Our Suicide Conversation Has to Change

After a long overnight walk to raise money for suicide prevention and awareness, a brief encounter reveals how far we have to go.

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The author with Gareth Bryant.

It’s a little after 7am on June 29 when I hail a cab outside Union Station in Washington, D.C. I’m carrying Mardi Gras-style beads and wearing workout gear. I’m exhausted and exhilarated from having walked more than 16 miles through the night at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Philadelphia.

The cabbie asks where I’m coming from. I tell him.

“Who died?” he wants to know.

My son, I say. (That’s what the white beads I’m carrying signify. The purple ones are in honor of a friend’s sister, the blue ones in support of the cause.)

“Did it happen the other day?” he asks.

“No, in 2008.”

“Oh, that was a long time ago,” he says.

“It’s not the kind of the thing you get over,” I reply.

I try to change the subject.

I tell him I like the bumper sticker on the rear window, which says faith has two elements, patience and gratitude.

He perks up. For the next 10 minutes, I am captive to a Muslim evangelist who could easily box a few rounds with any offensive preacher from my own evangelical tradition.

My driver announces that many suicides are caused by people taking antidepressant medications. “You need to stop speaking. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.

He proclaims, for example, that if a mother of two sons loses one but practices patience, God won’t take the other. I scoff, thinking of the long-distance walkers I’ve met overnight who have lost multiple family members to suicide: the woman who lost four cousins, two of them siblings; the one with lovers portrayed on her t-shirt, her late bipolar brother and his fiance, who took her own life after his suicide. I think of the unassuming older couple I met under a bridge in the dead of night who said this was their fourteenth consecutive walk. Later, an AFSP staffer tentatively identified them as the parents of an only child who killed himself while on active duty in the navy. They’ve raised over $325,000 in the intervening years, she said.

About halfway home, my driver announces that many suicides are caused by people taking antidepressant medications. My patience runs out. “You need to stop speaking. You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, not bothering to cite new research from Harvard University showing that widely publicized 2003 FDA warnings about antidepressants correlate with an increase in youth suicide attempts.

garethSilently, I reflect on a conversation I had late in the previous afternoon with Gareth Bryant, an opening ceremony speaker and national spokesperson for a service organization called Muslims Giving Back. Bryant said members of his community tend to focus on textual references in the Quran that talk about the eternal status (and punishment) of people who attempt or commit suicide. “The problem isn’t the text; the problem is our lack of understanding of the text and our dereliction of application of the text,” he said.

Citing chapter 5, verse 32 of the Quran — “Whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely” — Bryant said he prefers to focus on helping people to “not even think about going down that path.”

Eight members of Muslims Giving Back participated in this year’s event. Their community is not alone in struggling with the theological implications of suicide.

Pastor Elaine Ellis Thomas, an Episcopal priest from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, wore her clerical collar to the walk because, she said, “For too long the church has tried to convince people that their loved ones lost to suicide are condemned to hell. The truth is that those who die by suicide have done their time in hell struggling with their mental illness.”

This pastor, who lost her son, Seth Peterson, to suicide, wanted to “bear witness to a God that loves all the people who suffer and to faith that believes that those we’ve lost are in the nearer presence of God.”

“I never had a funeral. I never had a burial. I never had closure,” said Adorno. “Tonight is my son’s memorial and I get to have it with like 2000 other people who know exactly what I feel.”

Ellis Thomas carried 15 names on her journey in addition to her son’s. They represented friends and suicide victims that she only learned about when donors pledged money to her fundraising campaign in their memory.

At the closing ceremony, AFSP CEO Bob Gebbia reported that $2 million had been raised for suicide prevention research, education, advocacy, and for support services. Earlier, a new AFSP goal of of reducing the national suicide rate by 20 percent in the next five years had been announced. (Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans, with the CDC reporting 39,518 suicide deaths in 2011.)

Participants didn’t only raise money, however. Throughout the night we were stopped and asked what we were doing and why. Raising awareness was part of our answer, the idea being that we were walking out of the darkness of stigma and shame and into the light of change.

For some, like Rosey Adorno, the walk held deeper significance. Adorno lost her son, Daniel David Adorno, to suicide in 2010, but never had an opportunity to formally memorialize him. Ever since she had sought help from AFSP in dealing with her grief, she had dreamt of participating but was daunted by the $1000 fundraising commitment required for the two major annual walks.

Seven weeks ago, she met Merryl Simon at Liberty Union Church, in Union, New Jersey. The two quickly hit it off and Adorno shared her dream. Two days later, Simon sent Adorno a text saying, “If you’re ready to walk, I’m ready to help.”

“I felt like God wanted me to come beside her, and we’ve developed a beautiful friendship,” said Simon.

“I never had a funeral. I never had a burial. I never had closure,” said Adorno. “Tonight is my son’s memorial and I get to have it with like 2000 other people who know exactly what I feel.”

Brian Yet speaking at the opening ceremonies.
Brian Yeh speaking at the opening ceremonies.

Brian Yeh, of San Francisco, was an opening ceremony speaker whose mother died by suicide in 2009. Yeh had told the crowd that for years he didn’t tell anyone how it happened because of his fear that they would judge her or think she was weak and selfish.

“She was not weak or selfish. She was strong and loving, but she was sick,” he said.

I found Yeh munching on pizza at a rest stop along the route and asked how it felt to speak publicly about her suicide for the first time. “The whole process has been really cathartic. . . . There was no other real channel or conduit for me to talk about this,” he said.

Back in my taxi, the chastened-but-still-evangelizing driver pulls up to my building and asks if I’d like to add a tip to the bill. “No,” I say. “I’m not giving you a tip. I don’t like what you just did.”

With that, I limp back into my daily life reminded how much work is left to be done.

Later in the day, I receive an email from Bryant, explaining the operating philosophy of Muslims Giving Back.

“It is our exclusive mission and purpose to ensure that every Human being, in need, whom we interact with, come in contact with, can always depend upon us to empathize & simply care about their condition,” the email says.

“Our approach to dealing with people who are suicidal, who’ve attempted suicide, has to change,” Bryant had told me. Indeed it does.


Images courtesy of the author and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

  • Eolia Disler

    Thank you for your text. I have read another article a few days ago about the topic of suicide. I agreed with it and with yours on the fact that suicide is not because they were “sinners” or weaklings, but because they have been brave for a long time and they looked for an exit gate to end their suffering and free themselves.
    It’s such a personal and complex subject. Nonetheless, we need to raise awereness.
    I wish you the best and I’m sure that your son, wherever he is, is very proud and happy of your action and of the love you always felt (and will feel) for him.

  • http://bkoconsultants.com Ben Overby

    I’m bipolar. Stats show I’ve got a 10% chance suicide in my lifetime. Those times I’ve been deeply depressed and suicidal I was motivated by the sense that I had become a burden. New studies (I believe by University of Florida) reveal suicide usually results from isolation, fearlessness regarding death, and feeling like a burden. If we can address the issue by supporting those in depression, by doing our best to encourage fellowship instead of isolation, the person can know they loved. We will not feel like such a burden. And it might diminish suicidal ideation. Planning a suicide, ruminating on it, planning the place and method can reach a tipping point and the person will become fearless. Being with the person is vital and the church should be the perfect place for healing. And it should begin by addressing the myths such as suicide is a one way ticket to hell.