When suicide happens

Trigger Warning: Frank discussion of suicide.

Writing about suicide isn’t easy. I’ve been trying for a while to write this post, but I never know where to start. Do I start with my own story? How I have lived in that pit of despair that causes someone to actually think that taking their life is a solution? Or do I open with the staggering suicide statistics? Like, every 40 seconds someone commits suicide?  Or, did you know that HALF of ALL college students consider suicide at one point?

Neither options allowed me to find the right voice to speak about something as evasive as suicide. But then, last Wednesday, I received a text message that finally gave me the voice to talk about it. And that voice is mighty pissed off.

Robot Hugs blanket nest

It was 8:30 p.m., my husband and I were lounging on the sofa, catching up with our DVR, when my cellphone dinged. We have a rule that we try not to use our phones after a certain hour, unless we’re expecting news. If it had been one text, I would have ignored it. But it was the urgency of multiple incoming texts that made me break our rule.

It was my best friend. She had just found out that an acquaintance of hers had committed suicide (I didn’t know the person). She didn’t know her that well, they had only performed together once. Her friend, who had known the woman more intimately, had told her the news and he was devastated. My friend was in the middle of a rehearsal and couldn’t really talk, but she needed to tell someone who would understand. Who could offer advice on how to console her friend.

Despite being the bastion of mental health knowledge that I am, I was at a loss and caught completely off guard by her text. There’s no real way to prepare for the news of a suicide. Other than being there for them, listening to them, and giving them a hug if they want it, there’s no real way to console a friend or family member who is dealing with this type of loss.

The absurd thing about this situation is that in the past two months, this is the third suicide victim I have heard of (and I’m not counting the multiple suicides covered by the media, like Leelah Alcorn). I haven’t personally known any of the victims. It’s always a friend of a friend, but the news always hits me like a punch in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me before I am brought to tears. (I cry for the death of strangers because I feel a fellowship with people who have mental health issues and because I know that black hole of sadness all too well.)

Except Wednesday night, something was different. Maybe it was because it was my best friend who was distraught over this sudden news, or maybe it was because this was the third person, but I was fucking angry.

I was pissed off that someone was struggling so badly that they felt the need to take their life. I was fucking pissed that they were so desperate that death seemed like a better alternative than living. I was fucking pissed that they were clearly not getting the help they needed or deserved. I was fucking pissed that people would say how they never “saw it coming.” I was fucking pissed off because suicide shouldn’t happen, but it seemed to keep happening over and over again.

Suicide warning signs

Despite all the advances we have made in mental health awareness, suicide is still an issue that is shrouded in silence and secrecy. Suicide is treated like a “contagious” disease, as if you can catch it just by speaking its name. Maybe “suicide contagion” happens not because of the act itself, but because no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about the fact that maybe they’ve thought about killing themselves before because it’s embarrassing and morbid. Or maybe they had a relative who committed suicide that no one talks about. Or maybe suicide just makes them feel terribly sad, even if they didn’t know the person.

There’s no easy way of talking about suicide because it’s hard to explain why someone would think killing themselves is a viable solution to their problems. As someone who has seriously thought about numerous ways to die, suicide is still hard to articulate. It’s a complex and confusing issue because it goes against one of our most basic instincts, self-preservation.

The thing is, suicide is never about wanting to die, it’s about wanting the pain to end. It’s about wanting to disappear. It’s about wanting whatever it is you’re struggling with to be over. If you’ve never battled with depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, or any other form of mental illness it’s hard to understand the enduring and seemingly never ending psychic pain. It’s a pain that follows you like a shadow in your waking hours and haunts your dreams as you sleep. There is no escaping it.

Moreover, suicide is hard to talk about because of the pervading myths that surround suicide. I’m sure a researcher somewhere has done a fancy study with numbers, but I’ve been in enough social situations to know how dumb people can be about mental health and suicide.

I was at a party this past summer when the subject of suicide, self-harm, and mental health came up. I don’t know how or when the conversation started, but it was sudden and swift and I braced myself for impact.

“They say it’s a cry for help.”

“They do it for attention.”

“Well they say that you can tell a cutter from someone who really wants to die by the direction of the cuts.”

“How much of a loser do you have to be to fuck up your own suicide?” 

“I get why people jump in front of a metro – but everyone knows taking a bottle of Advil will only make you sick.”

These comments were tossed out over wine and cheese, in front of near perfect strangers. This is the stupidity and callousness with which suicide is discussed. It was complete thoughtlessness and ignorance that dominated the conversation.

Condescending Wonka

Don’t be a douche waffle when you talk about mental health & suicide

Let me demystify a few things about cutting and suicide – the two are not intrinsically linked. Just because you cut, doesn’t mean you want to commit suicide. Attempting suicide or self-harm are not cries for help and aren’t attention seeking behaviours. People who do these things are sick, just like someone who has cancer or diabetes, and they simply don’t know how to cope with their feelings or the world they’re living in. (The Canadian Mental Health Association has broken down more myths about suicide).

