines, says the first time he had to ask someone if they were suicidal it did feel “monumental.”

“There was a corporal in my platoon who had a serious injury,” Richins said. “His outlook for his job as a Marine was dubious.”

Richins noticed that the normally chipper corporal was withdrawn and anxious. He spoke with the man and recognized warning signs of suicidality.

“So I just asked him, ‘Corporal, are you thinking about killing yourself?’ And he gave a big sigh of relief, and said, ‘No, but I’ve had a lot of thoughts of suicide.’”

Richins said that from there it was easy to connect the young man with the chaplain, who connected him with a psychologist. Within a few sessions, he began to come to terms with what had happened to him and he started charting a new course.

Richins’ situation was ideal in that he was able to accompany the corporal directly to the person who could help. Barring that, have phone numbers available for a suicide hotline and a counseling center. And try to get the person to agree to get help.

Struggle at altitude

Richins was born in Afton, Wyo., and grew up in Utah and Star Valley. He says the rural nature of many Western communities is one of the factors in suicide risk specific to the region. Other factors include the amount of firearm ownership, social isolation, and spotty access to mental health care.

Western states, Richins said, have a stronger culture of “do it yourself” and “fix your own problems.”

“When everything is working, that edict can be protective,” Richins said. “But when things go wrong, feeling like you have to fix it all yourself can increase risk.”

Reaching out to others made all the difference for Alice Vanessa Bever.

Bever has lived in Jackson off and on since 2006, though she currently resides in Naples, Italy.

A dedicated actor, she has pursued her artistic dreams but has also felt haunted by financial worries. Student loans and other debt have weighed heavily on her.

In spite of this, Bever says her natural tendency is toward optimism. Her calling to be an artist has lit her way in life. When the opportunity arose to pursue a large creative project, she didn’t let finances stop her.

“The project was amazing,” Bever said. “But it totally put me in debt. I went from having school debt to credit card debt, and I started getting really big anxiety about how to handle it.”

She struggled to pay bills and she still didn’t feel that she had succeeded as an artist. Her anxiety and despair started to spiral.

Then, her best friend died suddenly. Bever was engulfed in sadness, as well as feelings of shame and inadequacy. She said it was particularly hard to be someone struggling financially in Jackson Hole.

“I was surrounded by people who had the means to support themselves, but I was swimming upstream,” she said. “I felt like I should be appreciating my friends and the mountains but instead I often felt dried up and anxious, wondering if I would make it to the next month.”

“I don’t think many people had a clue about how I was feeling because at the end of the day I have always tried to be positive.”

Internally, Bever contemplated suicide. “Never seriously in a way of actually planning anything,” she said. “But it was a thought that made me feel on a primal level like there could be some relief.”

Bever kept silent about her private situation, not talking to friends or family about it. Finally, when the despair became too great, she opened up to her family. That helped her turn a corner.

“One of the best things I did was finally tell my family what I was feeling,” Bever said. “It was hard because I felt guilty putting that on my mom. But I felt that it was a moment of recognizing that I needed support.

“Once I was more honest with my family I felt like I wasn’t completely alone. I felt like I did have options.”

Bever says the suicidal ideation was amorphous for her; it wasn’t a cerebral thought. “In the depths of the swampland of depression there are lots of fears that provoke nonsense, which is why it is so important to help people recognize that those thoughts are only mirages,” Bever said. “I feel so tied to my family, especially my nieces, that I would never be able to do anything destructive that would affect their lives.”

For Heidi Ramseur, suicidal ideation was the opposite of a mirage. Instead, she found refuge in imagining killing herself. The elaborate, detailed thoughts were comforting, something she now calls her “kill switch.” Ramseur, who grew up in Jackson, experienced a lot of trauma as a child. She was molested by a family member. She had a difficult relationship with her mother. She acted out in school. And from a very early age, she contemplated suicide.

Ramseur was 13 the first time she attempted suicide. The attempt was precipitated by a vehicle accident in which she was driving and a young man was killed. She ended up in the hospital after the attempt, physically safe but without resources outside of her family. Two years later, she attempted again.

She managed to get through her late teens and early twenties without another attempt.

“I have a very persevering personality,” Ramseur said. “I learned how to learn from everything.”

She got married and pursued her interests – dance, art, cooking, and yoga. But then the memories of the molestation started to resurface. She sought out counseling and spent several years trying to understand and heal the damage from the past.

“There is a direct connection between my tremendous childhood struggle and suicidal ideation,” she said.

“I used to blame myself for having such horrible thoughts. In therapy I learned that what I went through was not normative. Thinking about suicide had become one of my only survival skills.”

In the end, it was a dinner date with friends that was the big turning point in Ramseur’s thinking.

“My friends knew I was going through a divorce and living piecemeal,” Ramseur said. “They both thought of me as someone who really had her shit together.”

“So I wanted to be vulnerable with them and tell them I’ve struggled with suicidality.”

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While Ramseur thought she was bonding with her friends, they had a different reaction altogether. They both became angry. One of the friends had recently lost a family member to suicide. She made Ramseur promise to call her if she was ever thinking of ending her life.

“It was a huge wake up call for me,” she said. “This was a new friend, and yet she cared so deeply.”

A month and a half later, she discarded her means of suicide, and stopped thinking about it as well.

“Now that I am on the other side, I can see the value of my work and how well metabolized it is,” she said.

Suicidal ideation still tempts her from the edges of her consciousness.

“I still have a penchant for the morose or morbid,” she said. “I still have to work every day to tell myself, “I am beautiful. And I’m a work in progress.”

