A few weeks ago, at approximately 9:30 a.m., a young man jumped to his death from a bridge in downtown Asheville. He was not alone.
This young man, dressed neatly in Monday morning work attire, said his last goodbye and committed suicide surrounded by police officers, firemen, first responders, emergency personnel, school activity buses and hundreds of morning commuters snarled in the traffic jamb created by this very public emotional crisis.
Despite fervent attempts on the part of police officers, and to the horror of those in close proximity, he held his breath and jumped… into seemingly thin air.
I first heard about this young man’s unfolding crisis at a planning meeting for our Family Dens, our organization’s family mental health support groups. Our development director was late for our meeting and arrived in great distress. She had been stuck in traffic and saw this young man’s anguished face as he turned toward her and the police officer just a few feet away trying to negotiate with him.
“He looked just like you or I,” she shared, tears streaming down her face. “He was so handsome, and he looked, well, normal.”
We assured her he would be okay with so many people on the scene to help (not fully thinking through how completely terrifying all those lights, sirens, bull horns, and stopped cars must have been).
We finished our meeting and went home, each of us going straight to our computers to check on this young man and to reassure ourselves everything was okay.
This “unnamed man” had, in fact, jumped — a horrific act neatly described in exactly 150 words in only one local news source.
Contrast this coverage with what happened just a few hours later as reports of the Boston Marathon bombing quickly flooded local and national airwaves, news sources, social media and every conceivable conversation.
I learned about the Boston bombings from a feature writer I was talking to about our local suicide just a few hours before.
“This is not a good day,” she said and mentioned she was frantically trying to get in touch with her friend in Boston. I was puzzled until I checked the news and was confronted with images of the chaos in Boston.
Man jumps, news at ….?
It would not be until almost a week later that the second (and last) news story would appear regarding our local suicide, an act of desperation witnessed by hundreds of Ashevillians.
This time, “the unidentified man” got 165 words. And he hasn’t been heard from since.
Curious, this lack of news coverage, given the public nature of this suicide and the reality that more people die each year from suicide than from car accidents, averaging just over a 100 suicides a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This silence on the subject is curiouser still in our age of trauma-informed care where we are, theoretically, enlightened enough to recognize the importance of community support and collective healing around public tragedies. And the importance of supporting those who are left behind in trauma’s wake. And the importance of taking collective action to ensure future crises are prevented.
Yesterday, I noticed my local bank proudly displaying a window sticker proclaiming We Are Number 1 with Boston. (And yes, we are).
Meanwhile, our county has the fourth highest suicide rate in the state with five times as many suicides as homicides in 2010. When it comes to these tragedies, we aren’t number 1, we’re number 4.
But we’re not talking about it.
I called my children’s elementary school to see if Mother Bear could come in and do a presentation on mental health with the kids. A couple of classes were on an activity bus caught in the traffic jam caused by the suicide event.
“Frankly, we’re afraid to talk about it with the kids,” whispered a well-meaning teacher who answered the phone.
As far as I know, they still haven’t.
Last month, Will Hall published an excellent blog here on Mad in America in which he suggested it was time for a new understanding of suicidal feelings.
“We need to speak openly about our suicidal feelings without fear of institutional reaction,” Will asserts.
Speaking openly about those we have lost, and how we are impacted in the aftermath, would be a good place to start. Even learning their names would be some progress.
Many of those lost to suicide remain lost and nameless because of the stigma surrounding taking one’s own life. Family grief, guilt and shame are only made worse in the deadening silence that is created when we can’t find our collective voice and then turn our backs on the suffering of the dead and those they leave behind.
It is time for a new understanding of suicidal feelings and actions.
Perhaps a more open dialogue, without fear of sirens and police and involuntary hospitalizations, would have made a difference for one young man here in Asheville last month. Perhaps more public local conversation would have saved some of the 45 lives we lost here in Buncombe County in 2010. Perhaps a more public and safe national conversation would have saved some of the 22 veterans who died from suicide every day in 2010.
And, lest we worry about what to say, an exploration of the many factors that contribute to suicidal feelings and acts would give us endless fodder for discussion. From poverty and trauma to individual and institutional abuse to existential crises and our “insane” pace of life to lethal side effects of psychiatric over- or mis-medication to lack of compassionate care.
There is so much we could talk about.
Perhaps all that talk might motivate us to actually do something to address our suicide epidemic. It might inspire us to reach out to someone who is hurting or to reach out when we ourselves are hurting. It might even stop us, as a society, from doing things that perpetuate the hurting.
We do have some examples of what can be accomplished when someone dares to talk about these matters.
MIA blogger and mother Maria Bradshaw’s wonderful organization, CASPER, has done much good work in New Zealand and beyond to support an open and healthy dialogue about the rapid rise in suicides and what we can do to prevent more of them. We are grateful to be able to refer families to CASPER when they have lost their loved ones to suicide or have concerns about suicide risks, particularly with regard to children and medications.
But we need more organizations like CASPER and many, many more conversations.
Unlike the one that started far too late and ended far too early on the morning of April 15 at approximately 9:30 a.m.