By Brad Hearst
From an outside perspective when people think of suicide they think of the family impacted. Their mind will immediately drift to the spouse left behind to take care of the family financially, the children that will now grow up without a mother or father, or the parent who lost a child. This is a completely normal reaction. One of the most difficult parts of suicide is that its reach is so expansive that we forget about the hundreds of thousands of people outside the immediate family that are also impacted. In the United States, an estimated quarter million people each year become suicide survivors. Many of those are coworkers, friends and associates who knew the individual personally without a direct relationship to the individual who passed.
The first one that comes to mind is a close friend. Friends raise us up when we are down, laugh alongside us and can become just as close as family. Losing a best friend in many cases can be just as impactful as losing a family member. Memories are shared, inside jokes are created and a mutual respect and love is formed. We chose to spend our times with these people and become connected with them. For many of these reasons the passing of a friend is just as equal or difficult as a direct loss. Losing a friend to suicide overwhelms hundreds of people every week yet they are often forgot about further down the road. The support dwindles, similar to that provided to families and they are forced to face the challenge alone.
My brother was active duty in the United States Army. When he passed away he had to be transported 980 miles back to home. A member of his regiment who knew him closely and had become a friend volunteered to accompany him for the entire trip home. As my brother was transferred from one plane to the next he would deplane, conduct military honors and then board the next flight. Once arriving to the funeral home, he then stood by the casket until my brother arrived at his final resting place. Nearly two weeks of this young man’s life were dedicated to my brother and his passage home. He wasn’t related to our family. He didn’t have an obligatory responsibility. He simply knew my brother, worked with him and had a bond that compelled him to step forward.
Our family will forever be grateful for his service and dedication to my brother. It provided a sense of relief knowing a member of our armed forces would be watching over him on the long journey home. We thanked him for his time and energy he put in but there are still no words or monetary value that could truly repay him for what he did for our family. I’m sure that responsibility he took on weighed heavily on him and provides one example of how suicide reaches much more than the direct family.
Over 50 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from major depression. I’m sure you are wondering what that figure has to do with anything. I mention it because often when someone is suffering from depression or any sort of mental health condition they are hopefully able to receive assistance from a professional psychiatrist. A psychiatrist goal is the relief of mental suffering associated with disorder and improvement of well-being. Between 80 – 90 percent of people with depression respond positively to treatment.3These professionals still have that 10 – 20 percent that don’t respond that could end up passing away by suicide.
Anyone who puts in the time and effort of trying to support someone whether professionally or personally is going to feel the toll of losing someone to suicide. Professionals in this field probably don’t want to discuss losing patients because it would negatively impact their career. I recently spoke with a counselor regarding the topic who said she was so closely connected to one of her patients that passed away by suicide that she took nearly a month away from her practice. It made her question her abilities to help individuals on a professional level. Losing her patient completely changed how she approaches her clients and almost caused her to walk away from the industry. She went on to mention that if it wasn’t for the families support and forgiveness there wouldn’t have been any way she could have returned.
For confidentiality reasons I prefer to keep the counselors name anonymous. With the number of people that receive help for mental health it is safe to assume this isn’t a one-off scenario. Even professionals are indirectly impacted by suicide. The reach has no boundaries or limitations.
While bonds formed with coworkers may not have the same depth of those found amongst family we are still with these individuals for at least eight hours a day, five days a week. Many people spend more time with their coworkers than their own friends and family. Losing a coworker to suicide can be just as devastating as losing a close friend. That desk that once was filled with the individual that brightened your workday now sits empty as a constant reminder of their passing.
It is these smaller, often unconsidered bonds that make the reach of suicide so impactful. There was no going away party on their last day and workload has now increased. Unfortunately, because of the relationship shared there isn’t any bereavement time for you to focus on your grieving. It’s a difficult situation to be in but the business must continue so an employee must either use their paid time off or work through their pain.
Last but certainly not least we often forget our 911 operators, police officers, firefighters and paramedics. The men and women that put their lives on the line each and everyday for us can be indirectly impacted each shift they work. The 911 operator takes the call, and if it isn’t too late tries to keep the individual debating suicide from stepping over that thin line. The police officers, firefighters and paramedics then attempt to beat the clock and race to the scene hopefully to save a life before it is too late. It is unfortunate, but often that call comes in too late and our first responders must relay a message to family members that no one wants to deliver.
While there may not be that personal connection for our first responders the time spent on each case takes its toll on everyone involved. The 911 operator that fought to talk someone off the ledge and failed now deals with the struggle of an unsuccessful negotiation. The police officer who must tell the family what happened and must conduct the investigation over the next several weeks is reminded daily throughout the conversations and paperwork that must be filed. The paramedic who battled to keep a patient alive on the ambulance ride is overtaken with the pain of losing someone.
If a life is lost, many of these positions will require a temporary leave and counseling before they can return to the field. Losing someone to suicide directly or indirectly isn’t easy for anyone involved but when it is your job day in and day out the struggle with the stigma is that much more real for them. These are thankless positions that are indirectly impacted and deserve our support and recognition.
There are so many relationships and connections formed throughout our lifetime. As we move from job to job, work with various professional services and grow as an individual it is only natural. The people we meet whether direct or indirect shape who we are as individuals. It is these connections and bonds that make up most of the indirect losses. Supporting direct family members is difficult enough so it is important that we don’t forget those outside that circle if they reach out for help. Stopping the stigma is being able to talk about suicide and sharing our feelings openly in safe environment. I’d encourage you to take a look around your own world and consider who might be indirectly impacted and reach out or at least offer an ear to listen. You never know, it might just save a life.