Suicide prevention: How one writer learned she wasn’t helpless to help

Deaths in recent years of high-profile individuals, including former NBA player Tyler Honeycutt, chef/traveler Anthony Bourdain, fashion icon Kate Spade, and funnyman Robin Williams have amplified conversations about suicide.

Yet, suicide isn’t a get-out-of life tool that only celebrities employ. Nearly 45,000 people in the U.S. killed themselves in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And youth, ages 10 to 24, committed about 10 percent of annual suicides. It is the third-leading cause of death for this age group.

Still, knowing the statistics didn’t prepare me, at least not emotionally, for a recent interview.

Seemingly Simple Task

While reporting a story on bullying, it made sense to talk with someone who understood the anxiety bullying roused. I wasn’t sure there was a student out there willing to share their story, but one 18-year-old stepped up and offered his story.

A recent high school graduate, he told me he began being bullied by family members at a young age and that bullying carried over into middle school. Kids insulted him because of his nice clothing, because he was intelligent, because he was an athlete. They called him fat, though at the time he was only a little overweight. They called him gay, although he is not.

This young man didn’t cower from his bullies, he fought. But he also started cutting himself. By eighth grade, he said, he was suicidal.

I stopped typing. Wait, what? Surely he’s not still suicidal, I thought. But how can I be sure? I mean, this story is about bullying not about one kid’s current mental health. Backburner, I thought. I would come back to this later. Just ask the questions you’re meant to ask and then ask him later. Do. Not. Forget.

The young man told me how racial stereotypes perpetuate bullying even among teachers, how his grandmother was growing spiritually and helping him to grow and learn how to better fight his battles as well and about a school counselor he called an angel. “She was my light when I was in the dark and felt like I didn’t have anyone to run to,” he said.

Finally, I asked, “Are you suicidal now?” Obviously, he’s going to dodge the question or tell me to mind my own business, I thought.

But he didn’t. He said, “I’m not going to say it has not crossed my mind, but it has. I am financially unstable. I am by myself, and I’m not receiving enough hours at work. I’m stressing because college is right around the corner. Hoping scholarships and financial aid will come in.”

My heart started racing. Now what? What do I do? Is there a check list? I started surfing the web while he told his story, doing my best (and failing) to also be an active listener.

Afterward, I told him he was courageous. Because he is. Imagine telling a stranger — a writer nonetheless — that you suffer from anxiety let alone telling them you have been contemplating suicide.

Secondly, I told him to get out a pen and write down the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Then I found the numbers to a counseling in his community and one at his new school and asked him to take those down. He seemed pleasantly shocked that I would even care.

Thirdly, I told him God loves him. Because He does. (“We love him, because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19) And he cried.

I know now I did not do all I could have done (while writing this, I am thinking and learning of more things I can do now). Neither do I know if the little I did will keep this young man from harming himself in the future.

However, I do know I’m tired of reading social media posts, watching news stories, and hearing friends talk about a loved one’s suicide and feeling as if there’s nothing I can do to help. We can all play a part.

Suicide-prevention: Need to know