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Reflections on September and Suicide Awareness

Submitted by Marie Field.

September marks the start of many new and exciting events in our lives…the start of a new school year for primary, secondary, and college-aged students, both young and old, the start of many local fairs, the start of the beautiful Autumn season which fills our eyes with a multitude of rich colors, and the start of getting back into a routine for many of us who are fortunate to have time to relax and enjoy the summer sun. These are all great events, so why is September suicide prevention and awareness month? Moreover, why would anyone want to read and reflect on an article about suicide prevention? One might think, “What a depressing topic for a month that has so many fresh beginnings” or “That only happens to other people not in my family.” But, perhaps you will read this and take a moment to reflect on my words because at this point, most of us know, or have heard about, someone who has taken his or her life. The ripple effects can be enormous. My goals here are only positive ones: first, to educate people on an issue that many shove under the rug and will not talk about, despite the fact that suicide is considered an epidemic in this country, and second, to help save lives. Suicide is preventable if we work together.

Suicide and mental illness go hand and hand and there is a negative stigma that needs to be eliminated with both of these topics. It could be a deep depression that one spirals down into and can’t see a way out, or voices in one’s head that don’t stop saying what to do, or an anxiety that is so debilitating one feels immobile, or a recurring substance or alcohol addiction that one fears will never be beat. We, as a society of well-intentioned human beings, need to keep the conversations going so those who are suffering are willing to seek help and not hide under the heavy and lonely rock of shame.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide rates have steadily increased in Connecticut and across our nation, year after year. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for ages 15-34. On average, one person dies by suicide every 22 hours in Connecticut.  While these data are the most accurate I’ve found, organizations like the AFSP estimate the numbers to be higher, as the stigma surrounding suicide commonly leads to underreporting. Although rates differ depending on age, gender, ethnicity, and race, I want to be very clear that suicide DOES occur in ALL demographic groups. Suicide has no prejudice!

Additionally, “There is no single cause to suicide. It most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” Often this condition is undiagnosed or untreated. However, it is important to remember that the majority of people who continuously manage their mental health conditions go on to succeed in life. So what are suicide warning signs? According to the AFSP, “Something to look out for when concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of sharpest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.” However, some people put on masks of steel and give us absolutely no warning signs. Furthermore, mental or physical health conditions, environmental factors such as access to lethal means, prolonged stress, or bullying, and historical factors such as previous suicide attempts, family history of mental illness or suicide, or childhood trauma are considered suicide risk factors. For more information on warning signs and risk factors, please visit AFSP.org.

My 16-year-old son, beautiful in every way, took his life on April 12, 2015. It not only shocked our family, but his friends, teachers, coaches and all who knew him. Some of you may think I was blind to his suffering: How could a mother not know something was wrong? Believe me, I desperately wish I knew because I would have done everything in my power to help save his life! But today, in my heart, I know that Nathan, an intelligent, yet sensitive soul, wore a mask of steel, not telling anyone that he was struggling. He was excelling academically, involved in numerous clubs, on the track team and co-captain of the tennis team. He had plans to visit a number of colleges the following week. Nathan had his driver’s permit and was excited about getting his license and he was looking forward to going to prom. He was a normal kid who relaxed playing video games with his friends or catching (and releasing) the long black snake that visits our yard every summer. Nathan enjoyed fooling around with his numerous cousins at our big family get-togethers and standing back to back with his two tall uncles to see if he had surpassed their height. On the outside, he appeared to be a typical teenager who gave us no reason to suspect that he was having difficulties.

What gives me a little bit of serenity is that I also know Nathan is now at peace. On September 15, 2015, my husband and I created the Nathaniel B. Field Memorial Foundation, Inc., not only to honor his life, but to speak up about mental health and suicide and to help others who are suffering – whether it is from a suicide loss or someone who is concerned about a friend or family member. Our mission is to prevent suicide through public awareness and education, to reduce the stigma of mental illness, and to provide hope and support.

The most important message I want to leave you with is that we can’t always control or change the things that happen to us in life; it’s about how we respond to our challenges and how we respond to the challenges of others. We will all go through tough times, but it is how we get through them and what we learn that matters. So what can we do? We can realize that tomorrow is a new day and that time changes things. We can look up from our cell phones and iPads, and really see and listen to those around us. We can ask “Hey, how are you? Are you okay?” and really mean it when we walk by someone who just doesn’t seem right. We can say something when we see something if not to that person, but to someone else who can, and is willing, to help. Any small action that we take may give people who are suffering, our fellow human beings who are hiding under the rock of despair, the courage to stand up, take their masks off, and grab hold of the hand that is helping to save their life. September is a great month for the start of new things and new hopes. I say keep the conversations going, because “You’re Worth It!”

For more information on the Nathaniel B. Field Memorial Foundation, Inc. please visit nathanielfield.org

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