SUICIDE: For Those Left Behind, For Those in Pain, and For Those Who Can Help
Perhaps the most tragic and devastating event a community or family can experience is the suicide of one of its members. On October 8th, a young man took his life outside of a fraternity house in Corvallis. While it is unknown who this young man was or why he felt the way he did, it is nonetheless an important time to stop and reflect on the rise of suicide around the nation, its potential causes, and the means of preventing future tragedies.
Ten years ago a Corvallis family’s life was changed forever by the sudden suicide of a beloved son, Daniel Bain. He was a college student at Western Oregon; he suffered from mild depression and assured his mother in a phone call that he would never kill himself. But despite his claim to the contrary, Daniel was deeply depressed. He took his life without telling anyone, with no forewarning, no typical signs, and Linn Bain, sitting at work, lost her son.
At the time, she had been a counselor for fifteen years; she thought she was aware of the signs, but when Daniel took his life it came as a shock. It changed the lives of his friends and family forever; they were simply not prepared for it—and how could they have been? Since then Bain says she has seen, on a daily basis, students around Daniel’s age who are struggling with loneliness, alienation, and sorrow.
Bain started meeting and talking with others who had lost loved ones; they realized there were no local support groups for the survivors of suicide victims. With the help of others, Bain started a local group—Suicide Awareness and Prevention. Over the past six years, over 60 people have attended the group’s meetings, and members have distributed hundreds of pamphlets on awareness and prevention. There have still been tragedies in Corvallis, but this community has lost fewer since the founding of Bain’s support group.
While efforts like those of Linn Bain provide the necessary grassroots support for individuals who have fallen through the cracks, organizations like hers face a litany of challenges, not least of which is actually finding those who need their help. The difficulty of reaching the right students and getting them to attend workshops cannot be overstated. And it necessitates community awareness.
Suicide Awareness and Prevention has held meetings at many venues and tried numerous titles to appeal to those in need, but ultimately very few show up. This is surely a sign that information is not being passed on by those of us who might be best placed to let a person in pain know, “help is available; you’re not alone, and you don’t have to be ashamed.” When a member of the community is in pain, they need to be made aware of groups like Bain’s.
Suicide Awareness and Prevention has copies of their materials, cards and pamphlets, dispersed around campus. Every week some get picked up, keeping hope alive that they are reaching students in need. They are also trying to reach students online through social networks.
But it will take more than just passionate people like Bain. Trying to find the people in need in a large population takes significant resources, staffing, and time. This is where institutions like Oregon State University can play a vital role in organizing, funding, training, and facilitating better suicide and mental health awareness in the broader community.
According to Steve Clark, the Vice President for University Relations and Marketing at OSU, the university has expanded its efforts to provide counseling and psychological services to students for just that reason.
OSU has hired a second psychiatrist for their campus outreach program, Counseling and Psychological services (CAPS). Clark said that when there is a tragedy like the one earlier this month, CAPS is able to be on site as quickly as possible—within minutes this time, offering assistance and grief counseling to friends, family, and in this case fraternity brothers of the young man who died. The program also offers support and assistance to OSU faculty and staff who may have been affected by the event or who just need encouragement in general.
OSU has also embarked on an initiative designed to help inform individuals of good mental health practices, as well as signs to be aware of in themselves and others that indicate poor mental health. The university has increased the number of speakers, events, and lectures that take place in and around campus related to mental health awareness.
OSU recently hosted Sopranos actor Joey Pantoliano, who spoke about his battles with depression, and the stigma of mental health. He talked to students and faculty about how he deals with these issues, and encouraged them to take steps to help themselves and to be accepting of those on campus who are suffering from depression.
Speakers like this can help spread the message that one does not have to be ashamed when one is depressed or hurting. And it is incumbent on the rest of us to be supportive and understanding of others who are in pain, even when we don’t understand why they are in pain. When asked “why?”, people who attempt suicide often respond that they felt alone, isolated, misunderstood, or generally not cared about. We as community members must strive to provide an environment that is accepting and accommodating, else we are complicit in these tragedies. Hurtful words delivered casually can strike deeper than bullet or blade. They can drive a person teetering on the edge, over. But in the same way, a simple smile, kind word, or comforting gesture may bring a person back from the edge long enough to get the help they need.
Individuals like Daniel and the young man who died on October 8th were part of our communities—it is our responsibility to be aware of the mental health of our community members, and when they are in need of help we must act. We can be that shoulder to cry on, or a warm and supporting smile that brightens the day of someone who badly needs it; and we must let the right people know.
Vice President Clark agrees, “As Corvallis residents and OSU community members we should be on the lookout for others who may be suffering and be informed enough to let them know that there is help available.”
The recent tragic event at an OSU fraternity is unfortunately all too common on college campuses and in cities big and small all around the nation. According to research from Dr. Ian R.H. Rockett, a Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at West Virginia University, the rate of death by suicide increased by 15% between 2000 and 2009. Suicide is now ranked as the primary cause of injury mortality in the US, above car accidents, accidental poisoning, falls, and violence-related deaths.
In an ever-connected digital age this is simply unacceptable. We may know who needs help, yet so often we turn a blind eye. Over the last ten years despite becoming more connected, even more of our community members have taken their own lives. Even more have felt disconnected, isolated, and alone.
While I am a fierce digital advocate, I do have to wonder if our accelerating inter-connected lifestyle isn’t leading to social isolation for a great many. Vice President Clark phrased the issue well when he said, “This is a weird world we live in, it’s very fast and frenetic, and people communicate by facebooking and texting. I think we need to engage in more face to face communication, go physically visit a person. Context tends to be missing in most digital communications, potentially anguish and sorrow as well. It may be time for us to slow down a little and talk to a people face to face or at least by phone. Even with a voice call you can hear sadness and sorrow that might otherwise go missed in text.”