Discussing suicide is tricky. I know because I do it all the time.
I am a survivor of suicide loss, and I am not alone. There are 33,000 deaths by suicide in the United States every year. It is the 11th leading cause of death, and for young people between the ages of 15 and 24, it is the third leading cause of death. There are approximately three suicides every day in Los Angeles, and suicide accounts for more deaths than homicide.
Despite these statistics, suicide is still misunderstood by many people. Suicide deaths are rarely publicized by the media (unless the person who died is a celebrity), and the stigma associated with suicide prevents many survivors from talking about it. I am working to change that.
In 1993, my 26-year-old son Stephen took his own life on the beach near our Santa Monica home. Stephen’s suicide came less than a year after he experienced a serious psychotic break. Stephen had been a brilliant student — a graduate of Yale, with an additional degree from Cambridge and a law degree from Harvard. He was ready to start his law career, and had a new wife. The world seemed to be his for the taking. But on a trip to Europe, Stephen experienced his breakdown. He was highly agitated and unable to function, seeming to drift in and out of reality.
Stephen began therapy and psychiatric treatment. But he struggled for months to deal with the after affects of his breakdown, bipolar disorder, and the serious depression that had taken hold. Despite the severity of his illness, I never expected Stephen to die by suicide. I thought he would be treated and come out of his depression. I realize now I did not know enough about suicide to understand the risk factors or the warning signs. I did not know what could happen to Stephen.
I am not alone in this. There are survivors all around the world who never stop trying to understand what happened to their loved one. Research shows that 20 percent of us will have an immediate family member and more than 60 percent of us will know someone who dies by suicide. Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. It can effect people of any age, and often goes undetected.
Today, more than 15 years after Stephen’s death, I understand there is no one to blame for his suicide. I understand because I got help from the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center, which helped me to cope with the pain of Stephen’s suicide.
Now I do all I can to make sure other friends and families who have lost someone to suicide get the help and support they need. And I work hard to try to prevent what happened to Stephen from happening to anyone else. I am a co-facilitator for Didi Hirsch’s “Survivors after Suicide” bereavement support groups, make presentations throughout the community, and am an original member of the Didi Hirsch Suicide Response Team, which collaborates with the Los Angeles mayor’s Crisis Response Team to provide immediate support for survivors at the scene of a suicide. I believe strongly that survivors like me need to talk openly and candidly about our experiences, and that we will never erase the societal stigma of suicide unless we talk about it.
How can you help? Educate yourself. Understand the nature of suicide and its causes. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide suffer from one or more psychiatric disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Alcohol or substance abuse frequently plays a role — 50 percent of people who attempt suicide are intoxicated at the time.
Most important, understand the warning signs, which are present in four out of five suicides. They include making statements of hopelessness and helplessness; threatening suicide; giving away possessions and putting one’s affairs in order; a decrease in the ability to function; an increase in risk-taking behaviors; social or emotional withdrawal; and writing or drawing about suicide or death. If someone you know is exhibiting any of these signs don’t wait — ask for help. Call the Didi Hirsch Crisis Line at (877) 727-4747.
As a survivor, and as chairman of the board of Didi Hirsch, I believe that suicide prevention is my most important role. I know that through services like suicide prevention hotlines, communities can save lives. This year, calls to the Didi Hirsch 24-hour crisis line have gone up by an astonishing 60 percent. But thanks to the tireless volunteers who provide support and counsel to callers in pain, and friends and family who understand the warning signs for suicide, and refer their loved ones for appropriate treatment, suicide can be prevented.
Stan Lelewer is a survivor of suicide loss and chairman of the board at Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center. September is suicide prevention month.