Suicide Culture Shock

In a new report out this June, the Center for Disease Control says that suicide rates have increased in almost every state. In 2016, nearly 45,000 people died by suicide, making it one of the top ten causes of death in the USA. With the high profile deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within the span of a couple of days, suicide is trending on social media.

I wonder if we are waking up to a suicide culture. I wonder if we are in shock. I wonder if we are experiencing suicide culture shock.

What does it mean to be part of a culture where suicide rates are on the rise? How do certain aspects of our culture contribute to the increased deaths by suicide? And more importantly, what can we do as a culture to save lives, to prevent deaths by suicide?

In the CDC report, there are seven suggestions for what communities can do to change this culture of suicide.

  1. Identify and support people at risk of suicide.
  2. Teach coping and problem-solving skills to help people manage challenges with their relationships, jobs, health, or other concerns.
  3. Promote safe and supportive environments. This includes safely storing medications and firearms to reduce access among people at risk.
  4. Offer activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.
  5. Connect people at risk to effective and coordinated mental and physical healthcare.
  6. Expand options for temporary help for those struggling to make ends meet.
  7. Prevent future risk of suicide among those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

Number four stands out as one of the most subtle yet deadly characteristics of our suicide culture: people feel disconnected and alone. The good news is that as humans we are wired for connectivity. The bad news is that we’ve come to rely too heavily on technology to satisfy our innate desires for human connection and belonging. And in some important ways, it isn’t working out too well for us.

The fact that we are wired for relationships, we know now, is being dangerously used by corporations for profit at the expense of the fragile bonds that connect our human family. Our suicide culture is reinforced by the technology that draws us deeper into our devices (software engineers call this strategy “brain hacking”) and further away from deepening our core relationships with a few close friends and family.

Originally Facebook was created to “bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.” But what if instead, as research has shown, addictive behaviors associated with the use of social media actually contribute to creating a suicide culture …a culture where we feel even more disconnected and even more alone.

As the CDC report also says, there is no one single cause of death by suicide, (such as mental illness) but many complex factors (loss of job, physical illness). Likewise, there are many different factors in our culture contributing to increased rates of suicide. This is complex.

How can we intentionally change our culture, choose to be countercultural when it comes to suicide? What if we started small, by making an effort to connect more deeply with the people right around us?

As folk singer Carrie Newcomer says, draw a three foot circle around you and begin there…begin by connecting with the people three feet around you. It could be that by paying closer attention to those in front of us, that we are better able to bear one another’s burdens, and share the heavy load. When we intentionally and attentively engage with and nurture the people around us, we choose a radical, countercultural way of living.

When we choose to pay attention to the three feet around us, we are saving lives. We know that we can do more as a culture to prevent suicide. The question is, when the suicide culture shock wears off, and there is a new round of stories on social media getting our attention…will we be able to break free of this culture of suicide?

We can all start now by focusing on the three feet around you. Share love and hope with these people immediately around you…#savethreefeet. I’m going to give it a try because there’s just too much to lose.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 in the USA. Text 741741 to the Crisis Text Line

#savethreefeet #suicideprevention

When It’s Time for “The Talk” About Mental Illness

Today my eight year old son heard a different story. All along we’ve told our child the story of how his grandpa Griffith was a great animal doctor who loved taking care of people’s pets. This is true. We told our son that his grandpa died before he was born, and that grandpa was a good person and would be very proud of his grandson. This is also true.

It is important for me as a mother that my child first hears the story of the blessing of his genetic inheritance from his maternal grandfather: love of creation, love of learning, love of healing, love of life.

Today it was time for my son to hear a different story. Today, just as causally as you’d talk about what happened at school, I told the story of his grandpa’s illness. I told the story of when grandpa’s brain got a sickness and how it changed all of our lives.

It was time because my son began to tell himself and us a story that I knew wasn’t true. Projecting his own life story onto me, he innocently said something about how much I must have enjoyed spending time with my dad. And that’s when I knew it was time to tell a different story.

