Monday Musings....Making Sense of Suicide

The city of Woodstock is still unsettled in the aftermath of tragedy. Five youth have died by suicide since January 2016 and at least 36 attempts have been reported by police in that same length of time. My previous blog post discussed youth mental health and the impact that listening to youth can have. And so I am glad that the students staged a walkout to demand some help and some answers, and most importantly that the powers-that-be would listen to their pleas.

There seems to be two ‘camps’ that people of all ages tend to fall into when we look back posthumously. The first camp includes those who never showed signs that they were suicidal. They appeared happy, were going to work or school, were still going through the motions of life and yet they were suffering greatly in silence. The other camp holds those who received support, accessed services, and still, in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep them here. So is there a common element in both camps that will really help us understand that final fatal decision?

I believe that David Foster Wallace gives us the answer. Wallace, was an English professor, journalist, and novelist who suffered greatly with depression. In his novel, Infinite Jest, he writes: "The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling." It is sobering to know that at the age of 46, David Foster Wallace was himself consumed by the flames.

This quote gives us an insight far inside the head space of someone who has gone beyond mere thoughts of suicide to feeling the terror of staying alive. When the flames inside one’s mind never extinguish, staying alive is just too hard. Every day the person wakes up and sees no ash, just embers that are glowing. It’s not a case of examining reasons for living and reasons for dying, or of trying to douse the flames with positive thoughts of past victories. It’s understanding the pain of perpetual powerlessness that is all-consuming. We’ve gone way beyond thoughts to the ceaseless simmering emotion that then pushes the person’s mind dangerously close to igniting an uncontrolled inferno. It’s terrifying to stay inside the burning building of the mind and it’s terrifying to jump out of the head space because death is inevitable in either case. What keeps people alive, often, is the fear of death. But for the person who dies by suicide, they crossed over in their mind and decided that death was a lot less fearful than getting up the next day. So whether they received help, or whether they kept their head space private, the common thread is the fuel of fear.

Let’s consider the physical fire or combustion triangle. Fire occurs when oxygen, fuel, and heat combine. To extinguish the fire, we remove one of the three. For example, we put a fire blanket on the flames to remove the oxygen and the fire goes out. So, in mental health, we follow a similar model. We put the blanket of support around the person to rescue them. But is this enough or can spontaneous combustion happen even after we believe the fire is put out? Yes!

So we need to understand there is a fourth component: the chemical chain reaction that occurs with the three elements of the fire triangle. The chain reaction is the common element for those we know have suicidal thoughts and for those whom we have no clue are suffering. It is the chemical chain reaction that keeps the fire burning once it has started. So think of that in mental health – what is sustaining the flames of mental anguish? This is the answer to suicide prevention. If we can get to the source of what is keeping the flame burning in the individual, we will be able to break the chain reaction. There will not be one solution, just as in a physical fire; sometimes you need water, and sometimes you need foam and so on.

There is much work to be done in Woodstock and in every community in our nation. Let’s take David Foster Wallace’s words and move beyond assuming suicide is a result of simply sizing up life’s assets and debits. Rather we need to focus on the emotional terror of the flames that sparks the fatal chain reaction of combustion.

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