May 31, 2011

People Are So Fragile

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What is the issue?

There’s a myth about suicide: That those more likely to commit it are the delinquents, the drop-outs, the homeless, the addicts, the apparently troubled.

Quite often, though, the most susceptible are our role models, the high-achievers, the straight-A students, the chipper, the friendly, the generous, the successful.

As a journalist, I’ve written about death and tragedy countless times. My first full-time reporting gig was in Tracy, Calif., where I covered murder, rape and torture for three years running. But it wasn’t until I took up my current job as reporter for a local publication in an affluent Bay Area suburb that I had to write about suicide.

Unlike a death where there are obvious “bad guys” and victims, suicide is so often inexplicable. Family of the victims question themselves, wonder why they didn’t see the signs and turn back that anger on themselves.

“Family of people who take their own life often look back at what the person said, or how they acted, for missed signs,” said suicide expert John Bateson, who runs the Contra Costa Crisis Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., and is penning a book on Golden Gate Bridge suicides.

“Invariably, it is such a complicated mindset that unless you’ve been suicidal, it’s difficult for someone of normal thinking to see that point of view,” he said. “The best we can do is let people know that there is help.”

Most of the time, reporters refuse to cover suicides. Suicides happen in clusters, partly because someone who’s suicidal may cement that decision to take their own life if they hear about someone else doing the same. It’s risky to bring attention to the behavior.

But sometimes, suicides are a public event and we’re forced to write about them. Last summer, a man my own age waved a 9mm handgun at a bunch of cops after an hourlong standoff. The cops shot back, 37 times, and the kid crumpled into a dead heap on the ground. A jury later ruled it suicide by cop.

Not long before that, a well-known community member a town over rammed his car into a utility pole, endangering the people around him. Since it was in the open, we had to write about that, too.

More recently, a 15-year-old girl went missing. Earlier this week, Alliy was last seen riding her bike around school. Her family said she left a suicide note and traces of an Internet search for directions to the Golden Gate Bridge. The public responded in a heartbeat. Hundreds of volunteer searchers combed the beach, parks and trails of San Francisco to find Alliy.

On Wednesday, authorities called off the search. At that point, their only hope was to find the body. They had enough reason to call it another suicide – one of 1,300 suicide jumps off the bridge since its construction in the late 1930s.

Another life taken to a kid’s temporary hopelessness.

Alliy was exactly the type of high-achiever I described earlier. She was a record-breaking swimming, a 4.0-GPA holder, someone so many people looked up to.

We’ve had some pretty high-profile suicides in this area. A few years ago, a little girl suffocated herself in her bedroom after getting a less-than-perfect score on a math test. Her story inspired a local documentary filmmaker to create “Race to Nowhere,” a movie about the overwhelming pressures society and families place on our youth.

My mom called me after I just got home from Alliy’s vigil last night, so we started talking about all the suicides in this area.

My mom grew up in Danville, like Alliy did, and felt many of the same pressures. Her parents were rich CPAs, moving every couple years into bigger and better homes, moving their kids around from city to city to pursue their money-driven American dream.

My mom became bulimic to live up to her mom’s expectations that she stay a size 4. My mom became a cutter and tried to take her own life because she felt like she always fell short of her parents’ expectations that she do well in school, keep up the house and steer clear of boys.

I don’t know why Alliy jumped. Suicide is, more often than not, unexplainable, even to those closest to the victim. Alliy’s best friend, who I spoke to this week, said nothing could have been more unexpected.

“She would brighten your day, she was so optimistic,” she told me, barely able to fight back tears.

Sometimes it’s mental illness. People with bipolar disorder describe coming down with “tunnel vision” that blocks out all prospects, all concept, of tomorrow. They can’t imagine a future. They don’t want to kill themselves, but feel theyhave to.

Other times, it’s everyday pressures like those felt by my mom, it’s all the little things and the big things and the things we can’t get over. It all starts to pile up and seem insurmountable.

It’s the expectations of the people around us, especially of our teachers and parents. Often, kids who get tons of positive feedback for their accomplishments have a fatal weakness – undeveloped coping mechanisms for criticism and what they perceive as failure.

I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts as an adult. I think it’s safe to say that it’s common for people to feel at times that death is the only way out, that things will never get better.

Suicide and the people who consider it are often stigmatized, especially, in my experience, by conservative religious communities. Taking one’s life, or even weighing it as an option, is taboo to talk about. People are made to feel ashamed to admit that they’ve considered it.

I think it’s important to bring out in the open, though. Because often when you’re at that low point, you feel guilty and alone. You think you’re the only one who feels that way, that there’s no one who cares and no one who can help and no solution.

If more people knew that the feeling is shared and overcome by so many other good people, I think they’d make it out alive.

Suicide is always a temporary feeling. We need to make those permanent solutions – like that too-easy-to-jump-over Golden Gate Bridge railing – less available so people have time to get over it.

That brings me to another myth about suicide: That if someone’s Plan A is foiled, say by a suicide barrier on the iconic Golden Gate, that they’ll find some other way to kill themselves. Bateson, and a long list of other experts, say that’s not the case.

U.S. Berkeley psychology professor Richard Seiden in 1978 studied that very question: “Will a person who is prevented from suicide in one location inexorably tend to attempt and commit suicide elsewhere?”

Seiden and some graduate students followed up with more than 500 people who had tried jumping to their death at the Golden Gate Bridge. A quarter-century later, some 94 percent died some non-suicidal way or remained alive. Six percent actually committed suicide.

“They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B,” Seiden told the New York Times Magazine, per Bateson. “They don’t say, ‘Well, I can’t jump, so now I’m going to shoot myself.’”

The authority that governs the bridge has for years turned down proposals to erect a suicide barrier, or to build a net to break the fall. It’s too expensive, they say. The net alone would likely cost more than $46 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But if it shatters the bridge’s image as a spectacular place to die by making it harder to do so, is it worth the price?

Sometimes, all a person needs is a little more time for some hope to grow.

Stay strong, people. Hug your friends and family. Tell them you love them. Be nice to strangers. It could save someone’s life. TC mark

image – DaNASCAT
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