On The Ledge: Surviving Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare

By Joan E. Childs, LCSW

Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Why am I writing about this issue? It’s so hard to lose a loved one, but the loss of a loved one due to suicide is perhaps the most unbearable loss of all. The only thing worse, is to lose a child through suicide. In my book, WHY DID SHE JUMP? My Daughter’s Battle with Bipolar Disorder, I speak of my daughter’s death as an involuntary decision caused by her Bipolar I Disorder. I believe that her executioner was her illness. However, in spite of her mind having been invaded and convoluted by this hideous interminable illness, she did in fact plunge to her death from a 15- story apartment. As much as I would prefer to define and blame her death as a psychotic, delusional demand perpetrated by the mental disorder she suffered from for so many years, I must conclude that it took her life in the form of suicide. She is not the first to die in this manner, and will not be the last.

Losing a child is unnatural. Committing suicide is an act against nature. The preservation of life is the strongest will of all in human behavior. To live and maintain life is part of our human consciousness. Therefore, when such an act is committed, it defies human understanding. In most religions of the world, it is considered a sin, a crime against God and forbidden. The individual has to either believe there is no other solution, or holds the belief that life will be better after death. Those who suffer from Depression, Bipolar Disorder I and other psychotic mental disorders, such as Schizophrenia are more prone to suicide. They either feel hopeless, desperate or are irrational in their belief system. In many cases, patients who do not maintain their medication as prescribed, often lose reality and respond to the will of their disease. It is imperative that patients do not discontinue medication without discussing the decision with their doctor. Adolescents who are depressed often take a temporary condition and solve it with a permanent solution.

According to the National Mental Health Association, suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in the United States and the 10th or 11th cause of death for young people aged 15-24. More years of life are lost to suicide than to any other single cause except heart disease and cancer. There are more suicides than homicides. Thirty thousand Americans commit suicide annually: an additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. The actual ratio of attempts to completed suicides is probably at lease 10-1. Thirty to forty percent of persons who commit suicide have made a previous attempt. The risk of completed suicide is more than 100 times greater than average in the first year after an attempt – 80 times greater for women, 200 times greater for men, 200 times greater for people over 45, and 300 times greater for white men over 65. Suicide rates are highest in old age: 20% of the population and 40% of suicide victims are over 60. After age 75, the rate is 3 times higher than average, and among white men over 80, it is six times higher than average. Substance abuse is another great instigator of suicide; it may be a determining factor in half of all cases. About 20% of suicides are alcohol abusers, and the lifetime rate of suicide among alcoholics is at least three or four times the average. Completed suicides are more likely to be men over 45 who are depressed or alcoholic. Suicide took the lives of approximately 35,000 Americans last year.

In my book I deal with the grief, loss and guilt parents suffer from losing a child to suicide. I speak about our sub-standard health system that can’t support our loved ones and provide them with the standard of care they need. The sad truth is that our country deprives our children of the professional help that is necessary in order for them to get well and function in society. As a result we are subjected to violence and murderous rage perpetuated by poor gun control laws and a lack of care for the mentally ill. It is not the guns that kill our citizens; it’s the people pulling the trigger that have no right to be gun owners. I speak of the anguish, the heartache, the feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness parents sustain. I share my own story in hopes that others who struggle with my tragedy can learn from my experience; not just as a mother but as a professional as well.

Now my mission is to help people survive every parent’s worst nightmare. I want to speak on this subject so others who struggle as I have, can feel the courage, hope and healing that will come if they make the conscious choice to be a survivor and not a victim.

I see hundreds of parents who cry out for help. Hundreds, who can’t shake the blame and guilt for feeling like they should have been able to do something. The “what if’s” that are perseverated a hundred times a day and the mental replays of seeing the way their children took their lives. Some never survive the grief. Some can’t bear to let go fearing they are abandoning their child’s memory. That was not going to happen to me. I made the choice for my four other children, my patients and my life.

I wrote as a catharsis. Grievers are nocturnal, so I wrote every night for seven years. I was compelled to go to the computer. I never thought I was writing a book. I was just pouring my heart out to the computer and at the end of seven years I realized I had a book that could help others who shared my experience. Time was my best friend. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my daughter. But there is healing. There is recovery. Choose to be a survivor; not a victim.

(*See National Mental Health Association Fact Sheet: Suicide)

WARNING SIGNS

The Mental Health Association gives the following warning signs. These symptoms do not necessarily mean that the person is suicidal, but may signal a need for help:

• Verbal suicide threats such as, “You would be better off without me,” or “maybe I won’t be around.”
• Expressions of hopelessness and helplessness.
• Previous suicide attempt.
• Daring or risk-taking behavior.
• Personality changes.
• Depression.
• Giving away prized possessions.
• Lack of interest in future plans.
• Inability to function.
• Loss of interest in life.

WHAT TO DO

If you have reason to suspect that someone is depressed, irrational, or severely dysfunctional, you can assume that they may be vulnerable to committing suicide even if they deny such a thought. It only takes a second to make that choice. Most suicides are
planned and thought out. Some are not. Sometimes, all it takes is to ask the person if they have suicidal thoughts. That may open the door to revealing their feelings. We are often so afraid to ask that question due to our own fears, that we feel safer if we suppress the thought. Sometimes it is not even in our consciousness due to our own defense mechanisms such as denial and repression. It’s so difficult to consider it a possibility when you are close to someone who is ill. We tend to lose objectivity. This is why it is so important to get help. A good mental health professional will know what action needs to be taken; whether to refer the person to a psychiatrist for medication and evaluation, to hospitalize or to treat in a combination of ways. A family member or friend is ill-equipped to make a decision, but can make an intervention to encourage seeking a mental health professional.

There are resources in every community that have telephone hotlines, local Mental Health Associations and medical professionals. If you feel unable to help, call the national hotline, 1-800-273-talk

* (Google is an excellent resource for information about Suicide.)

Joan E. Childs has been a licensed clinical social worker since 1978 specializing in change work for human potentiality, personal growth and self-actualization. She was chosen to be the first affiliate of the John Bradshaw Center in the United States and is a consultant to many corporations, hospitals, universities and academic institutions. www.joanechilds.com