A new path

The worlds of suicide prevention and suicide post-vention are intertwined. Often suicide survivors become advocates for prevention, not wanting anyone else to go through their loss. Increasingly people who have survived suicide attempts or ideation are becoming vocal prevention advocates too.

Houser, who has been doing post-vention work for 15 years says that, “Often people don’t know how to approach a suicide survivor and have a conversation about what happened.”

But talking can help. “Survivors benefit when they can re-tell their story,” Houser said. “And when they have the opportunity to talk with other survivors.”

Krista Gorrell’s stepson started showing signs of mental illness at age 14. According to Gorrell, he was in and out of psychiatric facilities from age 16 to 19. A few days after his last hospital stay, he killed himself.

Gorrell and her husband knew their son was suicidal. They had seen him struggle for several years. So they were not surprised when they learned he had died. “He had his mind made up,” she said. “He was calm and joyful those last days.”

According to the nonprofit organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, suddenly acting happy and calm can be a warning sign. But Gorrell and her husband were to know that only in retrospect. “For me, I kind of stepped back and limited my work,” she said. “All I wanted to do is run away.”

Her husband, meanwhile, put his head down and dug into his work.

At first, Gorrell was afraid the suicide would tear apart her marriage. But the couple found a way to be there for one another.

She recommends that other survivors be gentle with themselves, and not expect to get back to normal. “You have to discover what is the new normal,” she said. “That takes time.”

Houser agrees that surviving the loss of someone to suicide is an ongoing process, and help and hope are relative. “For most survivors the only thing that would really be helpful is for their loved one to still be alive,” he said. “Everything else pales in comparison.“The pain never diminishes,” he continued. “But over time we build our musculature so we can bear the burden a bit easier.”

“I feel like we are still figuring things out,” Gorrell said.

Two years after her stepson’s death, Gorrell and her husband moved to Victor. They had not looked at their son’s things since his death. “We had to decide what do we keep, what do we get rid of,” she said. “I was shocked by how emotional that was for me.”

Resources

Individuals can receive immediate professional help by contacting the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center at 307-733-2046 (24 hours a day).

If you are at immediate risk or know someone who is, you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911. You can call this number if you are at risk or if you are concerned about someone who is exhibiting suicidal ideation.

Information on suicide post-vention and bereavement can be found at:

afsp.org/coping-with-suicide-loss

suicidology.org/suicide-survivors/suicide-loss-survivors.

General information on suicide prevention may be found at:

afsp.org, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

sprc.org, Suicide Prevention Resource Center

suicidology.org, American Association of Suicidology

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A support group for survivors of suicide meets monthly on the first Wednesday of each month, 6 to 7:30 p.m., Eagle Classroom at St. John’s Medical Center. This peer led group is for family and friends who have lost someone to suicide. You may access the basement classroom through the Emergency Room entrance at the hospital. More information on the group may be obtained by contacting Mark Houser, 732-1161 or at [email protected]

The Teton County Suicide Prevention Coalition holds monthly meetings. For more information, contact Jacob Richins at [email protected] The coalition operates under the umbrella of the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming. PJH


Reporter’s Notebook

Feature writer Meg Daly on loss and suicide.

Readers may know that I am no stranger to depression. The Planet was kind enough to publish my essay on depression a few years ago. I wish I could tell you I was recovered now, but I’ve continued to battle depression off and on. I am faced with accepting that it is a long-term, chronic condition that I won’t ever be entirely “over.” I’m in the camp of depression sufferers who cannot be completely treated through medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.

Depression is one of the main risk factors for suicide. Research shows that mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90 percent of people who have died by suicide. Check one for my suicide risk. Check two is the fact that I am a suicide survivor, the term used for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. One of my best friends, Stephen Blair, killed himself in 2007 in Portland, Oregon.

But Stephen’s was not the only suicide I’ve known. One of my beloved post-college writing teachers killed herself. I’ve known two individuals with terminal illnesses who took their own lives. And a few individual relatives from the past made suicide attempts (though they eventually died of natural causes.)

For myself, suicidal ideation has so far not been a major aspect of my depression. Or, not quite. What has begun to develop in recent episodes is a contemplation of death. The internal pain is so deep and awful, I have at times thought it would be a relief to not be here anymore. I’ve never developed a plan, and I am such a wimp I’d never be able to carry it out. But I truly understand wanting to end pain so badly that the mind turns toward death.

I’m sure my psychiatrist would call that disordered thinking. I don’t argue—it is disordered because when you’re deep in depression all your thinking is totally whacked, revolving solely around a central axis of despair. My psychiatrist was quite concerned about these thoughts of mine, as was my husband and family. These people who care about me are protective factors for me. As are friends, and my cats, and my beautiful backyard looking out across fields at Munger Mountain.

Several years ago a different psychiatrist told me that the silver lining to depression, at least for me in her estimation, was that it expanded my compassion for other people’s suffering. I will say it has been a gift—no other word for it—to have the capacity to hold other people’s stories and pain. One beautiful friend felt safe calling me when she herself felt unsafe, afraid of harming herself. She asked me to take her to the hospital. I felt honored that she would allow me that responsibility, to be with her in her vulnerability and to be part of her self-care.

In fact, I am close to a number of people who struggle with suicidality. Whenever they are going through a difficult time, I am relieved if they will talk with me and tell me how they are feeling. I try to make sure they are safe in the moment, and I ask them to promise to call me if they feel unsafe.

I’m not God (obviously!) and neither is anyone else. We cannot ultimately be responsible for other people’s lives or deaths. But never doubt the power of simply listening, of being willing to be there with someone in the darkness. It really can help someone get through the night or the day.

Because as long as a person is alive, there is still hope. – MD

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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