Woodring: The one word that can help end an epidemic

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"SUICIDE." I intentionally write it in capital letters, and place it in quotes, because so many of us find the word extremely difficult to see and to say. And yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified suicide as an epidemic in the U.S., with rates having reached a 30-year peak since they began to climb in 1999.

Why are we so afraid to talk about suicide? It's not as if the media avoids it. Just do a Google search of "suicide as a current epidemic" and you'll find more than 500,000 results. Articles in almost every major news outlet in the nation address the concern. The recent Netflix series, "Thirteen Reasons Why," addresses the subject and is one of the company's most viewed series.

Still, in my work training even the most seasoned mental health clinicians on the process of assessing for suicide risk, invariably more than half of them are challenged to directly use the word "suicide" in a conversation with their clients.

That's because they either find it "uncomfortable" or "anxiety-provoking." Or, despite the absolute lack of evidence to the contrary, they fear that asking the question directly may actually cause the person to become suicidal.

I believe our fear of suicide is rooted in our fear of confronting what it actually means. People we know, love, and care about are taking their own lives — and accepting the thought that it could happen to any of us is frightening.

It's very likely that each person reading this right now could admit to having had thoughts of dying by suicide at least once in their lives. Confronting this reality is hard, so we don't talk about it easily.

Suicides by firearms outnumber homicides by firearms by more than two-to-one. Yet how often do we have conversations about suicide with our neighbors in the same way we do about homicide? Thirty percent more people die by their own hand than by someone else's, yet the talk in our communities generally concerns our fears of homicide, not suicide. We watch the television news and hear much more about violence against others in our communities and much less about the violence perpetrated upon ourselves.

While it's absolutely critical that we open our eyes to this epidemic, it's equally important to open our mouths and ears, and communicate more openly about suicide. For example, if you are worried about someone's potential to die by suicide, ask him or her about it. Express your concern. Ask how often they think of suicide. Encourage that person to seek professional help, and offer to assist if you are able. For additional support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center at www.vtspc.org.

And, use the word "suicide" in your conversation. People dealing with thoughts of suicide often experience a profound sense of relief just to hear a person they know and care about express what they are fearful of saying themselves. Just saying the word helps to de-stigmatize the thoughts they may be having, and opens up an opportunity for them to get the help that exists.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and the week of September 10 — 16 is National Suicide Prevention Week. So, let's all begin to say it out loud. "SUICIDE." Get used to saying and hearing the word. It's something each one of us can do to help put an end the current epidemic.

Kirk Woodring is the chief clinical officer at the Brattleboro Retreat.

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