More than 1,100 people in our state commit suicide, well above the national average.
A small group at the University of Washington is trying to figure out why, and how to prevent it.
That’s why when a popular, seemingly happy 18-year-old senior soccer player at a Seattle high school suddenly took his own life, one of the first calls administrators made was to Forefront – a special, non-profit research center at the University of Washington.
Forefront has one singular focus: suicide prevention.
The big question they’re constantly trying to answer is what causes someone to ultimately take their own life?
“You can’t ask the person after they’ve died, so we don’t really always have a clear why answer, which is tormenting for survivors — people who’ve had a loss to suicide — who will say, ‘I didn’t see this coming,’” said Sue Eastgard, the co-founder of Forefront.
But there are some common threads. An underlying mental health, alcohol or drug problem that goes untreated or is seemingly insurmountable is often a common factor.
Hopelessness plays a big part and is a point of emphasis in the training Forefront provides to mental health providers, educators, parents, students and others.
Eastgard says talking and listening to people in pain is a huge key. And understanding that what might not seem to be a big deal to us can be overwhelming and unsolvable to those in distress.
She likens it to the feeling when someone breaks up with us and we feel like we’ll never be loved again.
And whether it’s a mental health professional or a peer, we need to be willing to be blunt – asking people if they feel so bad they’re considering taking their own lives.
“And many people in training go ‘oh my gosh, I could never say that.’ And yet I will tell you that people who have lost a loved one to suicide wished that they had been able to ask that question and hear the answer,” Eastgard said.
It’s not just on mental health professionals or counselors to ask the tough questions. Eastgard says everyone from teachers to parents to friends to coworkers, even casual acquaintances such as bartenders can play a part in suicide prevention.
“I’m really interested in working with soccer coaches around how to better recognize when an athlete might be at risk. I think there are a lot of different places that are not traditional where we could do more of this type of education,” Eastgard said.
“Do I expect a bartender to do a suicide intervention? No, but I would love that bartender to know ‘what should I be listening for and what resources can I call on,'” she said.
Those resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). But there are also professionally supervised text lines and chat rooms for those who don’t want to or can’t call.
And she encourages us all to put those numbers in our phone so we can seek help on behalf of someone in distress, or ourselves before it’s too late.
And while Eastgard admits we’ll never be able to stop suicide altogether, her team at Forefront is dedicated to doing all it can to help reduce it.
“We’re not all prescribers of medication, we’re not all licensed therapists, we’re not all even school teachers. But we do have a role in terms of being a human being and being in a relationship with people we are concerned about, that we care about, and sometimes we even love,” Eastgard said.
For more resources, you can also visit the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention.