Choosing life and strength over suicide

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I was stone-cold sober and doubled over the gutter on Haight Street in the middle of a sunny Saturday, vomiting. The street smelled the way it always does — of piss and trash with the occasional waft of Salvadorean food. It was nauseating. My friends hovered over me, a little embarrassed, mostly worried.

On BART, I announced, “Don’t worry. It’s just morning sickness. It’s awful being pregnant,” as I buried my face in an empty yogurt container and dry-heaved. I wasn’t pregnant, however — not even a little.

A gray-haired gentleman chuckled.

“It only gets worse after they’re born.”

The nausea became unbearable after some jostling on the bus and walking around in the sun.

Between heaving spells, I said, “I guess I should go to the ER.”

I should’ve visited the ER the night before, after shoving handfuls of bone-white Tylenol pills into my mouth from the giant Costco bottle in the dining room. I wanted to die. After I was assaulted that night, it seemed like there was nothing else to do. By far the scariest aspect of depression is that the first thing one loses isn’t happiness, it’s perspective.

I recognize that it’s hard to know what to do when someone’s depressed and suicidal. The painful truth is that there isn’t much that roommates, friends or family can do except let the person know he isn’t alone. They’ll be there to support him through whatever it takes to start feeling better, and they can connect him with resources from suicide survivors and support groups to psychologists and psychiatrists.

Two common misconceptions about suicide are that talking about suicide makes someone more suicidal and that someone intent on committing suicide will find a way to do it, no matter what.

In reality, mental health professionals recommend that if you suspect someone you know is severely depressed and possibly suicidal, ask her directly if she’s thought about suicide. Most importantly, never leave someone who’s actively suicidal alone. Ask her what’s helped her feel better in the past or if there’s anyone you could get in person or on the phone who knows how to support her. Help her set up an appointment at the Tang Center, where all students, regardless of coverage, can get free counseling sessions.

As for the second commonly held misconception, Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus and clinical psychologist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, found that people often pick a specific suicide method but scrap the attempt altogether if it doesn’t go according to plan. In a comprehensive longitudinal study of people who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, Seiden discovered only 6 percent of those prevented from jumping off the bridge go on to commit suicide afterward.

He shared the story of one young man who picked a spot on the west promenade of the Golden Gate Bridge to jump from. The thought of having to cross six lanes of traffic, thus running the risk of getting hit by a car, was enough to delay him until security pulled him from the bridge.

It is precisely this delay that public health officials can capitalize on to create the most effective and scalable suicide prevention measures. Restricting access to suicide methods that involve high lethality and high impulsivity, such as using highly toxic substances and firearms or jumping from tall structures, would significantly cut down suicide rates. In England in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a direct correlation between the number of suicides nationwide and the toxicity level of the coal-gas ovens found in most households. (Placing one’s head in an oven was the most popular and effective suicide method before coal-gas was replaced with cleaner gas alternatives.) In the United States, one critical piece left out of the national debate on gun control is that, in 2010, three out of five American deaths from gunshot wounds were suicides.

Interventions could include storing a firearm in a locked box with the ammunition in another room or building taller rails on bridges. The reason such simple measures could effectively prevent people from committing suicide is that the impulse to commit suicide is ultimately just an impulse. Impulses and emotions pass.

I made it out the other side, and I can tell you from here that things do get better. You’ll find the things that work. You’ll discover the self-soothing thoughts and self-care techniques that help you feel better. You’ll develop tricks to distract yourself when it feels like the world’s collapsing and the perspective to realize that it isn’t. You’ll find better ways to think and respond to emotions until you become resilient and whole. The scars will still be there, but they’re just scars, not open wounds.

I have to confess I still contemplate suicide at times and find it strange when people consider life an inevitability, not a choice. Sometimes it takes strength just to choose to live. For those struggling with suicidal thoughts, know that you’re not alone. There’s help out there, and things will get better. You just have to stick around long enough to find out.

Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @sophieylee.