Recently the Moab Sun News featured a front-page article entitled “Noticing the signs of those in need.” The article focused on increasing awareness of mental health, substance abuse and suicide risk in the area. Individuals mentioned in the article included Amanda Macintosh from the Utah Health Department, Kelly Vagts LCSW from Grand County Schools and Dr. Mack and Dr. Becker from Moab Regional Hospital. The article examined some of the reasons for the national increase in suicide rates. Causes of increased rates of substance and self-harm in children were also discussed, including intergenerational trauma and poverty. This article not only highlighted problems, it offered solutions including training. Offered were two workshops hosted by MRH including a “QPR” certification in suicide prevention. I felt encouraged by this article until I read the last paragraph. The final words of the article were: “suicide is 100% preventable and can happen to anyone.” I was dismayed to see that this statement is still being promoted.
As a long-time professional in the field of mental health, I continue to be highly disturbed by this message. This is not the first time I have reacted to it, but I feel obligated to do so again. Over the course of almost 40 years, I have had clients who have committed suicide, as well as individuals evaluated in the ER, guests in motels, neighbors and friends. In the case of almost every suicide, the individual was or had been in treatment. Many had been hospitalized and were on medication. Family members were involved and wrap-around services were provided. One young woman who I knew personally, ended her life despite being on a highly supervised secure unit of a state psychiatric hospital. Individuals have also killed themselves while in jail. A few have made the decision to end their lives after struggling with a terminal debilitating illness.
I feel it is reprehensible to say that “suicide is 100 % preventable.” What is the purpose of this statement? The effect of it is to create shame and guilt on the part of survivors. If you were a parent who had done everything possible to keep your at-risk child safe, and your child managed to commit suicide despite your best efforts, would you feel blamed if you believed that “suicide is 100% preventable”? If you were taking care of a sibling post-hospitalization, driving cross-country, arranging for their treatment, and they decided to end their life, how would you feel? Imagine you were a mental health professional committed to the health and well-being of a client who made the decision to end their life after having received every service including hospitalization, medication, therapy, and 24-hour access to emergency services.
Sometimes early intervention can save a life. Sometimes hospitalization can save a life. Sometimes medications can save a life. Sometimes even long-term treatment, medication and 24-hour care cannot. Frankly, it seems to me that stating that suicide is always preventable is a cheap tagline, used only to attract attention rather than offering a true understanding of what it means to suffer deeply.
Terry Galen, LCSW