EDITOR’S NOTE: I try to keep the blog focused on stuff to do with the books, journalism, student media and more, following that 70-20-10 rule of blogging, with only 10 percent being some form of personal or promotional thing. In most cases when I do, I ask you to feel free to skip the post
But not this time.
Please read this. It’s probably more important than anything else I’ve posted.
His name was Tyler and he was a teenage boy. He and my daughter Zoe dated for a bit before deciding they’d just be good friends.
They were in the same classes, talked about the same things, had the same fears, pondered the same concerns.
Saturday morning, he messaged Zoe a picture of himself smiling.
She messaged him back, explaining she was rushing off to work after oversleeping.
“Good luck,” he wrote back. She later was told that was the last thing anyone would hear from him.
Later that day, he died by suicide.
Shock became grief. Grief became pain. Pain became regret. All of this washed over my kid. As a parent, I was at a total loss. All any parent wants to do is take away whatever is hurting our kids. I couldn’t do that.
What I could do was what I’ve always done as a journalist and educator: If I didn’t know something, I went looking for people who might.
Nicole Bogdas is a former journalism student of mine who has worked as a Crisis Intervention Specialist, answering calls for Lifeline, for four years. She has her master’s of social work from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
She also understands suicide prevention and the importance of speaking publicly about mental health issues in a distinctive way. When she wrote a newspaper article about a decade ago that detailed her own struggles, I found it to be one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen.
I never knew she dealt with these issues, something that seems like an unfortunate par for the course in our society. I thought about last week’s post about the mental and emotional health issues students are facing these days as they try to navigate school, student media and life in general. I know that for every Claire Hao who is willing and able to say something, there are so many more people living on the edge of the worst of things, teetering into the point of no return.
I asked Nicole to write something for the blog today, not even knowing what to ask for. All I knew was that I was feeling hopelessly lost in all this and someone way smarter than I am needed to say something to help someone in some way. Seeing what this situation has done to our daughter is just devastating to Amy and I. I don’t imagine we are alone in this, nor can I imagine how much harder this is on Tyler’s family or the families of other people who have died in this way.
Below is Nicole’s post on this topic. At the end of it is contact information for several services that could save someone’s life. Please take the time to read her words. I hope they help you or someone you know.
I’ll be back next week, hopefully with more weird journalism and educational lessons to share.
Read the following word and think about how it makes you feel: Suicide.
It’s a scary thing to think about. It’s a scary thing to talk about. But there were more than double the amount of suicides than homicides in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is also the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34.
You’ve read the word. Now say it out loud: Suicide.
How does that make you feel? Was it harder? It’s harder for a lot of people, but saying the word normalizes the word. Not the behavior, just the word. In fact, many suicidal people are relieved to hear the word as it brings the subject out into the open; the person suffering no longer has to do so in silence. So, get used to saying the word.
Another phrase to consider is “committed suicide.” It’s probably unconscious to most people, but that words implies a crime is happening; it creates shame. It’s why we need to use the word with people we care about. Use suicided, took their own life or died by suicide instead.
(For more on language and journalism related to suicide, visit Reporting on Suicide)
Changing your language is only one way help reduce the stigma surrounding suicidal ideation and mental health in general. Looking out for the warning signs of suicidality and starting a conversation with the person you are concerned about can be scary, but it’s also courageous. How do you know if someone is struggling?
Here are just a few of the behaviors that might be exhibited by someone who is having thoughts of suicide:
Withdrawing from loved ones and isolating. This is due both because many people who are suicidal feel like a burden on their loved ones. It also has to do with the aforementioned stigma, and relates directly back to the need use straightforward language.
Making preparations. This takes many forms. The most common is writing a suicide note. Don’t let that fool you, many “notes” are electronic now. Giving away possessions is another warning sign. Texts to friends, comments on various social media platforms. In adults, this could look like taking out a life insurance policy or drawing up a will. People having trouble sleeping and experiencing an increase in anxiety can also trigger or indicate thoughts of suicide.
Losing interest in things they once loved. Any significant shift in behavior or mood should be considered a red flag. You might ask yourself, “What if these changes are attention-seeking?” Or “Teens are so dramatic anyway!” Here is where you change language again, but also reframe the situation to better understand why those behaviors are happening.
Attention-seeking implies there is something wrong with the person who’s changed. You might begin to think they’re high maintenance. Or perhaps you feel like your child is just going through a phase. Forget attention-seeking. These people are SUPPORT-seeking. But there’s that pesky word no one wants to say again: Suicide.
Say it now. Say it to anyone you care about that you think is struggling.
Talking is a good start, what happens next? Do what is called “removing access to lethal means.” What does that look like? Lock up your guns or give them to someone not in the home. If you do nothing else remove your firearms. The majority of suicides that result in death involve a gun. Men are more likely to attempt this way. Parents, kids are wily. You might think you’re the only one with the code to the gun safe, but are you sure? Securing ammunition and firearms in separate locked boxes is another step you can take.
Lock up all the medications. This is the most common way to attempt and most often used by women. Sharp objects, ropes and belts should also be removed.
How do you get your friend or family member help? If the risk is imminent, call the police. Ask for a CIT-trained officer. That stands for Crisis Intervention Team, and they are trained to respond to behavioral-health related calls. If you are in a different jurisdiction than the person at risk, you’ll have to look up and call their police non-emergency number as dialing 911 will only connect you to your police department.
Most counties have what are called Mobile Crisis Units. They provide medical care, safety and some kind of mental health care worker like a counselor. MCUs can do many things and it varies by jurisdiction. Usually they will talk to the person in crisis and work with everyone to assess the next best steps.
Mental heath urgent care centers are becoming more common. Some places will hold people for 24-hour stabilization. Some let you see a psychiatrist or a therapist upon arrival. If you do not have access to this, or the threat is imminent, but the person is safe with you, take them to the hospital. Just the regular emergency room. At that point there will be stabilization and discussion of whether inpatient care would be beneficial for your friend.
What will happen if they are admitted? Every hospital is different. In general, they will be stripped of all belongings that will be secured safely during their stay. The unit will most likely be locked. They will be assigned a psychiatrist and a social worker. The floor is probably staffed by nurses. There will be mental health programming via individual and group therapy throughout the day. Your loved one will have access to a phone.
If the crisis is not immediate, do what you can to help your loved one set up appointments or get connected to local services. You can do this by calling their insurance company or, for free and low-cost options, visit FindHelp.org. Do what you can to walk them through this process, they are likely exhausted and possibly could be having trouble with cognition.
What might be even harder to say than “suicide” is “my loved one died by suicide.” Suicide grief is unlike any other. When people age, we expect death. When people are in an accident, it’s just that: an accident. When people die by suicide it is not an accident and those left behind often shoulder a lot of self-imposed blame. You wonder if you could have done more. You wonder why they didn’t reach out to you.
But suicide is NEVER your fault.
And now you know what to watch for and how to start a conversation.
If you have more questions or need support in any way, you can call Lifeline: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You do not have to be suicidal to call. You should also make sure your loved one has the number saved in their phone. Soon, you will only need to dial three numbers to be connected.