It was the phone call that no family member wants to receive. The scenario had never entered my mind, yet the news was delivered to me regardless: My brother had attempted suicide. My little brother, the boy I still envision following me around everywhere and the strong young man I thought I knew, had tried to take his own life.
I felt shattered.
But more than anything, I felt confused. How could this happen to someone I know and love?
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. It is the second leading cause of death among individuals aged 10-34, meaning younger people are most vulnerable to this affliction. These numbers do not even take into account active-duty service members, whose suicide rates were at a record high in 2018.
Why did this happen? How did this happen to my brother?
When a person commits suicide, there are so many unanswered questions. After the relief of my brother’s failed attempt, I was anxious to get answers. I wanted to know why he would feel that his life was worth ending. I wondered what went through his mind before and during this act. I wanted peace of mind to know that this would never happen again.
But my family and I quickly found that there are no good answers, if any.
There were warning signs. He was clinically depressed; he hated being on medications for his mental health and how they made him physically feel; he struggled emotionally and mentally in his teen and young adult life. Yet he had never expressed any desire to die. He had a supportive family and was seeing a therapist.
On the surface, it seemed that he was doing OK. He wasn’t capable of providing a reason or explanation for his suicide attempt. All he could say was that he felt so down and so low that he couldn’t see a way out; that death was his only way out of the pain and hurt.
His lack of answers only made the attempt more surprising and difficult to comprehend. I felt frustrated that he could not see past this pain. I was angry and hurt myself; how could he not see what this would do to his family and friends? How could he be so selfish?
I wanted to shake some sense into him while alternately hugging him for the rest of my life. He needed to live. I needed him to live.
Did you know that an estimated 9.8 million people in the US contemplate suicide each year? Suicide and suicidal ideations do not discriminate. People of every age, race, income level, and background are prone to these thoughts. And even worse, too many of these people follow through on these thoughts.
To be honest, I knew how my brother felt.
While difficult to admit, I have experienced those thoughts. I suffer from panic disorder and depression, and those thoughts can flit through my mind in my darkest moments. The difference is that I know I do not want to die and would never attempt this. For many others, there is little to no distinction between the thought and the action.
So if a rational person can have those thoughts or can feel depressed, how do we help those who feel even worse? Because all I felt was helpless.
I spent time with my brother in the week after his suicide attempt. I talked to him; I cried with him; I got angry with him. I begged him not to put us through this again, to live for us. We talked about everything from doctors and medications to 24 hour support and coping methods. I left him feeling scared yet optimistic that this was the wake up call he needed – the wake up call we all needed to get him well.
I wish I could tell you that this attempt was the only one.
I wish I could tell you that getting help has been easier.
I wish I could say that my brother is thriving.
I really wish I had answers.
My brother continues to struggle as he lives with mental health illnesses. He has weeks and months where everything is well – his medications are working well, he is seeing a therapist, he is happy with his life or working toward goals. But the dark moments tend to overshadow these times. He stops his medication or cannot get into a therapist regularly; he quits communicating; he gets low and hides it well. With every phone call about another suicide attempt or a scare, I feel more and more helpless.
But I know that even I cannot make him get help, and I know that I am not helpless myself.
I can keep in contact with him and check on his well-being. If I want, I can bluntly ask if he is thinking of killing himself – why be afraid of the question? I can still be a person to come to for support, even if he never takes it. I can listen without judgment or without taking it personally. I can love him, even from afar, and know that this might have to be enough. My family and his friends do all they can to make his environment safe, supportive, and loving, and I trust their actions.
And finally, I have realized that no matter how much I want my brother to live, it will never be my choice.
My family and I can and will do everything we can to prevent another phone call, another scare, another hospital stay. And I hope every day that our actions are enough.
Are you looking for help now?
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
(If you are in an immediate crisis, go to your local emergency room)