Suicide is, to say the least, a difficult topic to broach with someone. It suffers first from its inherently morbid nature, and next from how strange a concept it can be to those who are wholly foreign to it. I personally can recall several conversations with people who confessed, sometimes proudly, to consider the victims of suicide to be cowards.
I can also personally recall informing a trusted faculty member at a previous school that I suspected a classmate of mine of being genuinely suicidal. He had, after all, demonstrated to some mutual friends and I several symptoms of suicidal tendencies, including deep cuts across his wrist and arms. Suicidal notions are often said to be a “cry for help” and this case was no exception.
What kept him from explicitly communicating with anyone about his depression was the stigma that surrounds suicide, a direct product of the “coward’s way out” mindset that some still retain. It is this stigma that many Oklahoman organizations are intending to eliminate in 2017, especially given the state’s mortality statistics from previous years. In 2016, Oklahoma was ranked 13th in highest suicide rates per state; Tulsa itself ranked 15th out of US cities.
What makes this state so lethal in this regard? The obvious answer is Oklahoma’s notoriously poor mental health services, but there’s more to it than that. Much of Oklahoma’s population is made up of at-risk demographics, including Native Americans, servicemen/women and veterans. It doesn’t help that this population is spread out over a largely rural area, often enhancing one’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. Oklahoma’s high poverty rate instills in many a feeling of financial insecurity, a leading cause of suicide. Finally, Oklahomans have relatively easy access to firearms and opioid prescriptions.
Groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Wellness Now Coalition have been trying for years to erase the stigma surrounding suicide, to make discussion of it public and supportive, rather than controversial and, as is sometimes the case, judgmental.
There’s a noteworthy gender gap in suicides, not just nationally, but across the world. In the US, men are committing suicide at nearly four times the rate of women, while women are reportedly three times as likely to attempt it. Of course, factors like socioeconomic status and divorce also play significant roles, but in all cases men are more at risk than women.
Both genders’ mental wellness follows a U-shaped-curve through their lifespans, hitting its lowest point as people reach middle-age. Adults in their middle age, especially today, are caught between two very different generations: their more traditional, old-fashioned parents, and their individualistic, progressive children. This creates an identity crisis that can leave people feeling trapped or lost. Some analysts argue this feeling is especially prevalent in male populations.
What all of this means is that the suicide rates in Tulsa and Oklahoma are the product of much greater, more abstract issues. While discussing suicide and, more importantly, combatting its stigma, can be beneficial in preventing more deaths, there needs to be a larger discussion on the public’s well-being. Sometimes victims of suicide are unhappy with their work, or even unable to provide for themselves or their family. They’re living in poverty or, in the case of veterans, they’ve left war with mental or physical disabilities.
In every case of suicide, the victim is inherently also the killer, but it is desperation that drove them there. Public forums, events spreading awareness and suicide hotlines will always help, but to see a significant drop in suicide rates, it will take nothing less than a wide range of financial and emotional support systems.
The student in my school who attempted suicide had been bullied and teased by his classmates for years, with an abusive father and ignorant mother to boot. Ironically, I counted myself an aid to his prevention when I’d often contributed to the teasing. It is not enough for us to combat suicide with awareness events and hotlines. There also must be a significant effort in finding and fighting its causes.