Understanding suicide

Experts say suicide is preventable.
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Illustration by James Heimer

Joe (not his real name) was 27, married less than a year, college-educated and extremely well-liked at his new job. He struggled with ADHD but managed it with medication and counseling. One evening after drinking, he and his wife shouted harsh words during a heated argument. His wife left home. Friends grew concerned about Joe’s whereabouts that evening and his wife returned home to look for him. She found him hanging in the basement. She called 911, but Joe later died at a local hospital.

“It’s difficult to know what could have been done differently,” said Barbara Hawkins-Palmer, director of the Kent County Health Department’s Healthy Kent community health collaborative.

For every completed suicide there are 25 attempts occurring, she said, with a growing number in the 20-39 age group. Most common methods? Guns and hanging.

The number of Kent County suicides has increased each year, with the exception of
2019, when numbers dropped from 97 to 87, with 46 percent in the 18 to 39 age group.
Hawkins-Palmer recently shared her insight on suicides with Grand Rapids Magazine.

What scares you the most about these trends? Young lives ended — the years of potential life lost and using a long-term solution for a short-term problem. Young brains have not developed fully enough to understand the consequences of their actions. They are impulsive in their thinking. In a Houston study, 153 attempt survivors ages 13-34 were asked about time taken to decide to attempt suicide, 1 in 4 reported deliberating about the suicide for less than five minutes. Nine out of 10 deliberated less than a day.

What are contributing factors to suicide?
  • Undiagnosed mental health disorder, such as depression. About 90% of people who die by suicide have the risk factors of depression and/or other mental health disorders.
  • Inability to change frustrating circumstances or to find a solution to their problem.
  • Feelings of intense emotional distress involving:
    • Anger
    • Anxiety
    • Hopelessness
    • Worthlessness
    • Interpersonal conflict

How can society help?

  • Talk about mental health as a normal part of being human that needs to be monitored and taken care of just like your body.
  • Train medical students on mental health disorders and how to work with patients with these conditions. For years, physicians have treated our body and minds as separate, which has contributed to the lack of parity that we have today.
  • Require insurance companies to cover costs for mental health as they do for heart attacks or cancer.
  • Have media stop using terminology such as committed suicide, successful suicide or any language that stigmatizes those with mental illness.
  • Reduce access to guns.
  • Improve depression screening. Studies show that many people who died from suicide had just seen their medical provider within weeks of their suicide.

What red flags should friends and loved ones be aware of? Notice changes in someone’s mood or behavior for two weeks or longer. It could be physical such as fatigue, loss of energy, sleeping too much or too little, overeating or loss of appetite, weight loss or gain, headaches. It could be behavioral such as crying spells, withdrawal from others, neglect of responsibilities, loss of interest in personal appearance, use of drugs and or alcohol. Or, it could be psychological such as sadness, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, frequent self-criticism, self-blame or thoughts of death and suicide.

What advice do you have for those who may be pondering suicide? Tell someone that you are contemplating suicide. Don’t go it alone. No one is better off without you. Just ask your mom, your dad, your siblings and your friends. Know that suicide is not an option. Seek help. Tell someone you are hurting.

Is there anything we can say or do to change a person’s mind? The myth that if a person is determined to kill themselves, nothing is going to stop them. But we know that even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death. They waver, oftentimes up to the moment, between wanting to live and wanting to die. Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.

Is it wise to tell a person things will get better? Yes, because they do get better. Depression, anxiety and other mental illness is a chronic condition, but it can be managed, and people do live happy lives. Take them to get help from a counselor, psychiatrist or another medical provider.

If you are experiencing a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, not feeling mentally well for two weeks or more, call your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor call your health insurance carrier for a listing of supports. If you don’t have insurance, call network180, (616) 336-3765.

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