We need to talk about how we talk about suicide

When I first read this opinion piece on the Dallas Morning News by Sharon Grigsby, as a mental health professional, I was angry. It lacked empathy, was unprofessional, and unethical. Here is a professional journalist — the Deputy editorial page editor and writer for the DMN since 1980 according to her bio page – completely missing the mark in a most basic and dangerous way. Like I said, I was angry at first but the more I thought about it the more it shows that when it comes to mental health awareness in this country, we are not doing enough to advance our cause.

I do not know Patti Stevens’ story. As most people, the first I had heard of her was when the gruesome details of her husband’s death became public. Two weeks ago her husband Dave was out for his morning jog when he was stabbed to death seemingly at random by former A&M football player Thomas Johnson. Johnson  left A&M in 2012. After the Aggies beat Alabama that year, he mysteriously disappeared. He resurfaced, unharmed and without explanation, but never played college football again. That is the last anyone heard from Thomas Johnson until he took the life of  Dave Stevens. Patti Stevens ultimately took her own life two weeks later.

Which brings us to Ms. Grigsby’s post. In no mixed words, she called Patti Stevens selfish and hinted that she believes those who commit suicide are cowards.

Please, let’s not romanticize suicide. Thinking that the solution for “a broken heart” is killing one’s self is simply wrong — and it’s very unhealthy thinking. Patti’s action demeans both her life and Dave’s. More important, it devalues healthy grieving.

Healthy grieving is the kind of hard work that our society wants to turn tail and run from. In its worst manifestations, suicide seems preferable. Especially to younger Americans, who need role models doing the hard, responsible thing.

I don’t think people are romanticizing suicide by saying a broken heart lead Patti Stevens to slip into depression and take her own life. Ms. Grigsby states that suicide is a self centered option. This is not an uncommon thought process, but it is the thought process of a person removed from the situation. The problem, of course, with this line of thinking is that it further stigmatizes the person who has already felt stigmatized.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention more than 90% of people who take their own life have at least one and often more than one treatable mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and/or alcohol and substance abuse. Many who have attempted suicide have said that they truly believed their families and friends would be better of without them. One of the strongest risk factors is a recent loss or the anniversary of a loss.

What we need to do a better job of as professionals is helping the average person on the street understand what a person contemplating suicide is going through. Anyone can help someone who is suicidal. The most important thing to do is help the person through the issues they are facing – help them find reasons to live. If you do not feel that you are able to do this, talk to them. Sometimes just talking to a friend can be what saves a person’s life.

There is a fear of discussing mental health and suicide in this country. Do not be afraid to ask someone if they are suicidal. Talking about suicide with a suicidal person does not give them the idea. Talking openly about suicidal thoughts is one of the best suggestions for approaching the situation. Ask if the person has a plan and the means to carry out the plan.

When someone speaks openly about their feelings of depression leading them to the thought of suicide talking about it may help them to come out of the darkness. They may be feeling desperate, alone, and vulnerable. The most important thing you can do at this point is listen. We need to be there for each other – if you do not feel able to help any further, try to get them to agree to seek professional help. This is the ultimate goal.

We need to not shame the person who is having suicidal thoughts, as Ms Grigsby did in her article, but rather let people know that there are those who will help. The most important thing Ms Grigby did do was include links and contacts to get help.

If you or someone you know are having suicidal thoughts and need help, please get in contact with someone. There are people out there who value you and want to help you.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Chat Service:

Crisis Text Line 
Text “Start” to 741-741

Disaster Distress Hotline

National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

National Child Abuse Hotline

National Domestic Violence Hotline


2 thoughts on “We need to talk about how we talk about suicide

  1. Melissa

    Thank you.
    It can be hard to talk to someone who is dealing with such dark issues and relate to their pain. But believe me it is worth it, they are worth it. Just because someone is not showing physical signs of an illness does not mean there is not one there. Mental illness is real.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spence

    Thank you.

    Suicide has taken some wonderful people from the ranks of my family and friends, and it is easy to think that it was a selfish act. “Why didn’t they think about me?” and the worse “What could I have done differently?” can both plague the soul after such an event. The first is the rather selfish question that can leave you hating the deceased, while the latter can leave you hating yourself. We must do our best to help those in need, but recognize that if the battle against mental disease is lost, we know it as a terrible and powerful foe. Take what has been learned and move forward to help those in need.

    Liked by 1 person

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