Today (September 10) is World Suicide Prevention Day. In general, I am not a big fan of “prevention” as it relates to illness; I think it’s somewhat misleading. I prefer the term “risk reduction.” However, I can understand why it’s called prevention. If any of these awareness days lead to lives being saved, then I am fine with whatever they are called.
My daughter took her own life 15 months ago after a 13-year struggle with anorexia nervosa, and there are days when I still can’t believe that she went through with it and that she is no longer here with us. Her suicidal ideation was a black cloud hanging over our heads for a long time. It darkened our world and made us live with an apprehensive sense of fear, anxiety, and dread that sat in the pits of our stomachs and forced us to live on constant high alert. It’s a horrible way to live as parents, and it doesn’t even come close to the pain and suffering that my daughter herself experienced every single day.
One of the first things that I learned about eating disorders is that they carry the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. I assumed that this was due to medical conditions related to malnutrition; it never occurred to me that many of these deaths are due to suicide. It wasn’t until my daughter developed severe depression alongside her eating disorder that I truly understood how intertwined suicidality and eating disorders are.
It’s difficult to talk about suicide. Some of us were indoctrinated with the belief that suicide is the ultimate sin, and that someone who takes his/her own life has no place in the World to Come. To me, this belief showcases an utter lack of understanding about mental illness and only serves to perpetuate stigma that cruelly hurts those who are already severely wounded.
My daughter’s pure and beautiful soul was tortured. She fought the impulse to take her own life for years. I know that she only chose to leave this world because she thought that her presence here was too much of a burden on those who loved her. This compounded her pain and made living unbearable for her. As deeply as I grieve her death and my heart is ripped apart by the agony of her loss, I also didn’t want her to suffer anymore. No mother can be at peace while watching her child live in merciless pain. It’s beyond tragic when the only alternative to your child’s pain is your own grief.
It’s a common misperception that talking about suicide will cause someone who is suicidal to act upon their thoughts. Research has shown that discussing suicide with someone who is suicidal may instead reduce the risk of suicide. It can help to open a dialogue with someone who is suicidal, to express your support, and to assess how serious the risk is.
My daughter’s psychiatrist explained to me years ago that suicidality is a spectrum that ranges from “I wonder what the world would be like without me” to an actual suicide plan. Where a person falls on that spectrum is a predictor of how likely they are to take their own life.
My daughter would never tell me that she was having suicidal thoughts; she would tell me that she wasn’t feeling well. That was her way of letting me know that she needed me to be with her for a while and distract her. My heart plunged every time she came to me and told me that she wasn’t feeling well, knowing that her mind was in a dark, twisted place and that her life was at risk, but I was grateful that she was fighting the impulse and giving me the opportunity to help her in whatever way I could.
One of the things that keeps people with suicidal ideation alive is connection to others. It’s hard to connect with someone who is depressed, and there are times when he/she may not react to you at all, but it’s important to try and stay connected however you can, even through small gestures. If you know someone who may be at risk for suicide, let them know that their presence in your life is meaningful. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you are concerned and worried about them; it sends a message that you care, that they matter, and that they are important to you. These are vital messages that have the power to keep someone alive.
Everyone out there needs to know the warning signs of suicide. It is also important to know when professional help is needed and where to find that help. If in doubt, always err on the side of caution.
I strongly believe that keeping suicide in the dark isn’t doing anyone any favors. When people say that we are brave for being so honest about our daughter’s suicide, the underlying implication is that we should be keeping it a secret because it is something that we should be ashamed and embarrassed about. I take offense at that sentiment. There is nothing about my daughter’s life, or death, that has ever made me feel ashamed of her.
The most authentic way that I can honor my daughter’s memory is by bringing eating disorders and suicidality into the light, where they can be seen, recognized, and best treated. My daughter was all about helping others in her life; out of a deep sense of love and purpose, we are carrying on her legacy by trying to help others through her death.