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National Suicide Prevention Week, and Our Responsibility to Our Loved Ones

A few weeks ago, The Guardian published a spellbinding and devastating piece on suicide.  In “A Brother in Trouble,” (, acclaimed Scottish novelist John Nevin depicts his brother Gary’s terrifying descent into depression and unresolved anger.  Gary’s mental illness destroyed him: He hung himself in his hospital room, “just yards away from the nurse’s station.” Nevin’s presentation of Gary is agonizing—and relatable.  “His head would forever be filled with conversations he couldn’t finish or resolve,” he writes, “and his life would become a themeless narrative, one that it was impossible for him to shape.”

This article was given to me just days ago, perhaps in part because it’s National Suicide Prevention Week, perhaps because this friend knows I watch the contours of my own mind with acute awareness.  Maybe my friend alerted me to the piece because she knows I’ve dealt with suicide on a deeply personal level.  Whatever the case, Mr. Nevin’s candid essay floored me.  It also forced me to ask why people commit suicide.

Those who are at risk, and those who commit suicide, have become victims of their own minds.  Let me clarify.  No one is born unhappy.  Unhealthy, yes, but not unhappy.  We are emotionally whole from the moment we enter the world.  We are, however, vulnerable to internal and external forces.  Some of us are hardwired for depression and anxiety; some of us are prone to addiction.  Others are victimized and abused.  What suicidal people have in common is finding themselves entangled in situations—mental, emotional, financial, physical, or otherwise—that seem impossible to escape and settle.  They can’t find their way out.

John Nevin describes his brother as such: “A person, I remember thinking (and God help me), who had ever but slenderly known himself.”  This is an apt portrayal of a suicidal person, whose brain is at war with itself.  For all of the internal conflicts they battle, those who are suicidal have stepped too far away from their intuition and their true selves.  They are imprisoned by their minds but they’ve stopped knowing their own minds.  Their brains have become their worst enemies.  They’re crippled by shame and regret and gloom and an overwhelming feeling that they will never find a solution; they feel they will never experience happiness again, even fleetingly.

It’s a toxic state of mind but it is escapable.  It requires the delicacy, compassion, knowledge, and expertise only a professional can supply.  That said, the risk factors for suicide are common.  If you witness any of the following in a friend or loved one, I would encourage you to urge them to seek help:

-Dramatic changes in the individual’s eating and sleeping patterns.

-A lack of interest in participating in activities they once enjoyed.

-Withdrawal from others.

-Substance abuse.

-A preoccupation with death and suicide, and expressing feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness.

-Erratic, reckless behavior that could lead to death.

-The disposal of personal possessions, and calling or visiting friends and family members to wish them goodbye.

For more information, please visit the American Association of Suicidology’s Risk Factors:

I’ll leave you with this: I once had a friend who, like Nevin’s brother, dealt with feelings of inferiority, rage, and disgrace.  He was convinced he couldn’t separate himself from the unbearably high expectations his parents had placed on him when he was a child.  He couldn’t find his way out of the financial hole he’d found himself in.  He couldn’t differentiate the house he owned that was being foreclosed on and his worth in the world.  He couldn’t understand his wife’s indiscretions.  He was one of my friends, and he was all of my friends at their worst.  He couldn’t, he couldn’t, he couldn’t—and that’s precisely where his mind stopped and his heart halted.  He died by his own hand.

In one of his last messages to me he wrote, I’m certain this ends one of two ways.  Either I die many, many years from now never having known happiness, or I die very, very soon, never having known happiness.  It shot me through the heart.

“Suicide,” Nevins writes, “is a cluster bomb.  A daisy-cutter.  It levels everything around it. Actually better to say it is a nuclear bomb – for it entrains a chain reaction with an incredibly powerful half-life.  A chain reaction of questions that go on forever: “Why?  Could it have been different?  Better?  Could I have done more?  If I’d sent that cheque, transferred more money.  What if, what if, what if…”

Let’s make a commitment to not allow those what ifs to cross our minds.  Let’s make a commitment to pay attention to those in need—to show them love, empathy, and a reason for living in their greatest time of need.  We owe it to them, because we owe it to ourselves, and the world.

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