or release Friday July 09, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Learning About a Taboo Topic: Suicide
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series looking at depression, mental illness, religion and suicide, rising out of an upcoming documentary on Hallmark Channel, Aug. 22 for which Ms. Davis served as lead writer.
For the past two years my office colleagues and I have been on a challenging journey, one we didn’t really choose. We have been dealing with a topic that no one wants to think, talk, or learn about—until they have to, and that is the topic of suicide. On the flip side, suicide is something that most people think about doing at one point in their life, whether seriously or not so seriously.
The organization I primarily work for, Mennonite Media, has been producing a TV documentary on the aftermath of suicide. It doesn’t really deal with prevention—there are many other films, videos and documentaries dealing with that important topic. There are far fewer resources dealing with the aftermath—what happens to survivors—the friends and families left behind? There are even fewer resources from a faith perspective: what happens when a person of faith takes their life? What happens to them—or their soul? Is it condemned to hell just because the person was mentally incapable of seeing other options?
The documentary, Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide, is scheduled to air in the U.S. on Hallmark Channel (Sunday August 22, 12 noon ET/PT and 11:00 a.m. CT). My next three columns will explore various aspects related to depression, mental illness, and suicide out of interviews for the documentary: courageous people who bared their souls on an extremely difficult and personal topic.
Suicide is something that touches almost every one, every family, in one way or another. Everyone, it seems, unfortunately, knows someone who has ended his or her life by suicide. Which brings me to the first thing I learned when I first began researching this topic: we really need to stop using the phrase, “committed suicide,” as though suicide were a crime, like committing larceny. That term is very painful for survivors. It is less painful to hear “died by suicide” or “ended their life by suicide” or other phrases which don’t use the word “commit.”
Statistically, there are about 31,000 people who end their life by suicide every year in the U.S. If you figure that each person has 20 people closely affected by their death (close family, friends, classmates or co-workers) then there are 620,000 new people closely affected by suicide every year. Many times close family members are affected to the point of taking their own life. So learning about and studying the effects of suicide among survivors is a very real preventive among a group at increased risk.
Learning about the tenacity of survivors to cope with so great a loss and go on to help others avoid the devastating, rippling out effects of suicide is a very hopeful thing. The people who participated in the documentary were all, in one way or another, reaching out beyond their own pain to help others. They have learned that reaching out is in itself personally healing for themselves and others.
Dr. Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.), says that depression, schizophrenia, and manic-depressive illness are three of the top five mental illnesses that lead to 90-95 percent of all suicides. The good news is that all of these diseases are very treatable. The bad news is that you have to stay on the medication. Complicating factors include reactions to medications, people needing therapy in order to be willing to stay on medication, and sometimes, doctors prescribing medications too quickly and then not monitoring patients closely enough regarding side effect—such as suicidal tendencies. Dr. Jamison, herself, is manic-depressive and once tried to take her own life. She believes strongly that people can and should get help for illnesses that often remain hidden and undiagnosed. Sometimes people fear the branding that happens when people hear someone has or had an illness of the brain. As the mother of one young man who ended his life said, “When somebody has cancer, we don’t blame them for becoming ill. But for some reason it’s easier to blame someone when they have a mental illness.”
Next time we’ll look at some stories of families who struggle with the aftermath of suicide.
For more on this topic visit the website prepared for the documentary at www.fiercegoodbye.com
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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