No One is Untouchable: The First Lesson of Suicide Prevention

This little car and I made a little film. It has a big heart.

The day after the Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s mental health counseling center took his own life, I found myself on the platform of a SEPTA station in East Falls, passing out suicide prevention literature to morning commuters. I wasn’t there because the Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s mental health counseling center took his life the previous day, I was there because it was World Suicide Prevention Day, and I was part of a county taskforce partnership with our regional rail service to pass out educational material related to suicide prevention.

Warning signs and such.

People arriving on the platform that morning were reading about the suicide at Penn on their phones, and some commuters were surprised that here was this guy, the very next morning, handing them a card with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number on it. I remember people stopping to talk to me that September morning, expressing shock and disbelief over this very high-profile suicide, a suicide of someone in charge of helping struggling college students with their mental health. Some of the people I spoke to were outright and downright angry.

“But he was the HEAD of Penn’s counseling center!” they exclaimed to me.

“Yes,” I acknowledged, my lips pursed in a slightly down-turned frown, “he was the Head of Penn’s counseling center.”

I see you.

I see your confusion and your anger and your fear. It says, “If him; then, me.” I get it. I understand. If you, if him, if her, if us, then; me.”

Then what?

Then, no one is immune. This is one of the first things that, I think, is critical to know and understand about suicide: we all have risk factors, we all have protective factors, but anybody can get to the point where they might become suicidal. Anybody. Even the Head of Penn’s counseling center.

A certain career doesn’t make you immune. Neither does an advanced degree in mental health, or knowledge, or money, or an adoring family, or walks in the park or on a beach or down Fifth Avenue. A drive in the country. A candlelit dinner. Synapse-popping sex. Frosted Mini-Wheats. A gold watch after forty years of service.

If you think that you or your family is untouchable, know that roughly 1 in 60 Americans can call themselves a suicide loss survivor, a designation that any one of them would give back in a heartbeat, if they could.

I became a suicide awareness advocate kind of by accident. Yes, my aunt killed herself in Israel in 2004, but I don’t really know how big a part that terrible event played in who I am and what I do today. He flew there almost immediately to deal with the logistics of death, a skill which he has proved very adept; subsequently assisting my great-aunt and my uncle in their final months, weeks, and days with compassion and attention I hadn’t thought him capable. When he came home, we didn’t speak about his youngest sister — not for years — until my standing as a suicide awareness advocate sparked a 1,300 mile road-trip in my 1963 VW Beetle, Herbie the Love Bug replica emblazoned with the Lifeline’s number on its rear window, to make a film about suicide.

It was a good talk.

Of course, I started my journey with him, sitting on a couch, talking about his sister. Talking about suicide. He railed against the traditional Jewish ostracism of people who took their own lives by placing them in segregated burial areas, and he fondly remembered his wayward, schizophrenic artist sister — always struggling, always lost, always broke. He shared her artwork with me. Faxes. Her death certificate; in a language I couldn’t read. The language of my people; a people who can’t abide suicide or tattoos or mixing meat with cheese or turning on a lightswitch on Shabbat or showing your forearms or not having a graduate degree or not having your head covered.

I couldn’t read it. But I know that, of all the words on that piece of paper, the word “suicide” wasn’t there. We’re good at getting around stuff like that.

I identify as a suicide loss survivor, mostly because people don’t really understand why you care about suicide prevention if you’re not one, but my father doesn’t identify that way. Maybe it’s partly a language/culture/generational thing. I don’t know many 71-year-old Israeli men who go around identifying as “trauma survivors” even though, by default, every single one of them certainly could. To him, it’s something that happened, something to compartmentalize, to put in a folder. He has folders everywhere, for everything; car payments, legal matters, cameras, insurance, the house, the cars, the deaths — there are folders for my uncle and my sister’s husband, and for his youngest sister, the lost desert flower, who took her own life thousands of miles away from us, and a million miles away from hope.

I am scared that, one day, I might end up in a folder. I, too, am at risk for suicide — simply by just being a white, middle-aged man. Well; half-white. I carry my fair share of risk factors, and I have an abundance of protective factors, too. My light waxes and wanes every day, just as, I suspect, yours does, too. Recently, an old colleague of mine from the psychiatric hospital where we used to work called me up and asked me if I’d co-facilitate a webinar with him on the subject of resiliency in the healthcare field. I agreed to do it, because I’ll agree to do virtually anything that doesn’t involve sticking sharp things into my urethra, but I don’t know what the hell I’m going to say during this webinar and, like everything else, I think that I am the worst person he could have asked to do this thing with him.

To me, resiliency is like paper, or a euphonium hung up on the wall of a TGI Friday’s. It’s like a set of plastic, chattering joke teeth or a minuet or a Tim Conway sketch. It’s like foggy eyeglass lenses and hot sex breath on your shoulder. It’s standing on the train platform with cards in your hand. It’s standing and trembling before something you don’t understand but that you spend your whole life talking about and fighting against. It’s yesterday and tomorrow in a cage fight that’s happening right now.

It’s if him, then you, then me.

Gabe is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online mental health publication. He owns far too many ties.

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