Hope in grief
With suicides rising in the U.S., Rotary members who’ve lost loved ones are determined to prevent more deaths. Their first step — talking.
The six Mardi Gras-style beaded necklaces that Lori Crider is wearing tell you something about her struggles and her hopes, if you learn the strands’ color code.
Purple honors a friend or relative who died by suicide. Crider wears four, including one for her nephew, Jesse Cedillo.
“I’ve lost three relatives, unfortunately,” she says at a fall 2022 suicide prevention walk that starts at a former MLB stadium outside Dallas with rain clouds framing the roller coasters nearby at Six Flags Over Texas. “I had an aunt in the ’90s, then my cousin in West Virginia after Jesse. I wear a purple for each of them and for a friend who took his life in 2005.”
Blue is for suicide prevention, an issue that has become a calling for Crider and fellow members of a Rotary club created in 2021 to take action on that cause, as well as for many people at the walk whose friends or family members died by suicide.
Crider’s nephew, whom she describes as a soft-spoken young man who dreamed of becoming a police officer, died at 20 years old in 2015 using a gun he got from a relative’s house next to his home in rural Alabama. Family members say they always had guns available for protection and for shooting sports through 4-H.
Nearly 50,000 people die by suicide each year in the U.S., and over half of them use a gun. The total number of annual suicide deaths is equivalent to filling the seats of the one-time MLB stadium where the Dallas-area walk took place. In 2022, preliminary figures indicate that the rate of suicide in the U.S. was the highest in the five decades since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recording that data. The negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the increase, according to a CDC report. Globally, more than 700,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization.
While there is no simple solution to preventing suicide, a proven precaution is limiting access to items or places that people in crisis could use to harm themselves. “Putting time and space between a person and a lethal method of suicide can save lives,” says Marian Betz, an emergency room doctor and University of Colorado professor who researches suicide and firearm death prevention.
This is the idea behind blister packages for medicines and barriers added to bridges. With firearms, having access to a gun triples the risk of suicide, in part because guns are so much more deadly than other ways people try to die, Betz notes in a video message that she recorded as part of her work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Nearly 90 percent of firearm suicide attempts in the U.S. result in death, while only 2 percent of intentional drug overdoses do. And some studies indicate that many people who try to end their lives act rashly with little planning.
Guns rob many people of a second chance to live, Betz says. “When we’re talking about suicide prevention and firearm suicide prevention, we’re not talking about gun confiscation. We’re talking about ways to lock it up more securely during a time of risk,” she says.
After her nephew’s death, Crider, a Rotary member since 2010, threw herself into helping others and worked with Shirley Weddle, also a loss survivor and mental health advocate, to establish the Rotary E-Club of Suicide Prevention and Brain Health. Its members encourage others to talk and think about how every person can contribute to reducing suicides in the U.S. and around the world by making mental wellness a routine part of day-to-day life. Club members regularly participate in events that promote awareness, eliminate stigma, and support survivors, including the Out of the Darkness Walks like the one outside Dallas, which the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention organizes.
The focus of the e-club, which started with about 50 members — most new to Rotary — is an example of how Rotary is at the forefront of encouraging people to tend to their own mental health and check on the feelings of those they encounter — openly and warmly. No stigma. Rotary President Gordon McInally is encouraging members worldwide to up their mental health efforts because of his personal commitment to the issue after his brother died by suicide.
Though programs to address suicide can vary from culture to culture, Rotary clubs around the world are supporting the work of mental health providers in their areas and taking other actions. The Rotaract clubs of Sahel Metn in Lebanon and Amsterdam Nachtwacht International raised money to support the only suicide hotline in Lebanon. Rotarians in Nepal led a session for teachers on suicide prevention and mental health management in schools, including ways to reduce stigma and discrimination.
A club outside Manila in the Philippines organized free counseling for seniors. And clubs in the U.S. have held education sessions about suicide prevention and ideas to reduce access to potentially dangerous items and locations when people are at greater risk of self-harm.
What should you do if you suspect someone is contemplating suicide?
The National Institute of Mental Health offers five action steps for helping someone in emotional pain:
- Ask them directly, “Are you thinking about suicide?”
- Keep them safe by reducing their access to potentially lethal items or places.
- Be there. Listen to their feelings and acknowledge what they are saying.
- Help them connect to a suicide crisis line or to someone they trust.
- Stay connected, follow up, and keep in touch after a crisis.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. by calling or texting 988 or going to 988lifeline.org. If you are outside the U.S., visit findahelpline.com to get connected with a service in your country.
When e-club members collaborate with organizations and talk to Rotary clubs or community groups about ways to prevent suicide and improve mental health, their presentations cover topics including risk factors, warning signs, intervention, and ways to separate lethal objects and people thinking about suicide.
Betz advises doctors to educate their patients who are around guns about their options when they or someone they’re close to is at risk of harming themselves. Public health experts suggest that people store guns unloaded and away from the ammunition with a cable lock or in a safe. Or move them out of the home when someone is in crisis; some gun stores and law enforcement agencies will store them temporarily. And other people choose not to own one when there is a suicide risk, Betz notes.
Crider echoes the idea that the safer the environment is made for a suicidal person by temporarily reducing access to lethal items, the better the person’s chances are of coming through a crisis period. “We give them time for the intense suicidal impulse to diminish and time for someone to intervene with mental health support,” she says in a presentation called Talk Saves Lives that she gives to Rotary clubs. She and Weddle, the e-club’s charter president, along with member Terri Hartman, became presenters of the talk developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, starting with clubs in their district with a goal to spread awareness and wellness ideas across the world. The three connected in a grief support group and now lead support groups for survivors of suicide loss.
