State Rep. Dan Johnson’s death last week by suicide seems an inexplicable event. We may be tempted to create a salacious caricature of a man who seemed to have lived an over-the-top life. He reported a lengthy resume full of colorful experiences including, as he described in his Facebook posting before his death, having post-traumatic stress disorder.
There were devastating accusations of sexual misconduct just before his death. The repercussions have been heightened by the #MeToo movement in such a way that allegations are often mistaken for criminal charges and convictions.
While sexual misconduct is never acceptable, it is also possible that we are forgetting that humans are on both sides of the equation.
We cannot possibly know what he was thinking. What we do know is that his life ended in suicide, like more than 700 Kentuckians and more than 44,000 Americans every year.
Suicide is enormously complicated. It is categorically wrong to try to explain his death by drawing from the few details that we do know. Nor should we diminish the despair by characterizing the act as done only by someone who is selfish, cowardly, morally failing or any other fill-in-the-blank pejorative word.
Suicide is a behavior that cuts across all demographics, socio-economic status, personalities and occupations.
While the science of why someone would kill themselves lagged for decades, we do know more now than ever. Being male and living in a rural county are risk factors, but, like other risk factors, tell us very little in identifying those who will end up taking their own lives.
Individuals who are suicidal are often ambivalent. They don’t necessarily want to die, but they don’t want to live in the pain that they are in any longer. They can often view themselves as burdens and fear rejection by communities they value. As a gun enthusiast, Johnson certainly had developed the courage and fearlessness it takes to use lethal means to end his life.
While religious faith is generally a protective factor in an individual’s life, it does not immunize anyone. Johnson was known as the “pope” of Bullitt County and was pastor of a local church. Just like recent research on female veterinarians, physicians and other caregivers who seemingly have a vulnerability to suicide, spiritual caregivers have few to help them navigate such a difficult journey that may be viewed by others as a moral and personal weakness.
We know that suicide is not a cowardly act and it is not a moral failure, but it will take many more people of faith standing up and stating this for the message to sink in.
Unfortunately, the consequences of the suicide may have devastating effects on those most touched by the death. For every individual who dies by suicide there are, at least, 135 individuals exposed to that death. In this case, there are, at least, tens of thousands of individuals exposed, given its wide publication on national media outlets.
More than a third of those touched by the death will also suffer consequences such as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and, possibly, suicide attempts.
Suicide is a community problem. We need to combat it with knowledge and a willingness to talk about suicide. The stigma that surrounds suicide is a combination of ignorance and fear. Fear of suicide is not such a bad thing. However, ignorance is unacceptable.
Kentucky is now one of two states nationally that requires behavioral health providers to have hours of continuing education in suicide assessment, intervention and management. Training other “gatekeepers” to recognize and respond appropriately to those who are suicidal or to help those in the wake of a suicide death is crucial.
Being able to ask the right questions and creating communities, such as communities of faith, that are responsive to people in a suicidal crisis is no longer just an option. It is an imperative.
Melinda Moore is an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and clinical division director of the American Association of Suicidology. Julie Cerel is a professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky and president of the American Association of Suicidology.
Workshop: “How to understand and address suicide in your communities and congregations” Monday, Jan. 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Eastern Kentucky University, Perkins Building. More information here.