Survivors and Seeking Help: Suicide Prevention and Recovery
By Austin Cheatham
Depression inflicts a pain and numbness that engulfs people in ways that no aching of the body ever could. Like any other disease, it spreads until a person is fully consumed. Yet many in our society are reluctant to speak of the disease’s worst outcome.
In 2019 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported there were almost two and a half times more deaths by suicide than by homicide. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. In July of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission voted to designate 988 as the shorthand for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. However, stigma around mental health has made open discussions about it taboo.
“This all stems from a disease. This is not a selfish choice someone makes. It’s a possible outcome of a really nasty disease,” said Peter Warshaw, the fine arts director of Leander Independent School District. “It’s okay to walk up to someone and ask them if everything is okay.”
Warshaw has attended Austin’s Survivors of Suicide, or SOS, meetings regularly since 2007 and sometimes facilitates the group. The group meets every first and third Tuesday of every month.
“I lost my wife Laura in September of 2006. I just passed the 15-year anniversary last week. In some ways it almost feels like it’s only been 15 days or 15 minutes,” Warshaw said.
Warshaw refers to himself as a veteran of SOS. There are also people that attend who have only lost someone as recently as a year or two before. One of the newer attendees, Lisa Dixon who works as a mental health peer specialist, shared her story.
“I lost my son February 1, 2017. He took his own life,” Dixon said.
Before the pandemic, Dixon drove to Austin for the SOS meetings because she lives in College Station. She previously attended a support group for parents who lost their children but said it didn’t feel quite right. Her daughter who lives in Austin introduced her to SOS, and she’s attended regularly ever since.
“I am a blessed person, that has lost someone, because there a lot of people that do not have family. And I’m one of the people that is blessed enough to have support from my children, my grandchildren, and I’ve been married for a long time,” Dixon said.
Dixon said she tells people, whether they have support or not, that it’s “a pain that feels like you won’t make it through it.”
“It’s like I tell people: if you get up and you put your clothes on—even if you don’t put your clothes on, you brush your teeth, some days you have to give yourself a big fat pass,” Dixon said.
Oftentimes, after asking for permission, Dixon gives her number to others and reaches out to them as a form of support. She said she understands some people are more private in their grief, though.
“I became super anxious. People sometimes would come to my house, and I would tell my husband to tell them ‘I’m not here.’ And they knew I was here, my car was here. But it was a select group of people that I was able to let in my life,” Dixon said. “The wounds of grief become easier to manage as time goes on, but they don’t heal.”
Suicide Prevention isn’t impossible, but it’s a process that involves identifying the root causes, the people who are the most vulnerable, and implementing techniques and measures to alleviate those issues.
Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of suicide. Race, class, gender and sexuality all factor into a person’s risk.
Lauren Gulbas, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work, studies behavioral health issues and suicidal behavior in adolescent Latinas and other girls of color. Since 1991, the CDC documented that Latinas attempted suicide at significantly higher rates than non-Hispanic girls.
“I think we’re now starting to see the field of suicide prevention really focus on trauma-informed care because the two coincide a lot,” Gulbas said.
Trauma referred to as ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, play a big role in a person’s risk of suicide. ACEs can range from having parents with mental illness to being a child of divorce.
“We don’t know about the onset. So, when a child has an adverse experience, is it important that it happened within the year prior to the suicide attempt, or does it matter that it happened earlier in childhood? These are some of the things we’re trying to figure out,” Gulbas said.
While symptoms of depression often get conflated with suicidal thoughts, Gulbas’ research reveals that a lot of the warning signs present within adolescent girls of color the day before an attempt actually more closely resemble symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks.
“This suggests that we’re really missing some of the relevant warning signs. So, we need to do more research on this. This is one of the first studies in the country to look at this,” Gulbas said. “How much do we actually know about the warning signs of suicide in adolescent girls of color?”
Aside from conducting studies, Gulbas also teaches students skills such as emotional regulation, intervening with their friends, and help-seeking. These all involve some level of self-care and supporting others, which can make all the difference.
“A lot of times we think of self-care as this thing that we have to set aside time for,” said Justin Carter, the suicide prevention coordinator with the Longhorn Wellness Center. “But a lot of times we forget about the ‘boring’ self-care like cleaning our room, doing laundry, washing dishes. Things like that.”
Mindfulness practices such as breathing and power poses, poses which make the person feel confident, also improve mental wellbeing.
The gnawing and spiraling disease of depression with suicide as its worst tragic end claims many victims and leaves grieving survivors in its wake. However, like any other disease, it can be prevented and survivors can move forward.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out or consider calling one of the numbers below.
National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255
The Trevor Project: (212) 695-8650
U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233 (English and Spanish) (800) 787- 3224 (TTY)
Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN): (800) 656-HOPE / (800) 810-7440 (TTY)