Preventing Uncounted Suicides: Julia Roberts & the Military

Preventing Uncounted Suicides
Buzz, Self

Too many people die every year to suicide. How do you help a loved one you think may be at risk?

There are statistics that humble us in how fragile human life can be. There are statistics that may sober us and may make us sad, but they are somewhat faceless. Even in these faceless statistics, we often do not hear the whole story. Having a better understanding of the story is necessary if we are to respond to those we love and with whom we have relationships.

While the present action of the American military does not have the broad unpopularity of the Vietnam War, we still hear of those who are dying in serving our country. You may be familiar with the statistics:

Another side of loss of life has been heard more recently:

This week, CNN carried a video story about a statistic that is not talked about:

  • The number of military spouses, siblings and parents who are killing themselves is uncounted

People being driven to suicide, connected to the military and in our general society, is something we do not like to think about. We are often not aware of how large of an impact we are having on people that are in our life. This is especially the case when our relationships become strained and we are more distanced from the other. Even if we look at the reports about the supposed texts that Julia Roberts had with her sister, what they seem to highlight is more of a breakdown in their relationship rather than any understanding on Julia Roberts side of her contributing to her sister's movement towards committing suicide.

In fact, the loss of hope, particularly in the context of loss of relationships is a significant marker of the risk of suicide. Suicide is such a drastic place to be driven to and to face it without others supporting a person is a sad state, not just for the person who reaches a point of those thoughts but also for those who are around the person. The media accounts around Julia Roberts and the little we hear about those around the uncounted related to the military who commit suicide often do not speak of the way the suicide affects them as well as what some of them experience as guilt related to what they did or did not do leading up to the suicide.

There are certain situations where someone is more at risk of committing suicide and there are certain signs that you may pick up on that someone that you care about might be thinking about suicide. Certainly, some of these are obvious such as the planning of a way to commit suicide, the mention of it being better if they weren't there or even making of plans for the care of children after their death (when nothing is going on medically).

However, many signs are more subtle such as the anniversary of a tragic death, discussion of the bill that seems to be the one that breaks the camel's back for the person financially or just a general withdrawal from normal support circles. It is important to realize that a very high percentage of people who commit suicide talk about it with someone beforehand (at least in a subtle way) and the vast majority of people are suffering from a mental illness, such as depression or an illness that has a depressive component.

So, how do you make a difference? What could Julia Roberts have done, besides not alienating her sister and reinforcing her sister's thoughts about herself, if these are things she actually did? What can you do when you have a close friend or someone with a closer relationship that you love that you are concerned about what they are thinking and possibly getting ready to do? The first thing is to realize that asking about it is not going to make them commit suicide. In fact, asking them about it and talking about it may be just what they are seeking to realize that they are not yet out of alternatives.

Beyond just talking about the particular concern, you can be there to listen. You do not need to be a professional counselor or therapist in order to be able to hear what the person you care about is going through. Your acknowledgement that they are going through a very difficult patch, especially if you can see some hope in the situation that they are able to hear, can be an affirmation of who they are.

Let them talk about what is going on and how they are feeling. If you feel you are at a point where you can ask them if there is anything you can do to help. Sometimes, you might be surprised at how a relatively small thing can give another person just enough breathing room for life to seem manageable again. All of these things are particularly important for those related to someone who is in the service.

They have learned that their role is one of supporting the person that society is saying is or has made the sacrifice. They are not as used to having their own sacrifice acknowledged nor may they feel that their pain is even being acknowledged nor do they feel that they have the right to raise it and discuss it (to see the extent of these things review the CNN video story on this).

As you listen to what a person you care about is telling you, you are not alone. As you listen, pay attention to four key aspects in what the person is saying:

  • Intention: Are they intending to commit suicide, to end their life?
  • Method: Have they come up with a way that they would go about committing suicide to follow through on their intention?
  • Means: Do they have access to what they would need in order to follow through on their chosen method(s)?
  • Timeframe: Have they come up with an idea of when they will use the means that are or will be available to them?

There is a difference between a person who only has intention ("I wish I were just dead and all these problems would go away.") and a person who has everything including a timeframe ("I really want to do it and I would do it by jumping in front of a train and I think the 11:42 PM freight train would be ideal as it won't be able to stop in time and my death tonight would not be too much of a bother for people.")—both are serious enough to try and seek additional help but one is more serious than the other.

When you are talking with a loved one about this, you should have an idea of a qualified mental health professional they could go to see. However, appointments are not always available immediately, so have a back-up plan. Know that you can go to the local emergency room and ask for an emergency psychiatric assessment in order to keep your loved one safe. Know that there is a national suicide prevention hotline in the U.S. (800-273-TALK) that is staffed around the clock with people to help.

By addressing the situation with someone you love, whether family, someone related to a military member or another loved one, you can help them back onto a journey where they realize that there is hope that they can return to peace and wholeness. In so doing you can literally save their life and prevent them from being among those whose deaths goe uncounted.

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