All summer long, we've seen tragic stories strewn across the headlines and news broadcasts of anguished Kentuckians dying by their own hands.
There was the young politician, the parishioner outside the Catholic Church, and the elderly gentleman who refused help as he drove his car into the Kentucky River.
Each of these stories represents a tragic and often preventable form of death: suicide.
Sept. 10 of every year has been declared World Suicide Prevention Day, but for those of us who research and take care of suicidal individuals it is an issue that we think about every day.
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Only a few decades ago, people spoke in hushed tones about cancer, fearful they might "catch" it. Suicide remains that kind of highly stigmatized and misunderstood cause of death. This stigma is born of ignorance and fear that obscures opportunities to speak truths about it, such as that individuals who die by suicide are in enormous pain, and suicidal thinking and behavior is conceptualized by experts as a way of coping.
It is an ineffective coping mechanism, like using drugs or alcohol, but not a sin or a moral defect.
Kentucky has the 10th-highest suicide rate in the United States. In the most recent year for which data are available, 559 Kentuckians died by their own hand. Nationally, nearly 35,000 Americans die by suicide every year.
There are currently almost as many people who die from suicide as breast cancer — about 39,000 deaths per year — a heroic struggle that public attention, research and funding has been able to change.
Most troubling is the rise in suicide rates among the military. July saw a record number of Army soldiers dying by their own hand. The Marine Corps has reported similar rates.
Dr. David Jobes, a clinical psychologist and suicide expert who recently spoke at a Veterans Affairs conference in Louisville, said "the third deployment is the tipping point after which things begin to fall apart." Clinical psychologist and suicide expert Thomas Joiner, who also spoke in Louisville, proffers a theory that explains why individuals who feel like a burden to their loved ones and lack a sense of belonging to their community are especially vulnerable. This tendency is compounded when those who witness injury routinely and have developed fearlessness toward violence and harm may be at even higher risk for suicide.
This explains why combat veterans, NFL football players and emergency room doctors are at particular risk because of their exposure and tolerance of injury and pain.
In the enormous collateral damage of these deaths are the loved ones and friends left behind.
Every suicide leaves behind families, co-workers and classrooms. A very conservative estimate tells us there are at least 180,000 new "suicide survivors" every year. It is thought that there are at least 5 million Americans who consider themselves "survivors" of their loved one's death.
In a recent survey of Kentuckians, 40 percent knew someone who died by suicide and up to a third of Kentuckians report being intimately affected by a suicide death.
This translates into 1.2 million Kentuckians who consider themselves "survivors" and represents an outstanding amount of grief, loss and exposure to a way of coping that may place the survivor at risk for suicide as well.
Statewide suicide prevention efforts have been underway for a decade to raise awareness and develop capacity for preventing suicide within Kentucky. The state of Kentucky and the University of Kentucky have both been recipients of prestigious federal Garrett Lee Smith Memorial grants to develop prevention efforts.
Basic research on the breadth and depth of suicide's impact on survivors has yet to be conducted, although preliminary studies are underway at UK.
Additionally, questions still exist about how to help those who are left behind in the aftermath of this tragic event.
Experts will convene at 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19 at the UK Student Center's theater to explore these issues. The public is invited. Still, so much more is left to do to make a dent in what we know and how we can help.