Surviving suicide: The power of storytelling
When professionals interested in suicide prevention discuss suicide, a lot of data gets tossed around. The suicide rate in the United States increased by 35 percent from 1999 to 2018. It is the 10th leading cause of death. Approximately 48,000 Americans die by suicide each year.
However, there is one statistic that rarely sees the light of day.
- For every one person who dies by suicide, there are 280 people who move past serious thoughts about killing themselves.
That data point is the most compelling of all because it shows suicide is not inevitable. People can — and do — get beyond it.
The power of talking
It is well-documented that sensational reporting on suicide can be detrimental. But the opposite is true as well. Sharing positive stories has a beneficial effect. Studies have found that the reporting of individual suicidal ideation followed by recovery was associated with a decrease in suicide rates.
That means there is opportunity for individuals to share personal stories of recovery. Institutions have a responsibility as well. The media, for example, have a vital role to play in changing the conversation about suicide. Healthcare champions also can get the positive word across. There is help and hope.
- Of those who attempt suicide and survive, more than 90 percent go on to live out their lives.
Kevin Hines’ story is remarkable. Born premature to a mother with a substance use disorder, Kevin moved from family to family in foster care until he was finally adopted into a loving home. At the age of 17, he started experiencing mania and psychosis. At the age of 19, feeling insurmountable despair in a world he felt didn’t care, Kevin jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. He survived, one of the 1 percent to do so.
Studies have found that the reporting of individual ideation followed by recovery was associated with a decrease in suicide rates.
Those survival odds suggest he is meant to tell his story, and that is what Kevin has done as a world-renowned author and speaker — to instill hope, which for him, “means everything”. “It’s the starting point for all humans,” he says in a conversation with Beacon Health Options. “People need to have hope in their lives to move forward. I have locked onto the idea that even if I can’t see or feel the hope, I know it’s there. Sometimes you have to work really, really hard to have that hope, but the hard work will pay off.”
When someone is in the moment of a life-and-death decision, hope seems impossible. Kevin’s advice for that person — in that moment — is not to keep the moment to oneself. “In that moment of suicidal crisis, be bold and tell someone who can empathize with you because a pain shared is a pain halved. As a person who lives with regular thoughts of ending my life, I know I’ll never die that way because I say four but effective words to everyone around me: ‘I need help now’.”
A pain shared is a pain halved.
Kevin’s wife, Margaret, is often that person — but not the only one — he relies on for when times get tough. However, Margaret says caregivers need to learn how to “reach in” as well. “I think it’s important to ask the direct question. ‘Are you thinking of suicide?’ ‘How are you feeling today?'”
However, the communication isn’t one-way only. “Caregivers have to show their own vulnerability,” she says. “Vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness, as it opens you up to receiving more — honest communication, more empathy, more kindness and love. . . I give him permission to speak and a safe space to speak.”
Margaret adds that caregivers should prepare themselves for what they may potentially need to do if they hear something really dire from their loved one. “Be prepared to ask the question and don’t be afraid. Give your loved one — or even a stranger — the permission to speak the truth.”
That support, of course, must extend beyond the moment of crisis, and Margaret’s overriding advice is to take care of yourself because “you can’t give what you don’t have”. She also says not to give up, yet to know your limits. “Find what resilience is for you. Finding your inner strength is key,” she says. Finally, be sure to have an extensive support network. For Margaret, it’s her large family, but it can be a therapist, a neighbor, a doctor, or of course, friends.
Give your loved one — or even a stranger — the permission to speak the truth.
Kevin’s parting words are to remember that each and every one of us has a story, and some stories may not be easy to hear.
“We need to be kind, compassionate, loving, caring and empathetic to every person we come in contact with, no matter their behavior towards us, because you don’t know what they’re going through.”
To learn more about the Hines’ suicide prevention work, visit the Kevin & Margaret Hines Foundation website.
The most important thing you can do is to help your loved one get needed care. If you or your loved one is in a crisis and needs help immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-someone-else online. These services are confidential, free and available to all.