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Suicide and the Perspective of Truth

Let’s talk about an obvious truth: Suicide is a choice, unlike cancer. People with cancer don’t make a conscious choice; they don’t take a deliberate action. But people commit suicide.

Over the last two years, two beloved actors died.

We offered genuine respect and love to Alan Rickman, who, it was said, succumbed to cancer. “He lost his battle,” the headlines read.

By contrast, our response to Robin Williams’ death was much less clear. He “committed” suicide. Many headlines added that he hanged himself.

In the suicide-prevention community, many have discontinued the use of the word “commit,” but many have not. I mean, it kind of works, right? This isn’t the year 1800 — we don’t think of suicide as a sin or crime any more. But we do think of it as a choice, as a deliberate action.

Isn’t that right?

Earlier this year, hip hop star B.o.B made the headlines. If you didn’t already know him from songs like “Magic” and “Airplanes,” you may have heard about his epic Twitter feud with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

It started here at Stone Mountain, which overlooks metro Atlanta all the way up to Sandy Springs.

B.o.B tweeted, “The cities in the background are approx. 16miles apart….where is the curve? please explain this. ”

Look, it’s obvious the Earth is flat.

Going back a thousand years, the Earth would in fact have looked downright flat to every one of us. From the every-man perspective, with a limited view, this appeared to be obvious for thousands of years.

Of course, there have always been signs that our limited view as humans was, well, limited. The first clue is that in every lunar eclipse we see the shadow of the earth cast against the moon. And we see a circle.

Tyson also explained to B.o.B that the Foucault pendulum demonstrates that the earth rotates. These clues could have been put together (and were) long before satellites or space travel. The conclusion: The world must be a ball!

Apparently, this was way too much looking through a glass darkly and didn’t persuade B.o.B. He believes the pictures of the round earth are the CGI creations of a conspiracy, and, in reality, most humans have not seen this view with their own eyes.

However, we could try to change his perspective. Instead of 16 miles across, let’s go one more mile. Let’s make it 17 miles — but straight up. Now, the curvature of the great, great big planet begins to emerge. The “Aha!” moment.

See also: Blueprint for Suicide Prevention  

In life, we don’t always get the 17-mile perspective. Sometimes we fall one mile short. What seems obvious could not be more wrong, and sometimes, unlike with B.o.B’s tweets, there are consequences.

I wish we could zip up 17 miles to see the true perspective on suicide, but it’s going to take some faith. Let’s look at the clues and what doesn’t fit, like that nagging circle shadow of the Earth on the moon.

The approach I describe in the caption sounded really good… until the moment the platform underneath me dropped away. I was immediately slipping on the bar, struggling to hold on, my hands sweaty. I doubled down on my grip, but, quickly, my muscles began to ache, and my forearms ballooned like Popeye’s. The pain intensified as the seconds passed.

I relaxed my breathing and went to my happy place (a beach in my mind with gentle waves lapping). That strategy was good for a couple seconds, but it still didn’t work.

Finally, I was simply repeating to myself, “Hold on one more second, one more second.”

It was a long way to fall, so I desperately wanted to hang on. But I could not. Gravity and fatigue forced me to succumb to the pain.

You can watch my embarrassing fall. (YouTube Video).

Pain is not a choice

Many of us somehow think we’ve experienced enough pain through the normal ups and downs of being human that we have at least some insight into what leads people to suicide. One of America’s top novelists, William Styron, said, Not a chance. His book, “A Darkness Visible,” about his own debilitating and suicidal depression, is titled after John Milton’s description of Hell in “Paradise Lost.”

No light; but rather darkness visible
Where peace and rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end

One of our most talented writers ever, Styron said his depression was so mysteriously painful and elusive as to verge on being beyond description. He wrote, “It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced extreme mode.”

If you haven’t experienced this kind of darkness, anguish, the clinical phrase “psychic distress” probably doesn’t help much. Styron offers the metaphor of physical pain to help us grasp what it’s like. But, frankly, many with lived experience say they would definitely prefer physical pain to this anguish.

Putting the Clues Together

So, some of you are thinking, I get what you are saying, but my loved one didn’t fall passively. I’m sure they were in pain, but they took a deliberate action. They pulled a trigger. They ingested a poison.

So, let’s put these two clues together but reverse the order. The pain. And the response.

After my first marathon, when my legs had cramped badly, I decided to try an ice bath and jumped right in. I bolted. I was propelled. Exiting the tub filled every neural pathway of my mind, and my hands and body flailed as if completely disconnected from my conscious decision-making process.

