Note: Most of the participants in this article are referred to by the first letter of their name to help protect their privacy.
Once a month, in a gray-carpeted room of a Chapel Hill church, group members gather in a shared circle of frustration and pain. Talk of suicide is never an easy subject, especially when a loved one takes his or her own life. But since last year, the Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group has offered a safe place for difficult conversations and for healing.
“One reason I’m here is because I’m around people all the time, but I feel isolated because they don’t understand,” said G., a single mother whose son killed himself six months ago.
“But if you come in here… we all have one thing in common.”
Jodi Flick, a clinical assistant professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, understands the loss probably more than most. In the late 1990s, her father-in-law took his own life. For nearly 20 years, Flick also has offered comfort to local families touched by suicide as part of her job as a crisis counselor for the Chapel Hill Police Department. The creation of the suicide loss support group evolved from her work with law enforcement and a growing frustration with the lack of adequate resources to assist survivors.
“We wanted a group where people could talk and not feel like they are being judged – like they are the only person this has ever happened to,” Flick said. “We wanted people to know that they don’t have to struggle by themselves. That there are already people out there who have been through it, who know how they feel and who want them to know that even though they’re never going to forget it, there will come a time when it won’t hurt so bad.”
Flick regularly leads the group, which has seen its membership increase steadily to nearly three dozen. Generally, meetings lack an agenda to allow conversations more freedom, although Flick often offers up a question to kick start the dialog. During the June meeting, she asked if other members had been battling feelings of anger and if so, how they were dealing with it.
“A lot of people have asked if I’m angry,” said J., a mother of four who lost her husband to suicide in December 2008. “Every time I go to get angry, I can’t because I feel so bad for the place he must have been in that he needed to do this.”
Although survivors wrestle with the whys of suicide, those most at risk generally have one thing in common, Flick said. Nearly 95 percent have brain disorders, such as severe depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, and many struggle with chronic substance abuse, she said. There are other risk factors, including economic hardship, isolation, relationship loss and a history of trauma.
People who have had family members die by suicide also are at greater risk. M., a member of the Chapel Hill support group, has grown accustomed to the stunned silence she often receives when counting down the loved ones she has lost.
“I’ve always felt like a novelty act – that person that something bad always happens to,” explained M., whose grandfather, father and uncle died by suicide. At least four friends took their own lives, and her mother has threatened to do so, she added.
Statistically, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among people 10 years old and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 33,000 people take their own lives each year, the equivalent of one suicide every 16 minutes. Men take their lives at nearly four times the rate of women.
Among all adults, rates are highest for ages 75 and older or 15.9 per 100,000. Flick’s father-in-law had been married nearly 50 years and was 73 when he died.
“The older you get, the greater the risk, partly because there are changes in your brain that make you more vulnerable to depression,” Flick explained. But her father-in-law was also from a generation that grew up believing that mental illness is a “character weakness” and that ”you buck up and don’t go and ask for help,” she noted.
Many of those left behind often struggle with feelings of guilt or blame. Why didn’t they see the signs? “I had all those same feelings,” Flick said. “I’d been in crisis intervention my whole life, so I beat myself up about it. If this is what I do for a living, then how come I didn’t see it in my own family?”
Yet, for most people, depression and suicidal thoughts generally disappear within six months, especially when mental health treatment is involved, Flick said. Research shows that people who die by suicide are usually not getting treatment or are receiving inadequate treatment, she said. For many, the stigma of mental illness hinders them from seeking help.
“The thing to keep in mind is feeling really awful and wanting to die – those are symptoms of what’s wrong with your brain,” Flick said. “And when you get treatment for that and the depression goes away, those thoughts will go away.”
Understanding the causes of suicide and the course for recovery are vital. Above all, if you suspect a loved one is considering taking his or her own life, talk about it, Flick said.
“Sometimes people are terrified that if they talk about it that it will make the other person think about (suicide). But I assure you if people are that depressed, they’re already thinking about it.”
For survivors, talking and sharing their thoughts and emotions over losing someone to suicide is equally important. Such conversations can provide hope and help promote their own healing, Flick said.
Six months after her son’s death, G. draws a bit of strength from knowing that her son is no longer hurting. Working through her personal pain will still take some time.
“Every morning you wake up, and it hits you in the face,” she said. “And it’s not going anywhere. You know you can’t get over it, but you can get through it. That’s what I tell myself everyday.”
The Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group meets the second Thursday of each month from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the United Church of Chapel Hill, 1321 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill. If you are interested in attending or leading any meetings of the Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group, please contact Jodi Flick at (919) 962-4988 or at email@example.com.