When suicide becomes personal

With so many people dying from suicide, the United States should refocus mental health efforts.
With so many people dying from suicide, the United States should refocus mental health efforts.

My wife and I often work together on presentations for PA and other conferences. I'm a physician assistant, and she's a medical librarian – we attempt to connect the provider and medical librarian roles in order to help providers find the best information available upon which we all base our high-stakes decisions.

We recently gave a presentation on suicide prevention resources at the Washington Academy of Physician Assistants fall conference. It was a wonderful experience to connect with so many PAs who care deeply and want to identify the best tools available to help them address this epidemic.  

Our close friends recently lost their son to suicide, and it blew us all away. He was a wonderful young man, full of life and humor, just like the rest of his big family. He was the youngest child and held a special place in his mom, dad, and siblings' lives. I met him on several occasions, and he was one of the warmest, most magnetic people I've ever met.

He and some of his friends were perpetual outsiders in their high school, clinging to each as they worked to find their identities in the midst of artifice. They did so with grace and great humor. They created a special language, including identifying people who are very much into their hair as “Hair Masters,” as in “that dude is a total Hair Master.” That made me laugh hard when he first told me about that. I've never forgotten about how funny he was, even though I saw him infrequently.

When he died from suicide, I saw how hard it was for his family, many of whom my wife and I consider our closest friends. It basically knocked them all to their knees, as though they'd been hit in the back by a 2-by-4.

Recently, my wife and I joined local family members in an event sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention called “Out of the Darkness.” It was attended by more than 1,000 people in Seattle, and included mingling, a few speeches, creating a memory board with pictures of those lost to suicide, and a 1 to 2 mile walk in their memory.

It was a punch in the gut to be there. Being with our friends and all of the other people there was moving, knowing that all of them had been left in the horrific wake of suicide. People carried pictures of their departed loved ones during the walk. It was hard to look at the smiling photos of so many suicide victims, to look into the eyes of people posing and mugging with family members, and to think that these wonderful, smart, beautiful people had so much pain in their lives that they had to end it the way that they did. It was hard to remain composed in the face of such raw emotion.

After the event, my wife and I wondered aloud about what can be done. It's a complex issue to be sure, but it's alarming and even shameful to think that a country such as ours has not figured out how to provide important mental health services to people considering suicide. We have the will and the resources to wage major wars, create massive infrastructure, build new and opulent condos in the same city where this event was held, yet we cannot find a way to provide the mental health support and services needed to keep those lost to suicide here among us. Something is very, very wrong with that.

The strength of our dear friends as they participated in this event, and the strength of all of the family members wearing t-shirts with pictures of their dads, moms, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends who succumbed to the terrible wave of suicide...that strength  needs to drive all of us who practice medicine into a mode of urgency. We need to better identify these people, assist them and their families, and look for ways to shift the allocation of resources from the frivolous priorities that so often drive our economy to saving these lives.

Until then, I'll always remember the departed young man who made me laugh every time I saw him and who cracked me up with his insightful banter and magnetic warmth. He should still be here –  but he's not, and that's so wrong. So here's to him and his Hair Masters, to his family, and to all of those who have been left in the wake of this terrible epidemic. We've got some work to do.

Jim Anderson, MPAS, PA-C, ATC, DFAAPA, is a physician assistant in Seattle.

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