A hopeful takeaway from the presentations, fundraising events, and awareness campaigns is that mental wellness advocates and public health experts have some ideas to try to help. They want everyone to hear them — whether a person thinks about dying themselves, knows someone who struggles with suicidal thoughts, or just wants to do their part to make the world more supportive of people who need help for depression, traumatic stress, loneliness, substance use, and other strains in life.
To start, mental health experts want people to throw out any hesitation they feel about talking with a friend, parent, sibling, or child who they suspect might be thinking about dying or harming themselves. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that many studies show that discussing the issue doesn’t increase the chance of suicide.
And experts emphasize you don’t need to have all the answers. Often people in distress aren’t looking for concrete advice, and just making small talk and showing empathy can save lives, according to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. The group advises to watch for warning signs, including hopelessness, rage, and reckless activity, and to be knowledgeable about available resources.
Crider suggests that people in the U.S. make the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline a contact in their phones. “You might need it for yourself or for somebody else,” she urges. “Reaching out is not a sign of weakness; it’s a strength.” And counselors and doctors recommend that people with suicidal or self-harm thoughts create written safety plans that spell out in detail what they’ll do, whom they’ll contact, and even what they’ll tell themselves when those thoughts start or when they feel out of control. One step in those plans is to secure or get rid of any items that the person could use to harm themselves.
The value of connection cannot be overstated. “Let them know they are not alone” is one piece of advice Crider shares. “Our family decided our thing was to talk about it, because nobody saw it coming,” she says.
At the walk outside Dallas, a steady stream of people moves out into the rainy morning, a long, snaking line on the sidewalk knotted with groups of friends and relatives, some holding large photo montages of loved ones who died or wearing matching tribute T-shirts: “Team Jake” and “#ForJames” and “#TeamJulian,” honoring an 11-year-old. Many of their stories echo a recurrent theme: the presence of a gun turning a passing impulse into a permanent loss.
Crider hopes the march will open the gates for families to speak about suicide and how to stop it — families like Kathy and Tony Thompson, who attended the walk. They lost their 18-year-old son, Luke, to suicide in 2018. Kathy Thompson could barely speak at her son’s memorial. But now she and her husband talk about it to others, one-on-one, and have seen results.
Several months after Luke’s death, Tony Thompson felt compelled to share his family’s story with a coworker, who talked to his own family about it. “His daughter went to school the next day and told a counselor, ‘I haven’t been sleeping the past two days. I have this plan ...’ There was a huge intervention,” Thompson recalls.
“Her mother called me and said, ‘I think you guys saved my daughter’s life,’” Kathy Thompson says. They learned that the daughter had been planning to take her life and hadn’t shared her feelings with her parents because she didn’t want to worry them. The Thompsons became close with the couple, who told them that hearing their story had enabled their daughter to open up. “Later, she was crying at her high school graduation party, saying, ‘I wouldn’t have been here,’” Tony Thompson says.
Other walkers wearing beaded necklaces in red for the loss of a spouse or partner, gold for a parent, greet each other and take literature and snacks from information tables at the stadium. The e-club is one of the sponsors of this walk, which is aimed at educating the public and allowing those with a connection to the cause to come together. The event raises money to support research, advocacy, and education.
Crider also has a necklace in teal in support of someone who attempted suicide. She took up the cause of suicide prevention as a way to cope with the grief she felt after her nephew’s death and try to prevent further deaths. “I hope I can help someone else from losing their Jesse,” she says.
In the stadium, Weddle sets up a table for the e-club with bowls of awareness wristbands and red-and-white mints, plus handouts describing the services and training offered by club members and mental health organizations they represent. She wears white beads in remembrance of a child. She lost her only child, Matthew, to suicide when he was a 22-year-old student at the University of Texas at Dallas. The e-club has recently sponsored suicide prevention awareness walks at the college.
To Weddle, an important aspect of the walks is to publicly demonstrate that suicide is not a taboo topic. “You not only can talk about suicide, you must,” she says. People’s perceptions begin to change and stigma decreases when they approach mental health as physical health and understand how sleep, diet, exercise, and stress affect the body’s chemistry and people’s actions and reactions, including thoughts of suicide, Weddle says.
The e-club’s display is among a variety of tables from groups at the walk. One table is for Soldiers’ Angels, an organization that provides support and resources to military service members, veterans, and their families.
About 17 U.S. military veterans die by suicide every day, a rate nearly 60 percent higher than that of other U.S. adults, even after adjusting for age and sex differences. Risk factors for veterans include physical and mental conditions stemming from their service, difficulties transitioning to civilian life, and access to firearms at home.
At a table promoting gun storage ideas from the Be Smart advocacy group, volunteer Donna Schmidt says the organization uses the word “smart” as an acronym to remind people about five steps they can take: secure all guns in your home and vehicles, model responsible behavior, ask if there are unsecured firearms at other homes, recognize the role of guns in suicide, and tell others about these tips. Its volunteers have spoken at Rotary club meetings around the country. Schmidt says their message is: “If you have one, then please be safe.” Free cable locks are available at the event.
The walk is brief, a little over a mile, but long enough to raise $227,532. Its nonmonetary value is obvious to the participants: gather, walk, talk, hug, cry.
Those who tend to the needs of people at risk or who live with the aftermath of a suicide also learn to look out for their own health and mental well-being. E-club members share self-care ideas at their meetings. For Crider, part of her self-care is to always keep moving. She looks up at the sky and counts even the rain on the Out of the Darkness Walk as a blessing.
“It’s such a big issue, it really needs more attention,” she says. “We need to talk about these things, to bring knowledge to more people. We’ve got to bring it out of the darkness and talk about where people can get help.”
Neil Steinberg is a news columnist on staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. His book, Every Goddamn Day: A Highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated, and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago, was published in 2022 by the University of Chicago Press.
This story originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Rotary magazine