By Daniel H. Gillison, Jr.
In 1986, I lost my cousin to suicide. We grew up together; we were supposed to be the first ones from our family to go to college together. The loss of her life left a void I still feel today. I know my family does too.
In a way, I didn’t just lose my cousin that day, I also lost my aunt and uncle who were never the same. The ripple effect of mental illness is something I experienced and witnessed firsthand. Despite the great impact it had on all of us, we’ve never talked about it. It’s been 35 years, and we still haven’t talked about it.
It’s been 35 years, and now I’m here in this role as the CEO of NAMI, helping others who are struggling with mental health conditions and thoughts of suicide. Back then, I never could have imagined I would end up in this position today. I’m so proud to be a part of this organization and to be doing this work.
I can’t help but often wonder to myself, what would it have been like if we had had NAMI’s resources back then? Would my family have recovered any better from the aftermath of this terrible tragedy? Would it have impacted the outcome of my cousin’s life in any way?
Unfortunately, I’ll never know for sure.
But what I do know is that my family and I are not alone in dealing with the devastating aftermath of suicide.
In fact, more than 50% of Americans say that they have been personally impacted by suicide. This is a sad but unsurprising statistic considering that every 11 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide, and suicide rates have been on the rise over the last two decades.
Some groups are at a higher risk for suicide than others. Youth who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than youth who identify as straight. Adults who identify as transgender are nearly 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Suicide attempts among Black youth have been increasing at an alarming rate compared to other races and ethnicities. And suicide rates of military service members and veterans are at an all-time high, with deaths by suicide having increased by 25% during 2020.
But the risk of suicide has been exacerbated for everyone by COVID-19. After all, more than 42% of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in December reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, an increase from 36% just four months earlier. A recent NAMI survey found that nearly half of all U.S. adults reported experiencing symptoms of a mood disorder within the previous two weeks. And from 2019 to 2020, we saw the number of individuals reaching out to the NAMI HelpLine with concerns related to suicide rise by 185%.
So what can we do?
My call to action this Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and beyond, is simple:
1. Talk About It
If you see someone struggling, check in with them. Ask them how they are really doing. And if you are concerned that they are thinking about suicide, don’t be afraid to ask them directly. Many studies have shown that asking people about suicidal thoughts and behaviors does not cause or increase suicidal thoughts.
One suicide attempt survivor made this profound statement: “Two ears and one heart — that’s what saved my life.” You don’t have to have all the answers. Simply being there for someone and listening to them with empathy can make all the difference.
3. Reach Out for Help
Whatever you are going through, you are not alone. If you are looking for resources to support someone struggling with thoughts of suicide, or if you are experiencing thoughts of suicide yourself, help is available.
For immediate 24/7 support:
For help finding local resources:
It’s been 35 years since my cousin lost her life to suicide. It’s time for me to start talking about it. I want to lead by example. And when it comes to suicide, it’s time for all of us to start talking about it.
Daniel H. Gillison, Jr. is the chief executive officer of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Prior to his work at NAMI, he served as executive director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation (APAF) in addition to several other leadership roles at various large corporations such as Xerox, Nextel, and Sprint. He is passionate about making inclusive, culturally competent mental health resources available to all people, spending time with his family, and of course playing tennis. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanGillison.
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