Why Suicide Is Everyone's Problem

The community's role in helping those with depression and saving lives

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He was called the “Angel of the Gap.”

Over the course of about 50 years, Australian Don Ritchie stopped more than 160 people from jumping to their death at “the Gap,” a cliff at the entrance of the Sydney Harbor.

The retired life insurance salesman had no professional mental health credentials. He didn’t dole out prescriptions or suggest cognitive behavioral techniques. He simply lived across the street from the Gap and didn’t want to sit there and do nothing. He approached those on the brink of suicide with a smile and some basic conversation, and he invited them back to his house to have tea with him and his wife.

“I’m offering them an alternative, really,” Ritchie once said in an Associated Press interview.

What if everyone was as proactive as Ritchie about saving lives from suicide?

The sobering statistics of suicide

Consider these statistics, and tell me suicide isn’t a pervasive problem that needs immediate attention:

As an "ex-suicide" (a term coined by Walker Percy), I can say that a little kindness can even become the determining factor on whether or not to stay alive.

Experts say we need a national effort to fight depression

“The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are prominent examples of a rising trend,” writes David Silbersweig, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in an editorial for The Boston Globe. “They add to the daily opiate overdoses in all our communities to make an urgent point: our country needs a nationally coordinated effort to address a major underlying cause — depression.”

Silbersweig mentioned the role of the National Network of Depression Centers (NNDC), a group of 22 major academic medical centers in the U.S. founded 10 years ago as a network to advance research and the care of mood disorders, as well as guide prevention and intervention for Americans in every community.

In an interview with HealthCentral, J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., M.D., chairman of the NNDC board of directors, explained, “Like the war on cancer, a dual approach is needed, one directed at finding causes and pathways to depression (genetics, brain circuitry, and our stress response systems) and the other focused on better, larger, and longer multicenter studies of useful or promising treatments for depression.”

According to DePaulo, the National Institutes of Health — especially the National Institute of Mental Health — and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration should also play leading roles in this effort.

DePaulo founded the Hopkins Affective Disorders Clinic, today known as the Mood Disorders Center, at Johns Hopkins in 1977, a clinic that has probably saved more lives than even Ritchie's efforts, including mine. Passionate about educating the public about depression and bipolar disorder, he and some colleagues launched AskHopkinsPsychiatry.org, an online multimedia education project that provides evidence-based information.

What you can do about suicide

But we need not wait for a comprehensive national agenda to be in place before doing something about suicide. Like Ritchie, you may only have to walk across the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave your house at all.

I remember standing in line at the grocery store when I was severely depressed, contemplating suicide.

I was doing “death math,” when you add up all the ages of your ancestors’ deaths to determine how long you have to go until you arrive at a natural death, when you can “respectfully” be spared of your suffering and avoid leaving a mess for others to clean up. I came up with the age of 76, which meant I had 32 years to go.

By the time I got to the cashier, I was bawling. The thought of enduring one more day was sheer torture, let alone 32 more years.

From my car I called a good friend and mentor.

“I can’t do it, Mike,” I muttered through my tears. “I can’t hold on any longer.”

“Don’t think about tomorrow,” he said. “You only have to hang on for five more minutes, or five more seconds if that’s too long. One foot in front of the other. That’s all.”

Mike saved my life that day, as did other friends and family members at points throughout that harrowing year. Whenever I reached a breaking point and lost the stamina to fight the cruel beast of depression another second, there was someone to pick me up and carry me until I could trust gravity again and put my feet back down on the ground.

They were my Ritchies.

Suicide: A community issue

Sometimes there is nothing we can do to change the mind of a person who has made the decision to end his or her pulse. Ritchie watched a number of people plummet to their death at the Gap. But so often there is something we can do —  we’re just too uncomfortable to go there. If you know someone who suffers from depression, risk the awkwardness to be there for them. If you recognize suicidal signs in a loved one, be the one who saves their life.

Suicide never happens in a vacuum. It’s a social issue that demands a community response. When a brother or wife or friend takes their own life, it causes a ripple of sadness that affects everyone around. Likewise, acts of compassion and thoughtfulness influence loved ones more than you’ll ever know at that moment. As an “ex-suicide” (a term coined by Walker Percy), I can say that a little kindness can even become the determining factor on whether or not to stay alive.

Suicide isn’t one person’s problem.

It’s everyone’s problem.

What will you do to help?