They’re names we recognize—she, for her iconic line of luxury handbags; he for his mastery of the kitchen and his wry wit and unique view of the world of food, which he explored with abandon and chronicled extensively both on the page and on the screen. But for these two celebrities, the reasons for their names being splashed across the headlines in recent memory is not that for which they had become so well known, but because of one common, tragic thread that unites them: they were both lost to suicide.
Clearly, suicide sees no social status. It doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, famous or “ordinary.” It is blind to age, ethnicity, lifestyle, and gender. It affects everyone, regardless of their background, making it all the more challenging to pinpoint just who might be at risk.
According to statistics from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, someone dies by suicide once every 12 minutes in the US alone, with suicide rates among youth between the ages of 15 to 24 having increased more than 200% in the last fifty years. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death in this age group nationally. In Tennessee, it’s the third leading cause of death among the age group. And despite what you might assume, the elderly claim the highest suicide rate of any other age range in the nation.
It’s mind-boggling to see the numbers and to think about how close they are to home. In the state of Tennessee alone, suicide has been found to be the ninth-leading cause of death, claiming over 1,100 lives per year, according to data collected by the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) in 2017. If you look around, it only begs the question: Whom might you know that may be struggling with thoughts of suicide? Is it a family member? A friend? A co-worker?
Or is it you?
The greatest tragedy of all, perhaps, is that suicide is preventable. The difficulty lies in the fact that it is still such a polarizing subject, one which so many feel uncomfortable discussing. There’s a certain stigma attached, and those words of shame haunt the minds of individuals struggling with the emotions that already war within them, silencing them until it’s too late and they can no longer be helped.
All the more important, then, are initiatives to educate the world about suicide and how to prevent it. It’s crucial to know that there are resources available, that support is within reach, and that—even when there doesn’t seem to be another answer—suicide is not the solution. But it’s also important to know that coming forward and seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.
It’s also an opportunity to find hope. Hope that the darkness will lift and that the future has possibilities, even if you can’t see them right now. The first step, of course, is acknowledging your own struggle.
Fortunately in recent years, more support options have become available, offering greater opportunity for suicide prevention. Among such resources is the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN), actively working to lower the numbers that seem so staggering and inform the public about ways that they can participate in prevention. So active have they been, in fact, that, under the direction of Executive Director Scott Ridgway, TPSN issued a challenge to cities statewide to hold suicide prevention training for their entire workforce; and the City of Clarksville has become the first city in Tennessee to meet that challenge.
Conducted by TSPN’s Zero Suicide Director, Misty Leitsch, the training program—called “QPR for Suicide Prevention” (“Question, Persuade, Refer”)—was completed by nearly 1200 employees of the City of Clarksville over the course of several months. “The QPR mission is to save lives and reduce suicidal behaviors by providing practical and proven suicide prevention training,” Leitsch said in a recent press release. “It’s an established way to train ordinary citizens on how to spot someone in crisis and how to approach them with help.”
he focus on suicide prevention in Clarksville-Montgomery County has also given rise to community involvement in the Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and Families. Formed in response to this initiative, a local team known as the Clarksville Suicide Prevention Alliance is also working with two federal agencies—the Veterans’ Health Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—to identify effective methods of suicide prevention in military communities; and members also recently attended a three-day strategy meeting in Washington, D.C., to develop evidence-based plans to prevent suicide using a comprehensive public health approach.
“We believe that even one death is too many and that every life is valuable, and knowing that one of the top ten causes of death is something that’s actually preventable drives many of us to take action,” says Joey Smith, Public Health County Director of the Montgomery County Health Department. A member of the Clarksville Suicide Prevention Alliance, Smith was among those who attended the meeting in D.C. and came back armed and ready to put his training to use in the community he loves.
There are, of course warning signs, and if you recognize them in yourself or someone you know, it’s important to take action.
As offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs's website, a few signs of crisis include:
Hopelessness; feeling like there’s no way out
Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
Feeling like there is no reason to live
Rage or anger
Engaging in risky activities without thinking
Increasing alcohol or drug misuse
Withdrawing from family and friends
If you find yourself thinking about hurting or killing yourself; are actively looking for ways to kill yourself; are talking about death, dying, or suicide; or engaging in self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse or carelessly handling weapons, now is the time to seek immediate help.
It’s also important to know what to do if you see signs of suicidal behavior in someone else. “Your response is crucial in situations like this,” says Smith. “Stay calm and take it seriously. Never minimize the threat or assume it’s simply a joke or a way of getting attention,” he advises. “It’s also important to discuss suicide openly and directly. Listen. Show your support and concern, and remove objects such as guns or pills that could be used to inflict self-harm. Lastly, make sure that they get professional help.
“Unfortunately, there is a stigma around people getting mental help,” Smith goes on. “To bring that stigma to an end and show support to those who are struggling, we as members of the community need to realize that suicide is preventable and understand that people who are suicidal desperately want to live; they are just unable to see alternatives to their problems.”
In this battle against such a real—yet conquerable—foe, we as a community need to come together and show our love and support to those who are struggling. There is hope; there is help. They need only to realize that they are seen and that they are loved.