Suicide Prevention - we don't have to be experts, we just have to care
September 20, 2010
- 'Care for your buddy as I was cared for by mine,' says Soldier
- 'We don't have to be experts, we just have to care,'
- ASIST training helps open dialogue
FORT POLK, La. -- I've stared at this blank canvas -- the open page on my word document program -- on and off for hours. I haven't been idle, though. In between frustrated backspacing and vacuous stares, I've responded to e-mails, answered phone calls, arranged coverage of installation events and myriad other duties that compose the majority of my work day.
I know exactly what I want to get across in this commentary. I'm a journalist, so I usually have no trouble putting words together. But today is different, perhaps because what I want to write about is personal and close to my heart; perhaps because it's something many of us would prefer to ignore. It's too painful, too shocking, too grief-invoking, too taboo a topic even in today's progressive society.
Suicide. In 2006, it was the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 33,300 deaths, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And in the Army population, this year suicide has become the third leading cause of death. But statistics are too sterile. They do little to depict the tragedy, the ugliness, the shocking brutality of suicide ...
My first exposure to suicide occurred when I was an impressionable 14-year old, when a close family friend committed suicide in a way that shocked even medical authorities. Suffering from depression, bereft at the dissolution of his marriage, my father's friend repeatedly stabbed himself until he bled to death, at first puzzling the investigating police who thought a murder had taken place. His act was beyond my comprehension. For months, I experienced sleepless nights imagining the pain he must have felt to end his life in such a horrible way. How could anyone fail to see that pain' How did his family and friends miss his cries for help' Even now, years later, when I think of him, it haunts me to imagine his final moments.
Almost 30 years later, my mother passed away at the ripe old age of 57 after a years-long battle with bipolar depression, a mental illness that carries with it a high suicide rate. Even the medical examiner suspected that she had committed suicide. The fact that she actually died of heart failure did nothing to erase the weeks of uncertainty my siblings and I spent sick to our souls, wracked with guilt that we didn't do enough for her, that somehow we didn't hear her cries for help, that we should have taken better care of her. And we didn't know how we'd live with the burden.
Five years later, as my brother-in-law lay dying of pancreatic cancer; my sister told me she would kill herself after he died. There was no point, she said, in going on without her husband, the love of her life, the man she had depended on since the age of 17. Her words gnawed at me, and I knew then that we both needed help.
Upon the advice of a Fort Polk chaplain, I took the Army's suicide prevention course -- Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST. The training taught me that it was vital to open a dialogue with my sister, that talking with her honestly about suicide was not going to put her over the edge. What a novel idea that was 10 short years ago. And when I next spoke with her, after a few awkward minutes, our words flowed. There was relief on her part, I think, that I wasn't responding with a trite phrase like "Don't talk like that," or "You have too much to live for." I listened and I cared. Through her own perseverance and strength, and with the help of qualified medical professionals, my sister is doing just fine now. I am grateful for that, and I am grateful for having taken ASIST training.
The topic of suicide continues to touch my life -- in ways that inspire and move me. Through the years I've worked at Fort Polk's Public Affairs Office, I've met some courageous people who have shared their stories with me. They've spoken openly about their struggles with suicide and suicidal thoughts ...
There was the Fort Polk Family member who took an overdose of sleeping medication, seeking relief from her mental anguish. She never expected to wake up, but she did. She got the help she needed and was eager to share her story. She wanted to let others know that there is hope, there is relief from pain, there is help for those who feel they are facing insurmountable challenges all alone ...
There was the Fort Polk Soldier, thriving now, who survived a suicide attempt because his battle buddy removed the firing pin from his rifle. His message: Speak up, speak out, get help and care for your buddy as he was cared for by his ...
Most recently, there is Jamie Flowers, an Army spouse who also works at Army Community Service. Jamie's father passed away when she was 16. Two years later, in June, 1997, Jamie's mother died. Jamie sought comfort with her younger sister. "We would lie in bed together and hold hands, but we never really talked about it." In August, Jamie left for college. But without her mother, without her sister's comfort, Jamie felt she had lost her anchor and emotional support. Jamie went to college feeling frightened and alone.
"I had no one to depend on. I felt I had lost everything in my life that I loved and I didn't know where to go for help," she said. Soon the depression set in. "I just wanted to be with my mom and dad. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up."
Jamie used her faith to keep herself alive. "I'd tell myself that suicide is a sin, and if I did it, I would never again see my mom and dad. And, IAca,!E+think the thought of leaving my younger sister alone stopped me. She is my strength." Still, Jamie had a plan ready. "I always had the means to commit suicide nearby (pills). I had a note ready for my roommate. I wanted her to tell my siblings that I died of a sickness, not suicide."
After professional counseling, Jamie worked through her anguish, but some hurts can linger a lifetime.
"IAca,!E+got married in 2004 to a Soldier, and that has been the best thing that's happened. He's allowed me to talk and to cry and he's been willing to listen. But every deployment, and there have been four, brings back my feelings of loss. Every time he leaves I feel that emptiness inside," she said.
But Jamie is one determined woman. Now working on a degree in psychology, she says that the "best is yet to come." She also felt strongly about using her name for this commentary in the hopes that she can be a source of strength to other military spouses.
Jamie, too, has taken ASISTAca,!E+training, and it's been of huge help, she said. "I don't ever want to go back to that place, that river of suicide. If I do, I'll never get the chance to be a mom, a sister, a Dr. Flowers. I feel now that I know what steps to take to get the help I need. There are no guarantees that I won't get depressed again or suffer from anxiety, but I am never going to contemplate suicide. IAca,!E+have too much to live for."
Jamie said that she often gets called "a hooah Army wife. But really, I am just a human being. I never want anyone to feel as if they are treading water or on the edge."
And from someone who's been there, Jamie offers this advice to other spouses who may be suffering from depression, anxiety or have had suicidal thoughts: "Find someone to listen to you. Don't be afraid to talk to someone. Talk to your spouses, close friend, a chaplain A,AA,A-- just find someone! And don't let anyone dictate to you how you should feel. Reach out to other people," she said ...
I will never forget these people. I keep them close to me, for in many ways they've changed my life. I'm obligated to them now for the trust they have placed in me. They've shared with me -- with us -- the most intimate details of their lives in the hopes that they can offer help and hope to someone else. They have shown me that courage wears many faces and the most tragic, the most trying of times can be overcome. Most of all they have taught me that all of us have a responsibility to our neighbors, coworkers and friends. We can all be advocates for suicide prevention. We can all help to reduce the number of suicides in our Army Family by watching, caring and acting. We have to -- it's our responsibility. We don't have to be experts, we just have to care.
Remember the acronym ACE: Ask, Care, Escort. If you suspect someone is contemplating suicide, ask that person about it. Care for that individual by taking away the means to commit suicide A,A-- car keys, weapons or medication. Escort the person to behavioral health, the chaplain, or a supervisor. Get that person to qualified, professional help as quickly as possible.
If you're interested in ASIST training, call Larry Bryant, Fort Polk Suicide Prevention Program, at 531-6187.