September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This is a time to raise awareness, a time to reach out to those who have been affected, a time to educate and connect people to resources, and most importantly, a time to start the conversation in an effort to save lives.
In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death. Suicide does not discriminate, ripping lives apart without regard to age, gender, race, ethnicity, economic or social status. This public health epidemic is infiltrating our military and veteran communities every single day. These selfless men and women took an oath to protect our country, providing us with the uniquely American rights to freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are dying by suicide at the alarming rate of 20 servicemembers and veterans each day.
The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that veterans are twice as likely to die by suicide than civilians. In Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) latest Member Survey, 65% of IAVA members know a post-9/11 veteran who attempted suicide, and 58% know a post-9/11 veteran that died by suicide.
For the last 3 years, I have worked for IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program (RRRP), guiding and supporting countless veterans and family members struggling to find mental health resources. These individuals are searching for someone to hear them out, at their most vulnerable time, and – even simply to be humanized. When I speak to these clients, my voice may soften a little more than usual, and at times I may share parts of my own struggle, to let them know that yes, I do hear you, I am listening, and I have your back. At these moments, I am reminded of why I chose social work as my career path and why I chose to work at IAVA: to be the person I needed when I was younger.
On March 13th, 2005, my best friend, my person, my Marine, my Thomas, died by suicide.
Thomas always knew he wanted to join the Marine Corps, and in June 2000, a week before our high school graduation, he was off to bootcamp. Thomas was stationed in Okinawa, Japan during the attacks on 9/11, and I remember him assuring me that everything was going to be ok. There was no fear in his voice, just genuine love and honor. Being a Marine gave him a level of confidence and self-worth I had never seen in him before, a feeling of true purpose. The next few years were filled with pre-deployment rituals, care packages with mixed tapes, and weekly letters and cards knowing that most would never arrive to him on time or at all. In June 2004, we drove from Camp Pendleton back home to New York, with anticipation and excitement of the idea that he would finally be home, safe, and we could figure out our future. I would have never believed that 9 months later would be the end of that future.
I can honestly say I didn’t see any of the signs, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. I can say that because I didn’t know anything about suicide, only that it was a sin, shameful, something that was condemned by the religion and the culture I grew up in. There was never a conversation or any education about it. Yet, there I was, a 22 year old, weeks away from graduating college, and completely thunderstruck. My mind kept repeating this one sentence over and over: Things like this don’t happen to people like me.
Surviving a loved one’s suicide is the most unimaginable hell. In that one moment, your world is forever changed and nothing makes sense. So what do you do? You grieve. You cry, scream, throw a tantrum (or 50), but you survive. Some days I wonder how I’ve made it through these last 13 years, and I am always brought back to my first step towards finding hope.
For me, that first step was finding a group of people that could relate. I found a local support group for suicide survivors on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) website, and literally dragged myself (and my sister Marie) to the meeting. As I walked through the door, I immediately noticed there were a lot of people. Too many people. Parents, siblings, friends, men, women, all ages. All of a sudden I didn’t feel so alone, but in the worst of ways. It eventually became my “safe place” and I truly believe it saved my life.
How did I not know all of these people from my own community were going through something too similar? Because the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide is all too real. Because no one wants to talk about it. Because the misconceptions surrounding suicide are easier to digest than the actual truth. This needs to end now. Dismantling the stigma can only happen when we (yes, you too) step outside our comfort zone and become part of the conversation. Engage in your community, check in on friends, educate yourself.
A lot of people have commented on how “strong” they think I am, how I “inspire” them, how they would never have been able to “get over” all of this like I have. Let’s be honest, I am no stronger than anyone else, and I will never get over Thomas dying by suicide. Healing takes a lot of work. I’ve attended therapy, volunteered in my community, explored new hobbies, and of course devoured research studies and documentaries about suicide and mental health. I literally went to graduate school in hopes of finding the magical cure to all of this, which, spoiler alert, healing takes time, magic is not real, and it certainly does not pay off your student loans.
For me, sharing this journey and connecting with other survivors has filled in the cracks of my once broken heart. It feeds my soul. When things feel off, I ask for help. I allow myself to be vulnerable and tell the people I trust that I’m having a rough time. A rough day. A rough few weeks that I may have been trying to hide from everyone and I just can’t fake it anymore. I am still a work in progress, and that’s ok. This does not mean I am weak. No, No. This is a sign of STRENGTH.
Thomas was the kindest, funniest, most loyal man I have ever known, and I am a better person because of him. I share my story to keep his memory alive, because the way Thomas died is only one second of the 22 ½ years the world was blessed with his presence.
Fact: Suicide is 100% Preventable.
Ask for help.
Engage with your community.
Share your story.
Know you are not alone.
Know that you are loved. So, So Loved.
Hope defeats Suicide.
If you or a veteran you know is struggling with mental health challenges, IAVA’s Rapid Response Referral Program is standing by to assist. Reach out to us today.