It is at the end of the year – September was National Suicide Prevention Month – that I welcome the opportunity to dedicate myself to this important cause.
It was the day before my 50th birthday – February 26, 1997 – that I discovered the lifeless body of my 20-year-old son, Judson, as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot blast.
Weeks later I wrote a public commentary for Pioneer Press entitled “The Valley” detailing the life and death of my dear Judson.
I wrote about his young life, including a 4-year-old rescuing a flight-disabled duck found in our backyard. After a few days of recovery, the two of us carefully drove the ducks to Lake Como, allowing the young Quaker to exit and join a raft of others preparing to fly south.
Judson grew into a sensitive, humble person; His friends appreciated his quiet charm who often inspired, encouraged and humored him.
By junior high, we began to see what we now know as clinical depression, although it had never been formally diagnosed. Judd had a counseling psychologist but declined deep therapy. The teen struggled to meet the deadline and suffered from sleep irregularities. Almost everything became difficult for him.
But Judd eventually made a comeback and, after missing a year, he graduated from Hopkins High School in the top 10% of his class. He was accepted into Purdue University.
Suddenly, however, after six months he dropped out of college in Indiana to return to Minnesota, where he was admitted to MKU.
Over the weekend where his world ended, Judd attended a Spike Lee lecture, a dance and had planned to attend the play “Great Expectations” and join our family for Murray’s annual dinner.
Tragically, I found my son lying on a chair in the early hours of his death.
More than 700 family and friends attended his funeral at the local Presbyterian church. The High School Choir, of which he was a member, sang a Mozart number. Three of his best friends provided powerful, reflective comments.
It was at that point that I joined the nearly 300,000 suicide “survivors” in America who must live without their loved ones each year.
The Centers for Disease Control tracks the realities of suicide—the 10th leading cause of death for all ages (about 50,000 per year). That is, one suicide every 11 minutes or 130 Americans die every day. In contrast, murder is considered the 16th leading cause of death in our country.
The highest suicide rates are among whites, American Indians, and Alaska Natives. Globally, one in four suicide attempts result in death; This rate is much lower in the US, about one in 25 attempts.
Depression, a brain disease, is often a part of the human condition suffered by people who take their own lives. One in four Americans age 18 and older experiences depression each year; Get about half of the treatment done. Up to 90% of those Americans who receive treatment are successful with a combination of medications and therapy.
Of concern are active and retired veterans. The VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention tracks the suicides of our men and women in the armed services. Although preventive measures have been taken, a recent VA analysis found an average of 20 suicides a day.
Equivalent to the national number, an average of 14 people per 100,000 residents, about 800 Minnesotans die annually from suicide.
Minnesota’s suicide rate has been on a slow, steady increase for the two decades since the death of my own son.
Suicide rates for men have risen in the metro area; Overall, suicides are significantly higher outside the Twin Cities, where it is often more difficult for people to access mental health services.
Suicide is one of those issues that most people don’t think about until they are tragically forced to do so, as I was. I’ve learned over the years that experiencing “grief bursts” is common among survivors. After suicide, most of us begin to seek some kind of understanding about the death of our loved one, although we know these issues can be impossible to quantify.
According to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Minnesota-based Suicide Awareness/Voice of Education (SAVE), “suicide is preventable in the vast majority of cases. It is a treatable brain disease, and newly developed treatments work.”
Each of us should consider carefully what we can do to help those who need it most to rise from the valley of despair into the sunshine of healthy living.
Chuck Slocum is the president of The Williston Group, a Minnetonka-based management consulting firm. His e-mail is [email protected]