“I‘m going to tell him I like his shorts,” I had decided. I was a senior in high school, still crippled with social anxiety. And there he was. A student younger than me, living as his truest self in the shortest jean shorts I’d ever seen a boy wearing. What would it be like to be that sure of yourself?, I had wondered. “I’m going to tell him I like his shorts.” But then my friend social anxiety came in to remind me that that would be weird. I couldn’t do that. He probably already knew how cool he was anyway, if he could dress like that.
The next day, in second period, my History teacher told us about a student who had committed suicide. She read his name. Unlike a few of my classmates who started crying, I didn’t recognize it immediately, it was a large high school, and I’d never spoken to him before. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have been so afraid to tell him I liked his shorts. To tell him how amazing I thought it was that he could be so blatantly him.
I never got the chance to tell him, before he was pushed to take his own life.
This wasn’t my first interaction with death. It wasn’t even my first brush with suicide. But I was still left reeling. How could he have been so close to the edge that night that he had teetered over, and so inspirationally sure of himself under the fluorescents of D Hall? Unless, of course, he was as good at putting on a show as so many others who we’ve lost to suicide. After a death by suicide, questions fill even the most sane of minds. What could I have done differently? Did I miss a sign? Was it something I said?
What if I’d been brave enough to tell him how amazing I thought he was?
Now here’s where it gets tricky. We could drag ourselves through the coals wondering what we could’ve done differently. Asking ourselves ‘what if‘ until we’re blue in the face. But where does that get anyone? Death by suicide is a horrible tragedy, and it’s not one that’s going to be solved by asking ‘what if?‘. Change comes when we ask ‘how do we stop this from happening again?‘.
This is the space where laws are changed, minds are opened, thoughts are rewired.
It took me longer than I like to admit for me to stop desperately asking myself what if, and begin to ask myself how do I stop this from happening again?
It wasn’t an easy switch. As humans, we like to fix things. It took me realizing that that what if would never bring him back. Nor would it bring back the star basketball player who I grew up with who took his own life in his college dorm. Change happens when we build a different future. So I committed myself to the idea of prevention rather than expending all of my energy grieving the lives of these two men that I knew, along with hundreds of thousands of other lives lost every year to suicide.
So we’ve gone through a personal narrative, but maybe you’re saying to yourself well I don’t know these two. What makes their deaths my problem?
The problem is that each of the two people who I spoke about make up 0.002% of the number of deaths by suicide in America every year. Globally, they each accounted for 0.0001%.
So let’s talk numbers.
According to SAVE, an organization dedicated to suicide awareness, here are some recent statistics.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. (CDC)
Every day, approximately 123 Americans die by suicide. (CDC)
There is one death by suicide in the US every 12 minutes. (CDC)
Depression affects 20-25% of Americans ages 18+ in a given year. (CDC)
Suicide takes the lives of over 44,965 Americans every year. (CDC)
The highest suicide rates in the US are among Whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives.
An estimated quarter million people each year become suicide survivors (AAS).
There is one suicide for every estimated 25 suicide attempts. (CDC)
Suicide among males is 4x’s higher than among females. Male deaths represent 79% of all US suicides. (CDC)
Nearly 800,000 people die by suicide in the world each year, which is roughly one death every 40 seconds.
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15-24 years.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
The bottom line is that suicide, no matter how you put it, is a tragedy deeply instilled into society as a whole. We cannot prevent what we do not understand. And yes, there is a way to make these deaths poetic. To make them easier to stomach reading about. I could remind you that in the time he was alive, that boy who was a stranger to me left so many people changed. I could tell you that the star basketball player broke so many records while he could.
But these realities cannot and should not be sugarcoated to make them easily digestible. In order to prevent, we must understand. And in order to understand, we must be aware of the painful truths. Suicide awareness is crucial to suicide prevention. They will forever be two cards in the same hand.
So let’s work together to spread awareness of the conversations that are hard to have. Speaking up about them is the best way to change the way they’re talked about tomorrow. You never want to ask yourself what if. Trust me, I’ve been there. As have millions of other people. Instead, let us ask ourselves, and those around us, what do we need to do to keep this from happening again?