The strongest people are those who win battles we know nothing about.Unknown
Leslie Weirich’s son Austin had so much going for him. He was a standout student, athlete, and leader in high school and then went on to play football at Wabash College. In college he received an academic scholarship, managing to balance football with a full social life. He was also a son who made time to FaceTime with his mom for 45 minutes on a Friday afternoon and later call his dad to talk about sports and weekend plans. Austin was also great at hiding the pain he felt inside.
Until September 10th, 2016, when he died by suicide, devastating family and friends. September 10th also happens to be World Suicide Prevention Day, first established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization with a goal to “create hope through action”. While suicide deaths are gaining more attention in communities as well as the media, suicide rates were on the rise well before the start of the pandemic, increasing 36% from 2000-2018 according to the CDC.
Suicide, long a taboo topic, is finally being discussed more in schools, news outlets and communities. Many advocates believe that talking about suicide can be key to prevention and are working to reduce stigmatization those affected by a suicide loss may feel. Much like an outwardly healthy person can be stuck by cancer, suicide can sometimes be just as insidious.
Such was the case with my friend Candice’s brother Charles when he died by suicide three years ago. Candice shared that her brother was successful and happy, working as Chief Investment Officer for an investment firm, with an active social life in his adopted hometown of Dallas. “I can’t even explain the pain,” shared Candice when reflecting recently on her loss, “It’s a shock and trauma to the entire family.” Especially when, “not everyone acts suicidal.” Charles death was entirely unexpected, and while Candice, her siblings, and parents have always been close, she admits, “there may be a lot we may not have known.”
Candice, as well as advocates like Austin’s mom Leslie who created Leslie’s Hope, share insights worth noting as we mark World Suicide Prevention Day:
Suicide can happen to anyone. When Leslie lost her 20-year-old son six years ago, she was completely blindsided. It took years to process her shock, eventually leading her to raise awareness of how suicide can affect anyone, sharing in a 2021 ABC news interview: “We have to get people to realize that suicide is the great equal opportunity offender. It does not care what zip code you live in, it does not care the color of your skin, your background, your socioeconomic group, it impacts us all.”
Those struggling to find answers also need support. One of the hardest things Candice and her family had to grapple with was accepting that there was no clear explanation for Charles’ death. “We spent a lot of time trying to understand it, and unfortunately the answers were not there. Losing someone in such a tragic manner took a long time to come to terms with.” And, as Leslie and other advocates point out, a loss due to suicide affects dozens of other people impacted by the death. Providing support to those who’ve experienced loss is crucial. As Leslie points out, “How you handle the aftermath of a suicide can prevent future loss of life.”
Respect the privacy of someone who’s experienced a loss due to suicide. While awareness of and compassion for those affected by suicide is growing, the complex and often surprising nature of suicide can lead to speculation and can be sensationalized in the media. This is particularly true when a high-profile individual has died by suicide and respect for loved ones’ desire for privacy is often ignored. As Ashley Judd shares in her New York Times essay regarding her mother’s death earlier this year: “Family members who have lost a loved one are often revictimized by laws that can expose their most private moments to the public.” More than anything, survivors of a loss by suicide want others to focus on how the person lived, not how they died.
If you are a parent, friend, coach or teacher and concerned about someone’s mental health, it is important to be direct and not be afraid to ask how they are feeling and if they are suicidal. It’s worth them being upset, and you could potentially save a life.Candice Warltier
Connect with others. Even those who appear to be doing just fine. Candice’s loss has helped her realize the value that connection with others has on overall well-being. “It can be difficult to see, and I believe that mental health is equally important as physical health.” She points out that her brother, a single, successful, and social man in his late 40’s, was not very open about his feelings. Candice is parenting a young teen, and she is encouraged to see more awareness and dialogue happening in schools.
According to a March report from UCLA Health, “Socially, teens and young adults don’t have the same connections older adults do… Individuals who are self-reliant and consider that among their strengths may have difficulty asking for help.” And getting more people to talk about this topic is something Candice endorses. “Mentors, parents, coaches and teachers all need to understand it (suicide) and normalize discussion about it,” she says.
Candice is pleased to see more resources becoming available around mental health. One example is the rollout in July of a new hotline number for anyone in distress who can simply dial 9-8-8 and reach someone if they need to talk. However, she points out that brain health research is woefully underfunded. “The brain is a complex organ, and there’s so much we don’t know. There needs to be more funding put towards researching the brain and mental health in general.”
As we started the Language of Friendship blog to encourage connections important to our mental health, this resonates. We hope it does with you as well.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The Language of Friendship encourages you to nurture your friendships and your mental health, and reach out to anyone in your life that could use a boost this month. For further resources on suicide prevention, visit here or here.