In cities throughout the world, notable high buildings and bridges increasingly have additional fencing built atop of them with the specific purpose of preventing suicides. Suicide fences tend to work because research has shown that suicidal actions are frequently impulsive, hence such fences serve to forestall that impulse and buy individuals precious time to further think about their decisions. In studies of suicide fences, it appears that individuals don’t leave such barriers to go look for another bridge or tall building to end their lives from, but instead return to the business of living for yet another day.
Presently suicide is the leading cause of death among young people ages 10-17 here in Utah, and over the last decade, it’s also doubled amongst adults in our state. As concerned friends, neighbors and parents, how do we help our community build more barriers to suicide; protecting and empowering those we love? Over the next year, I’ll be writing a series of articles in answer to this question; offering my perspective as both a therapist, who has stood on sacred ground in helping others walk back from suicidal thinking, and as one who’s felt and ultimately rejected the dark pull to end my life amidst heavy times.
Perhaps you’ve already noted that there’s no way to build suicide fences everywhere or to somehow block all of the endless ways in which someone might consider ending their life. Sound public policies on prevention and physical barriers like suicide fences are only some of the important ways to help. So in addition to these forms of prevention, the focus of my writing will be on how to build barriers to suicide directly into the thinking and values of individuals, and into the culture of our community as a whole. In this first article, I want to introduce how we help foster an ethic to live within ourselves and in others as a key barrier to suicide.
An ethic to live means valuing our lives and holding a commitment within ourselves to continue living — even when we’re unsure of how we’ll cope or move forward. In my experience, helpful conversations about consciously building an ethic to live, begin by first taking care to turn our attention to the reality that to live is to be vulnerable to an array of difficult life experiences, with the potential to evoke within us the thought to end one’s life to escape them. Throughout human history, individuals and peoples have had to confront extremely painful and unjust challenges which have overwhelmed their sense of being able to continue on, and it’s important to acknowledge that when we confront such considerable pain, it is the most human thing in the world to want relief from it. This is real; excruciating human suffering beyond one’s current sense of how to reduce or stop it is real, and in these concentrations of pain, we may find ourselves having suicidal thoughts.
When we acknowledge and honor that such excruciating life experiences do show up for many of us, it’s then that we can locate where we need to begin building internal fences to prevent suicide. It’s here that we recognize the need to develop a strong ethic to live even though there are times that we might not yet fully know how we’ll cope or be able to see brighter ways forward. It’s also here that we find the need to define as individuals what makes life worth living with specificity to our own life experiences, as well as the need to find a listener who we can turn to and voice what’s going on inside of us.
As you navigate life’s difficulties, no matter how hard things may get, make the commitment now to live and identify your personal reasons to do so. Additionally, identify suicidal thoughts as a sign to find a listener who you feel safe enough to talk to. It’s worth thinking about right now who it is you might feel comfortable turning to during your hardest times. By doing so, you’ll begin to build your own internal fence between you and suicide as well as have greater insight as to how to help others you care about to do the same.
* If you or someone you care about is currently having thoughts of ending their life, caring help is available 24/7 by texting 741741 from anywhere in the USA or you can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak directly with a Counselor from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Laura Skaggs Dulin holds a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from San Diego State University. She currently sees clients at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families and at Encircle LGBT Youth and Family Resource Center in Provo