My example references an acute pain, but extend that into a chronic day-over-day anguish that blinds the person to the possibility of a better day. Perhaps people do not choose suicide so much as they finally succumb because they just don’t have the supports, resources, hope, etc. to hold on any longer. Their strength is extinguished and utterly fails.

See also: Employers’ Role in Preventing Suicide  

Is Suicide a Choice?

The every-man perspective is that suicide is a choice. Robin Williams committed suicide. And it’s the hand of the taker that is completely responsible for the choice and deliberate action.

It seems so obvious. But it’s the limited, 16-mile perspective, the one we all have, and it’s one mile short of the truth.

Someday, we’ll have the space-station view — and with it the solutions to create Zero Suicide.

But, for now, it’s time we study the signs, trust the clues and be brave to stand behind them.

Here’s a different headline:

“Robin Williams lost his battle. Tragically, he succumbed and died of suicide.”

Loving, respectful, true.

When you can’t hang on any longer, you can’t hang on. As I watch the video of my fall on Fear Factor, it looks like my right hand is still holding on to an invisible bar. I never, ever stopped choosing to hang on. But I fell.

Believe the signs. Change your perspective. Use your voice. Let’s change that great big beautiful round planet we live on, and let’s do it together by doubling down on our efforts to help others hold on.

Stand Up for Robin Williams. . .

On Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, we lost Robin Williams. He was a brilliant actor and comic…a man most of us grew up with. We knew him as a funny guy, an alien, a genie, a nanny, an inspirational teacher and so much more. We also knew he struggled with depression, addiction and possibly bipolar disorder.

Collectively, we grieve for his loss. Williams had an uncanny ability to make us smile. Even when playing more dramatic roles, he brought light, laughter and inspiration to our lives.

We grieve, too, for thousands of other people who have died by suicide. Fathers, mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, brothers…suicide isn’t just about the person who dies. Its painful ripples spread far and wide, affecting every one of us.

We believe every suicide death is preventable, that not another person should die in desperation and alone. Those with behavioral health challenges like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have suicide rates 10 to 15 times greater than the general population. Yet, millions survive, and many find a way to thrive. Recovery is possible!

The bitter irony of Williams’ death was the support he gave for another disease that takes lives: cancer. Williams was a strong backer of St. Jude’s Research Center and Stand Up to Cancer. He would visit cancer patients, sometimes in their own homes, bringing joy into lives that would invariably be cut short, just as Williams’ was.

The cancer prevention movement has been so effective in getting people involved – in prevention, in fundraising, in advocacy.  Now many people – whether or not they’ve been directly affected by cancer – Stand Up in solidarity to help fight the battle. They stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are fighting for their lives? They stand to honor those who’ve passed with dignity. They got people like Robin Williams to lean in, and say, “I care. What can I do to help?”

The suicide prevention movement can learn a lot from the successes of the cancer prevention movement.

How has the cancer prevention movement achieved its goals? It advanced science and promoted stories of hope and recovery. Those who want to stand up for suicide prevention can do this, too.

As Dr. Sean Maguire in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Williams counsels Matt Damon’s Will Hunting on life, love and grief before telling him, “Your move, chief.”

Now it’s our move. Let’s honor Williams’ memory, and that of every person who has died by suicide, by making suicide a thing of the past.  What can you do to Stand Up for suicide prevention?

  • Reach out and ask others who may be going through difficult life challenges, “Are you okay? What can I do to support you?” Let them know they are not alone and that you can help them link to resources.
  • Promote the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) everywhere – schools, workplaces, faith communities, neighborhoods.
  • Volunteer and participate in suicide prevention work like community walks, town hall meetings, crisis line support and more.
  • Donate to suicide prevention organizations.
  • Learn about the real facts about suicide and the strategies that have been shown to prevent it.
  • Then bring others into the circle – your healthcare providers, your employer, your educators and so on. Elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority.
  • Ask your healthcare plan and provider to join you.

As a society, we’ve stood up for so many other important things. It’s time for us to stand up to suicide.

When we all stand up and move together, we create a movement. Together, our voices can create significant change in systems, in policy, in funding and in the general view of suicide. We can restore dignity and offer hope and empowerment and save lives.

This article was written by Sally Spencer-Thomas with four other members of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:

  • David Covington, LPC, MBA, Recovery Innovations and Zero Suicide Advisory Group
  • John Draper, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The Way Forward Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force
  • Mike Hogan, Hogan Health Services and Zero Suicide Advisory Group
  • Eduardo Vega, Mental Health Association of San Francisco and The Way Forward Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force

#standup2suicide #zerosuicide #wayforward