September is suicide prevention month, and it may be more important than ever this year. The COVID-19 pandemic is making people feel isolated, spurring a rise in gun sales and creating new boundaries to medical care. WAMC brings you this firsthand account of what it feels like to hit a low point – and how to bounce back.
34-year-old Andrew Leece is a marketing analyst who lives in Glenville, New York. He volunteers for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Through volunteering with AFSP, he learned to recognize warning signs that someone is considering suicide. It is also how he was able to recognize the signs in himself.
Leece has been struggling with suicidal thoughts since he was about 12 years old.
“It started when I was young and I didn’t realize what it was,” Leece said. “I essentially had thoughts that the people around me, my family, my friends, that they’d be better off without me. So I didn’t necessarily have direct thoughts of ‘I want to die’ or ‘I want to do something’ and put myself in harm but it came more of, ‘I don’t want to… I feel like a burden to the people around me and they’d be better off without me so if I didn’t exist that would be better for the people around me.”
About three years ago, Leece says the thoughts got much worse. He had a long commute to work each day, with lots of time alone in the car just to think. Which, he says, is dangerous for him because his thoughts have a tendency to spiral into a dark place.
One day he started to hope something would happen to him, like an accident. Then for the first time he thought, “If an accident won’t happen… I could make something happen.”
“When I finally got home I realized I had other options,” Leece said. “And when one of those options kind of came up I had a quick moment of clarity and that’s where my training kicked in with AFSP and I went, ‘Oh no, that’s a plan. I’m in a lot of trouble.’”
Luckily, Leece had a therapy appointment scheduled already. What probably saved his life is having a provider who can tell when he’s not telling the truth or pretending something is not as bad as it is — and calling him out on it.
“And that’s exactly what my prescriber did,” Leece said. “She let me talk. And I talked. And then she was like, ‘OK. Maybe we should be looking at in-patient?’ And I said, ‘Well I don’t know,’ ‘OK,’ so she let me keep talking until literally I dug myself a hole and she was like, ‘Alright. So this is what’s happening,’ you know, she let me walk right into it. And I knew she wasn’t going to let me leave that office until – she knew what was going on – until I said it and until I came to the realization myself or she forced me to.”
Leece says suicidal thoughts come in waves. He likens it to panic attacks – they can pop up when you’re not expecting it. He calls them instead “depressive attacks.”
“A wave of depression comes over me and it can leave as quickly as it comes,” Leece said.
This is why professionals call suicide a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Because the wave will pass. Now, Leece says he stays ahead with “preventative care,” taking medication and attending therapy sessions regularly.
“It’s like having an annual physical,” Leece said. “You do that to make sure everything is okay.”
Sandra Goldmeer is the Area Director for the Capital Region for AFSP. She says the numbers show that the age bracket with the most attempted suicides is people 10-34 years old. She says one of the challenges AFSP faces is that the data for suicide trends comes from the CDC and is always about two years old, so it’s impossible to say right now if there is an increase of suicide due to isolation during the pandemic.
She says more than half of deaths by suicide in the U.S. are by firearm, and according to FBI.gov’s NICS Firearm Checks, during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal background checks for gun purchases in New York state have more than doubled.
New Yorkers applied to buy more guns in June than in any other June in the past decade.
The FBI ran about 52,000 firearm background checks in the state in June a 121% increase over the same time last year.
Although people buy guns for any number of reasons, Goldmeer says this is something to look out for in terms of preventing suicide. She says when people feel isolated they get “tunnel” vision on the solution of suicide. And it happens when people feel unseen and unheard.
“I wish they never used the term ‘social distancing,’” Goldmeer said. “I wish they’d used ‘physical distancing’ because social distancing is absolutely against what people need for their mental health and just because we are physically apart does not mean we can’t socially connect.”
Goldmeer says suicide becomes much more preventable when it is viewed as a physical illness that requires treatment.
“So it takes the opportunity to open ourselves up to being willing to look at psychotherapy, to look at medication, to look at self-care — all as part of what it can take to be mentally healthy and support ourselves so that people don’t die by suicide,” Goldmeer said.
Dr. Joseph Hunter is a licensed social worker and a Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Stratton VA Medical Center in Albany, New York. He says we need to work on de-stigmatizing depression and suicidal thoughts, because it prevents people from seeking help.
“Everybody struggles at times,” Hunter said. “And everybody can have a really, really bad moment in their life, months, or even years. And it can seem overwhelming and terrible and hopeless.”
Hunter says there is no one “type” of suicidal person.
“Nobody is really an exception to the rule,” Hunter said. “Because you don’t know where the suicidal person is going to be. Could be your brother your neighbor your uncle your friend your coworker or even your spouse.”
Leece is a business systems analyst with a bachelor’s degree and a happy marriage. When he considered suicide he was newly married.
“It blows my mind that I could be so happy but so depressed at the same time,” Leece said. “It was very weird to kind of be in that… Like, you know… That’s where those thoughts came in and when those thoughts come in they ended up being some of those old thoughts of ‘my wife would be better off if I wasn’t here.’”
Hunter says if you’re at a low point, seek help, because the dark thoughts are temporary.
“Everybody that I’ve met – and there’s not one exception -- of a person who has attempted suicide who ultimately wasn’t glad they’re still alive,” Hunter said.
World suicide prevention day is September 10th. Now through the 13th, AFSP is hosting #KeepGoing – a virtual event with seminars and training classes about recognizing the signs of suicidal thoughts and how to support one another.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2018, more than 48,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. According to the New York state Department of Health, in 2014, there were more than 1,600 suicides in the state. In the same year, almost 11,000 were treated for self-inflicted injuries.
In 2014, suicide was the third-leading cause of all deaths in New York state among residents aged 10 to 14 and the second leading cause among residents aged 15-34.
Goldmeer says we should all take a closer look at those around us and look for changes in behavior.
“We have to assume that we’re the only person who’s going to reach out,” Goldmeer said.
The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255 or you can text TALK to 741-741. Someone will answer ready to talk, listen, and put you in touch with more resources.
More information can be found at AFSP.org