None of this is easy. If it were, we wouldn’t need to write about it. We wouldn’t be where we are at this time. It’s time, though. Time to peel back the curtain and feel around to what’s there in the shadows. Time to engage a subject that makes us all uncomfortable. Our lives, and the lives of those we care for and love depends on it. It could happen to you.
126 lives are lost each day to suicide (CDC, 2022)
Hearing my 12-year-old child say he wanted to die has been more than a wake-up call. It’s a five-alarm fire in my head that compels me to act. I must do something. It’s not theoretical. It’s not drama. It’s fear. A fear so profound that I can’t see or think straight. It’s overwhelmingly real.
In these last few months, this has all hit way too close to home. First, a high school friend, a father, a husband, one of the most genuinely happy people I have ever known – gone. He shot himself with a gun. Not long after that happened a cousin, an eighteen-year-old young man just days before his high school graduation took an overdose of pills. By the grace of God, he survived. He’s alive. Just over 18 years ago, when this boy was just a few days old, his father, Danny, an Iraq war veteran, husband, brother, father, and friend, ended his life with a gun. His mom and dad, Marta and Ray, his wife, his children, his brothers, all his family and friends, his whole world, the survivors, are still in so many ways cataclysmically reeling. A suicide, Marta says, “is a death like no other.” We don’t have the vocabulary or space, the understanding or equipment to handle this kind of loss.
We seem to operate from this notion or mentality that it ‘won’t happen to me.’ Of course, my children know they are loved. If love were enough, suicide wouldn’t happen. We have so much to learn. We need to listen. The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, just released, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” and in its opening letter he urges, “We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us […] working together to destigmatize loneliness and change our culture and policy response to it. It will require reimagining the structures, policies, and programs that shape a community to best support the development of healthy relationships” (Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation (hhs.gov)). It’s about forming stronger, more engaged relationships, social connections, a sense of community, and co-regulation.
We all need help. Help for ourselves and our kids. But my God, it’s all so big. Where do we begin? How do we begin to mobilize the understanding and will to strengthen economic supports and create protective environments, to improve access and delivery of suicide care, to promote healthy connections, to teach coping and problem-solving skills, to identify and support people at-risk, to lessen harm and reduce access to lethal means, preventing future risk, to collaborate, share resources, and build partnerships, to effectively monitor and evaluate—the scope of suicide care is exhausting as it forces us to do more than write a check, check a box, or prescribe a pill. It calls for awareness. It calls for engagement. It calls for genuine human connection of this highest caliber that is loving and kind and supportive and caring. It calls for a place that doesn’t cost money to get help. We need an interwoven social, cultural, economic, and psychological framework of support at a moment in history when the national trends for social connection are alarming. Turn on the news or examine our political landscape and it’ll look like we’re pretty far off from one another. From 2003 to 2023, according to the Office of U.S. Surgeon General, time spent alone increased, while time spent on in-person social engagement decreased.
In 2021, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 20-34 (CDC WISQARS, 2020). Its impact is far-reaching—it affects not only the individual, but the health and well-being of friends, loved ones, co-workers, and the community. These survivors need resources too, and not just the flowers and condolences that come in the immediate aftermath of a loss, but genuine and authentic shared human connection five, ten, twenty years out. That’s what Marta has told Meghan and I time and time again—unless you’ve been there and walked a mile in these shoes, how could you ever know? Sitting beside someone who has felt the same kind of pain, agonized over the same kinds of questions, searched for similar solace and relief, is one powerful way we can learn to live again. Suicide is a dark tunnel that’s hard to navigate alone.
It takes time and space. In the meantime, in the space in-between, we need to say all the important things while those we love are living. We can’t wait till they die. It takes friends and family and a community willing to be vulnerable with you. A pathway to peace can’t be bought on a shelf or scanned with a barcode. No one has the blueprint for anyone else. Research and experience show us, though, that “social isolation is arguably the strongest and most reliable predictor of suicidal ideation, attempts, and lethal suicidal behavior among samples varying in age, nationality, and clinical severity” (“The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide,” 2010).
Social connection can save us. It positively impacts our biology, psychology, and behaviors, and dramatically increases our health and wellness outcomes. The past can’t be changed. The feeling of loss, like all traumas, lives inside us. But resilience lives there too, as well as play, fun, gratitude, and joy. We live in an attraction-based universe. We’re not going to get to feeling good through feeling bad. This is why we need our friends, our family, our churches, our teams, and our clubs to rally to us. It’s hard to dig yourself out of a hole. Sometimes we need a hand to help us out.
Over the course of this last year, while I’ve been internalizing all this information on a personal level, I’ve also been simultaneously researching and writing federal grants for non-profit organizations, colleges and universities, and healthcare systems to improve their system-wide prevention, intervention, and postvention capabilities in addressing suicidal behaviors. My eyes have never been more open. I’m terrified by what I see—we’re not prepared for this mental health crisis crashing through our doors. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made all this worse.
And yet, I’m whole-heartenedly encouraged, too. I have hope because people like Marta are going to sit with a family who just lost a loved one to suicide. This is the greatest gift we can give one another, to just be there and be present. Human connection is the antidote to loneliness and isolation. We need each other. All we can do is all we can do. But I also know this for certain too: the world could use a lot more Marta’s. It could be you.
We’ve got to try.
By Ryan Allen & Meghan Nelson
Lumin Therapy provides integrative health and education for the mind, body, and spirit to those who are suffering or struggling to step into and live their heartfelt mission and purpose. Through the practice of physical therapy, medical therapeutic yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and resiliency mentoring, Dr. Meghan Nelson, DPT, and Dr. Ryan Allen, PhD, bring more than 40 years of combined knowledge and experience serving individuals, families, and organizations to learn, heal, and live without boundaries.