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CNN’s Town Hall on Suicide Offers Hope

No one should feel shame in suffering from depression or in having suicidal thoughts

There were many thoughtful moments last night in Anderson Cooper’s moderated town hall on the subject of suicide.

It was very moving to hear Jimmy Hatch, a Navy Seal and veteran of many firefights, talk about how “they don’t give medals” to someone for driving you to the psychiatric ward.

Men in this country, who are three-to-four times more likely than women to take their lives, need to recognize that there is nothing weak about being depressed or suicidal.

It takes strength, not weakness, to reach out to someone and to admit you need help in these situations.

And there is indeed a heroism to those who have the clairvoyance to sense when someone is in a danger zone and to help them when they are experiencing suicidal ideation.

Like Hatch’s Navy Seal buddies, my father, as I wrote in my last piece, detected something was awry with me in 1997 after he and my mother had checked me out of the USC psych ward.

Thankfully, he questioned me and made sure to stay in our hotel room, which may have saved my life, since I was thinking about jumping out of a window.

I was also moved last night by the composure of Jane Clementi, who discussed with poignancy the difficulty of “transitional” moments for people, such as when her late son, Tyler, was starting college just after coming out as gay.

Studies have shown that young people in the LGBTQ community are more likely than their peers to be bullied, including in cyberspace, and to be suicidal.

It is also true that anyone who is perceived to be different is more likely to be targeted by bullies and perhaps even to be suicidal.

I am reminded of one of the lines from Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” when Dylan wails, “I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

Similarly, when asked what he wanted to do in his life, Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, who is alienated not only from his parents but also from his own generation, says, “I wanted to be… different.”

In my case, I have never tried, nor wanted, to be different. I have just always been different, which in the past led me to be ostracized by bullies and even bystanders, who wanted me to conform to their style.

As Mrs. Clementi said, we have to turn bystanders into “upstanders,” who intervene and speak up in those perilous situations where someone is being ridiculed, humiliated and hazed.

If not kept in check by the rule of law, kids, as well as adults, can inflict a Lord of the Flies tyranny and evil on their peers, who don’t adhere to a prescribed code.

In last night’s program, I was also heartened to hear Jordan Burnham, a young man from Philadelphia, speak about how grateful he was to be alive after surviving a plunge out of a ninth story window.

As I indicated in my last piece, 90% or so of suicidal people are “ambivalent” about taking their lives, as Dr. Edwin Shneidman, who co-founded the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, wrote in The Suicidal Mind.

Moreover, a Cal-Berkeley study showed that roughly 90% of people who attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge were alive about 20 years later. All of those survivors who were alive 20 years after jumping off the bridge said that they regretted their decision essentially when they were in mid-air, on the way to the water.

These are some of the reasons why we need to make it difficult for people, who sometimes act on impulse, to take their lives.

In addition to nets and barriers on bridges, we need to keep guns out of the house; and we need another individual, a responsible party, to distribute pills to a person who might be suicidal or who takes opioids or a similarly powerful medication, on which he or she could overdose.

All of the moments and stories in last night’s town hall were compelling, but the most salient for me came early on in the program when Jessie Close, who had been suicidal decades ago and who was in the town hall audience, said that it is the “responsibility” of a suicidal person to reach out to others.

That is what Ms. Close, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, did many years ago when she reached out to her sister, Glenn, much lauded for her performances as an actor in many films.

The reason why I found Jessie Close’s diction so salient is because if we are to help the suicidal person, we need him or her to understand that he or she has the power not only to get help but also to get better.

I know that some people do not like the use of the verb, “commit,” in a discussion of suicide, but I will continue to use it, not because I am trying to be provocative. Rather, I will use the word, “commit,” because, if we refer to the act as “death by suicide,” we may make the family members of the deceased feel better, but we strip away the “responsibility,” or what some clinicians refer to as “agency,” that is absolutely needed if a suicidal person is to get well.

“Death by suicide” makes it sound as if the suicidal person had no choice, that he or she was helpless to ward off the illness of depression.

In fact, we can overcome what seems to be a doomed fate and biology through the power of free will.  We can harness that free will to surround ourselves with love, to avoid stressors, to work in a field that gives us satisfaction, and to reach out to others when we are not feeling safe.

Knowing that we have the power to shape our own destiny should give everyone hope.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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