Voices on the Edge

J. Christopher - Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Entered on July 13, 2008

The text message said, “Call me as soon as you can.” The time stamp read, 5:28 am—a bad time to get a message from another psychotherapist at my hospital. I’m on vacation in the desert southwest, enjoying the tranquility of living simply for a few weeks, and the message snaps me back to reality. I am a clinical researcher specializing in treating high-risk suicidal psychiatric patients. My days are spent working with young adults who survived a near-lethal suicide attempt prior to coming to our hospital. I try to save them from self-destruction, and in this long process, they teach me why they want to die.

I believe suicide is one of the great tragedies of modern existence. Suicide does not discriminate—it steals the lives of young and old, the rich and successful as well as the poor and disenfranchised. Suicide has reached epidemic proportions, especially among teens and young adults. In the US, it’s the third leading cause of death for people between 15 and 24. As incomprehensible as it seems, every 16 minutes someone in the US commits suicide, leaving behind grieving and confused friends and family.

The young people I treat tell a strikingly similar story. At some point they felt trapped in a role –sometimes it’s the sick child, sometimes the black sheep, or some other role that feels suffocating and impossible. Trapped and seeing no way out, they cannot find the words to communicate the emotional frustration and hopelessness—most of the time they don’t fully know why they are so desperate. In an acute state of emotional turmoil, and with no place to turn, these people are at greatest risk for suicide because they cannot imagine the suffering will end.

Suicide is the final desperate act of a person who cannot find a meaningful, authentic, and viable existence in our society, and can no longer bear the intensity of their emotional suffering. One of my deepest pleasures comes from helping young people learn how to cope with intense emotions, and then bearing witness to their discovery of an authentic voice with which to speak and break out of stifling roles. But grief and frustration gnaws at me when I think of the epidemic of suicide, the needless suffering of suicidal people, and the grief of loved ones left behind.

For far too long, suicide has been caught up in religious dictates against mortal sin. This association has kept suicide in the shadows because shame about mental illness inhibits many people from seeking help, leads to under funded research and treatments, and keeps the issue buried. The suicidal need our compassion, they need better treatments and they need our help in discovering a better ways of coping with their emotional turmoil.

I think about my newest patient as she struggles to find a reason to live. I think about that text message. I think about the thousands of young people every year who make a serious suicide attempt, and I hope for their future.