By CRAIG FREILICH
In recent weeks, a former Olympic sprinter who admitted to doping and was found dead of an overdose, the death ruled a suicide; a New York City teen struggling with domestic issues stepped in front of a train and died; and several gay teens from different spots around the country have ended their own lives.
There is nothing new about suicide, and no prospect of halting suicide in our society, but therapist Daniel Hernandez, as one who counsels people on death, dying and bereavement, wants people to understand suicide better.
That way, those who might be thinking about suicide can get help, and those who remain, including those who have to cope with the 10 reported suicides in St. Lawrence County in 2009, can deal with the web of emotions after the death of a loved one.
“I hope to generate thought and discussion of suicide so people will get help if they need it,” Hernandez said.
Statistically, the highest rate of suicides is not during the winter holidays, as most people think, but in April and May.
Last year in St. Lawrence County, there were 10 suicides reported by the Coroner’s Office, Hernandez said. “Those numbers are traditionally conservative.”
“Suicide still carries a high degree of stigma and shame. These are among the reasons that people don’t get help. Sometimes people will put the blame on families,” Hernandez said, and families sometimes desire to hide the facts of a suicide.
The highest suicide rate is among 15- to 24-year-olds. This group, Hernandez says, gets involved “in a lot of high-risk behavior. They have a lot of impulsivity and might lack coping skills.”
The rate is next highest among people 65 and older, “and the higher you go, the greater degree of suicide.”
The idea of suicide as a sin or a crime “has shifted over the years. Historically, the state could seize the property of people who committed suicide. In some states suicide is still a crime.”
In his profession, Hernandez says, “we no longer say a person ‘committed suicide.’ What we tend to say is that a person ‘died of suicide.’ It’s as more of a disease..
Suicide is frequently associated with depression, “but a lot of people are diagnosed with depression who never even think of suicide. You can’t automatically say that people who are depressed are thinking of suicide, but there is a relationship there we have to watch out for. When people come to us who talk about their depression, we always ask if they are having thoughts of suicide. We always want to ask that question, because the most common mental illness among suicides is depression, but you can’t assume that people in depression want to die of suicide.”
Hernandez’s counseling practice in Canton includes group sessions for people who have had a loved one die of suicide, and he has written about the impact of suicide on the those around the person who has died.
“Every day approximately 90 Americans die of suicide and each death impacts between 7 to 10 individuals,” Hernandez said.
“It is often assumed that the worst kind of death related loss is the death of a child. When a child dies, it assaults our belief in the innocence and potential of children. As parents, the death of a child is our worst nightmare; we are not supposed to bury our children. The death of a child also impacts the parents who often live with the guilt that arises from a feeling that they have failed as parents. There is no doubt that the death of a child is a profound loss and difficult to overcome.
“However, a more complicated type of death related loss is that of suicide. Survivors of suicide have a very unique grief experience that is different than any other type of loss. When someone takes his or her own life it can be viewed as the ultimate rejection of the surviving family and friends. Survivors ask themselves, ‘Did he or she not love me enough to stay alive?’ This experience can lead to complex issues around abandonment.”
Hernandez says that coping with the suicide of a friend or family member can be difficult for a number of reasons.
“Suicide is sudden, unexpected and untimely. These factors can create a traumatic experience for survivors. Some survivors have to cope not only with the loss itself, but also with the consequences of discovering the body. Survivors cannot begin to cope with the death until they first process the trauma.”
Hernandez says that those left to cope with another’s suicide “need a special forum to talk about their loss. A general support group experience does not meet the needs of survivors. Because of their unique grief experience, they cannot relate to others in general bereavement support groups. Additionally, because of the stigma of suicide, survivors often experience less support within their community than do survivors of other types of death. They often feel stigmatized because of our societal views on suicide. Survivors of suicide experience fewer opportunities to talk about their loss and often go through their bereavement experience unsupported.”
Hernandez is currently leading such a group, on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at Hospice and Palliative Care of St. Lawrence Valley, 6805 Rt. 11 in Potsdam. The next session is on Oct. 20.
Hernandez says family members and friends can find themselves wrapping themselves in blame. “There is a greater degree of guilt and anger resulting from thoughts of ‘I should have seen it coming.’ Survivors often feel that they caused the death or could have prevented the death if they would have only taken some kind of action.
“The ultimate question that survivors of suicide ask is ‘why?’, and the harsh reality is that they will never get an answer to their question. A death by suicide is complex and traumatic and there is never an easy answer.
“In my 15 years of working with survivors of suicide, I find that their bereavement experience contains strong feelings of resentment, anger and loneliness. It can often tear apart family units because of the need to blame others for the cause of the death.
And, Hernandez says, the vulnerabilities created within families and communities can actually “place family members and communities at a greater risk for another death by suicide. Experts who study suicide believe that some individuals may become extremely angry at the person who died and take their own life as a way of getting back at them. “Experts also believe that in the greater community there may be individuals who are contemplating suicide and when they hear of a death by suicide it confirms their decision to take their life.
“Suicide cuts across race, age, social and economic stratifications. No one is immune and we are all at risk of being impacted by such a loss. Education and awareness are important ways of taking steps to prevent suicide. It is important that we take the time to reach out and help individuals who may be thinking of ending their lives and be sensitive to those who have suffered a loss due to suicide.”
Hernandez points to these local resources: If you would like information on suicide and suicide awareness you can contact the Suicide Awareness Coalition of St. Lawrence County at 265-2422. If someone you know is thinking of suicide and you need assistance call the REACHOUT CRISIS HOTLINE at 265-2422. If you are a survivor of a death by suicide and need counseling call Loss, Grief and Life Transitions at 854-0051.
Here is information Hernandez has prepared for a fact sheet, “What You Should Know About Suicide:”
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SUICIDE
By DANIEL HERNANDEZ
Each year in the United States, 33,000 individuals die of suicide. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 65 years of age.
It is also the fifth leading cause of death among those 5-14 years old and is the third leading cause of death among those 15-24 years old.
Risk factors for suicide among the young include suicidal thoughts, psychiatric disorders (such as depression, impulsive aggressive behavior, bipolar disorder, certain anxiety disorders), drug and/or alcohol abuse and previous suicide attempts, with the risk increased if there is situational stress and access to firearms.
Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.
Warning Signs of Suicide: Suicide can be prevented. While some suicides occur without any outward warning, most people who are suicidal do give warnings. Prevent the suicide of loved ones by learning to recognize the signs of someone at risk, taking those signs seriously. Warning signs of suicide include:
• Observable signs of serious depression:
Unrelenting low mood
Anxiety, psychic pain and inner tension
• Increased alcohol and/or other drug use
• Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks
• Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die
• Making a plan:
Giving away prized possessions
Sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm
Obtaining other means of killing oneself such as poisons or medications
• Unexpected rage or anger
(Warning signs are from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).
The emotional crises that usually precede suicide are often recognizable and treatable. Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed. Serious depression can be manifested in obvious sadness, but often it is rather expressed as a loss of pleasure or withdrawal from activities that had been enjoyable. One can help prevent suicide through early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses.
For local support you can contact the following resources: If you would like information on suicide and suicide awareness you can contact the Suicide Awareness Coalition of St. Lawrence County at (315) 265-2422. If someone you know is thinking of suicide and you need assistance call the REACHOUT CRISIS HOTLINE at (315) 265-2422. If you are a survivor of a death by suicide and need counseling call Loss, Grief and Life Transitions at (315) 854-0051.