This is what I wished I had said at this party. But after bearing the weight of these words in silence, I made a quick exit in tears.

So it’s not that we shouldn’t talk about suicide because we’re afraid it’ll be contagious, but we need to know HOW to talk about it. We need to be SENSITIVE to our audience. We need to be CONSIDERATE of other people’s experiences. We need to be KIND and UNDERSTANDING.

Suicide isn’t an easy subject to broach and defies all logic, but we need to talk about it or else all of these deaths will have been in vain.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide know that there is hope. Here are contact numbers for organizations that help people in crisis.

Canada: 1-800-SUICIDE OR help lines and centers by province OR 911

US: 1-800-273-TALK

US LGBTQ Youth (the Trevor Project): 1-866-488-7386

US Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (press 1)

InternationalBefrienders Worldwide

Australia:  13-11-14 (lifeline) or 1-800-55-1800 (kids help line for 5-25 yrs old)

Suicide of transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn

**Note: I have updated this story with images that respect Leelah’s preference for long hair rather than short hair.

**Trigger warning for discussion of suicide & inclusion of a suicide note.

I haven’t had much time to process the disgusting situation surrounding the suicide of transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn. All I know is that I feel so compelled to write about it. I have been struggling with writing a post about why mental health is a feminist issue and without trying to monopolize on her death, THIS IS WHY MENTAL HEALTH IS A FEMINIST ISSUE.

For those of you who don’t know, Leelah Alcorn, was a 17 year-old transgender teen who committed suicide last weekend by walking the wrong way on an Ohio highway when she was struck by a tractor trailer. Before her death, Leelah left this tragic suicide note on her Tumblr account, which now appears to have been taken down but an archive’s available here.

Leelah Alcorn

via LGBT art on Tumblr.com

If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.

Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.

When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

She goes on to say that since her parents took her only to Christian therapists and therefore she couldn’t get help for her depression.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.

I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.

So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.

At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.

After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.

That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.

Goodbye,

(Leelah) Josh Alcorn

Leelah Alcorn QueenOn Reddit, Leelah spoke openly about what happened when she admitted to her mother than she was transgender and that she engaged in self-harm and thought about suicide:

I came out to my mom. She reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong, and it felt awful.

She then proceeded to tell my Dad without my consent, and they were both extremely angry with me. They never physically hurt me, but they always talked to me in a very derogatory tone. They would say things like “You’ll never be a real girl” or “What’re you going to do, fuck boys?” or “God’s going to send you straight to hell”. These all made me feel awful about myself, I was christian at the time so I thought that God hated me and that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I cut myselfat least once every couple days, and I was constantly thinking about suicide.

Leelah is a queen

Via comatoseannie on 8tracks.com

I’m not going to mince words, these religious zealots killed their daughter. It was their own bigotry that led to Leelah’s death. Parents like this should be tried for murder or at the very least, abuse. If Leelah had found a place where she felt accepted and could see a future for herself, she would probably still be alive.  And this makes me extremely, fucking angry! This girl died because of her gender orientation and being ostracized by her own parents. They made her hate herself. And why? Because of her gender? What the actual fuck!

So back to my original point – why is mental health is a feminist issue? Because LGBTQ youth experience higher rates of suicide, depression, self-harm and substance abuse.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, LGBTQ youth experience:

  • Higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality, self-harm, and substance use among LGBT peoplex
  • Double the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than heterosexual peoplexi

LGBT youth and trans people face increased risk. For example:

  • LGBT youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than heterosexual peersxii
  • 77% of trans respondents in an Ontario-based survey had seriously considered suicide and 45% had attempted suicide
  • Trans youth and those who had experienced physical or sexual assault were found to be at greatest riskxiii

There is also evidence that LGBT people are at higher risk for substance use issues than the general populationxiv:

  • Some research suggests that use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances may be 2 to 4 times higher among LGBT people than heterosexual peoplexv
  • A Toronto-based study found significantly higher rates of smoking among LGBT adults (36%) than other adults (17%) xvi
  • American studies report higher rates of alcohol-related problems among lesbian and bisexual women than other women xvii

I don’t have a point really to this post, I’m more expressing my outrage at the stupidity of religious extremism and bigotry that led to a poor girl’s suicide. And if there are any LGBTQ teens out there listening, there is a place for you in this world. It does get better. And suicide is never the answer.

Jaclyn Glenn does a great vlog about Leelah on her YouTube page:

The Trevor Project operates a 24-7 confidential hotline for LGBT youth. If you’re in crisis or feeling suicidal, please call 1-866-488-7386, chat with them online here, or text them here.