I didn’t use the technical term “bipolar disorder.” I decided to just talk in a clear and simple way.

“I actually didn’t spend that much time with my dad. He was a great animal doctor. But when his brain got sick, we didn’t spend much time with him. My mom got a divorce and we moved away to live with grandma. I was about your age.”

He looked up at me silently. Then I said, “In our family we need to take special care of our brains because so many people in our family have a brain illness.”

He went onto play with our dog who this whole time was laying right beside him. He said, “I love you sweet girl” to the dog.

A little bit later I added, “You know, today I am going to yoga, then to meet with my counselor and then my personal trainer. I do all of this as a way to help keep my brain healthy.”

I knew the day would come when I would start telling my son a different story. Today was the day.

He is ready to know this story. As he begins to face his own mental health challenges with worrisome thoughts, he is ready to learn coping skills. He is ready to know that it’s not his fault that he has worry.

It is a bittersweet day. As I reflect on this experience of telling a different story, it feels a little bit like peeling off the cover layer of our family crest, and underneath the pretty pictures, finding something less organized, less shiny, less perfect.

It feels vulnerable and it feels right. My hope is that by telling these different stories we can let him know that he comes from a loving and creative family that is blessed with beautiful minds that need attentive nurturing and care. The gift in breaking the silence about mental illness with the next generation is that it equips us with awareness of warning signs of symptoms and motivates us to focus on prevention.

I am grateful for today and the gift of telling the different stories with care, compassion and without fear.

Where Was God?

By Linda Pelfrey, guest blogger

In a conference on mental health in faith communities, author Sarah Griffith Lund asked “where was God?” in a mental health or family crisis.

Here is my personal answer:

God was in the puppy who snuggled with me when voices got loud and scary.

God was in the kind sisters of the church who brought dinner when Mama or Daddy were in hospital. (Even when we said we liked Daddy’s cooking better.)

God was in the music that lifted the spirits of a little girl who felt lonely even in a crowd of people. God spoke beauty and hope through all those songs.

God was in the books and characters that provided a safe place for a child who possessed limitless imagination.

God was in the Grandmother who prayed unceasingly for all of her family.

God was in the beauty of springtime and birdsong.

God was in the silly laughter of a child who found humor in the darkest of circumstances.

God was in Mama’s hands when she brushed “rat’s nests,” out of a little girl’s head who didn’t know yet how to “act like a lady.”

God was in the delicious food Daddy cooked because it was his way of saying what he could not speak into words.

God guided Daddy’s heart when he had to answer the question: “what does blind mean?”

God was in the moments when being a blind kid meant being ignored or teased.

God was in my New York Grandma and aunties who protected me while teaching me how strong I was.

God was there to touch my face and dry my tears when I learned any child I might have could be blind or sick in some other way.

God is in all the children God sends into my life: showing me that family isn’t always defined by blood.

God is in the people who say they don’t know if they believe; yet, God is in them any way as they show up as friends.

God is in all the people who cross my path, and sometimes pick me up and carry me when I fall.

Thank you God for puppies, music, sisters in the church, Grandmothers and every way you show up in my world.

A little background about me:

My brother and I were both born blind. We later learned that it was probably the result of my mother’s exposure to dangerous chemicals as a child. (She grew up in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls where toxic waste was buried under homes and a school.)

As an adult, I see the courage it took for my mother Sandra to battle a mental illness along with numerous illnesses. She passed away at age 45.

Me today:

I am Team Leader at church, and rotate as Liturgist.

I work as a Receptionist at Goodwill/Easter Seals.

My passion is a radio show my brother and I co-host where we review film with a focus on how disability and race are portrayed.

Follow my blog.

From Sarah Griffith Lund:

I’m happy to host Linda Pelfrey’s blog as my guest. We met in Dayton, OH and she is a person with a powerful story to share.