#MHYALit: Author Ann Jacobus Talks About Suicide
Trigger Warning: Suicide and Suicidal Ideation are Discussed
On January 1st of this year, one of my best friend’s from high school ended his life. I had no idea he was even struggling and am still likely to break out into tears throughout the course of the day. Because of recent events, I have had to explain suicide to my 13-year-old daughter, The Teen. Today, as part of #MHYALit, we are honored to have author Ann Jacobus here discussing the topic of suicide and her YA novel, Romancing the Dark in the City of Light.
I volunteer at a national suicide crisis line. Every week I talk to or text with dozens of people who are feeling depressed and overwhelmed; are dealing with mental illness and need someone to help; are worried about a loved one who is feeling suicidal; or are feeling suicidal themselves.
Why? you may ask. For the same reason most of us volunteer there—personal experience with and understanding of how difficult suicide is for all concerned.
I was an artsy kid. As a teen, I suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression, off and on for a number of years. We moved a lot and my family went through a divorce upheaval. At age fifteen, my mom, three younger siblings and I moved once again in the middle of my sophomore year of high school to a new state. The shift from thinking life sucked, to thinking it wasn’t worth living, to actively wanting to take my own was gradual, but suicide came to seem like a sensible option. It felt like the only thing that I could control, and that would for certain alleviate what felt unendurable.
Fortunately, I stalled.
This is what we do on the crisis line–help get you through the next 24 hours, with emotional support and a plan for coping and self-care.
While stalling, I did research on death and dying, ate a lot of mac and cheese, and Baskin Robbins ice cream, partook of marathon sleeps, and escaped into novels and stories whenever possible. I finally made a friend or two, and took a mime class (no joke). As a more-or-less responsible oldest child, I did realize that the consequences of such a choice would devastate my already struggling family.
I figured I could probably hang on for one more day.
Thankfully, as a stay-at-home-nerd, my access to alcohol and drugs was limited. Being drunk or high on a bad day would have impaired my already questionable judgment and removed any remaining inhibitions, possibly resulting in an attempt.
Eventually things got a little better. Dying was still on my mind.
It got way better finally, but that took awhile.
Untreated mental illness or depression is the number one cause of suicide. And alcohol or substance abuse correlates significantly with attempts and completions.
Suicidality (the term for feeling suicidal) is a possible symptom of a number of mental illnesses but goes along most often with depression, and mood or personality disorders. In a massive 2013 CDC study of US high school students, nearly 1 out of 3 struggled with some depression in the previous year. 17% or about 1 out of 6 actually had thoughts of suicide.
Those feeling suicidal almost always show signs. These include anti-sociable traits such as being moody, angry and/or withdrawn. And abusing drugs or alcohol.
I told no one for decades that I had wanted to take my own life. It was hard to admit. I felt like a freak. Plus it would upset everyone, and they would look at me differently and think less of me (pride, much?). But like the cyanide capsule one carries inside a molar to swallow if captured by the enemy, the option was there if the world became inescapably unbearable.
Almost anyone can end up suffering a run-in with mental illness. Genetic factors are obviously important, but so are biological, social, and environmental factors. If enough things are piled on a person, they will break. Every one of us will have loss, grief, and unfortunately sometimes violence, in our lives—and when we feel alone and disconnected, we have much greater difficulty coping.
Even with no genetic predisposition to mental illness, you are at higher risk of going into crisis or having a mental health break:
If your family is rejecting and non-supportive of you (because of your sexuality or gender identity, for example)
If peers are rejecting and non-supportive of you (bullying)
If you failed to form strong primary attachments as a baby/young child
If you live now or in the past with the stress of poverty, abuse or violence
If you experienced trauma as a child, or recently (PTSD)
If you have recently been incarcerated
If you don’t sleep well (rest and dreaming help us process life’s ups and downs)
If you abuse alcohol or drugs (actually a chicken or egg thing…)
If you are more sensitive and creative
Many mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, OCD, self-harm, and substance abuse are the way our minds and bodies try to COPE with stress and anguish that is overwhelming.
During one of life’s many transition periods, and this includes “positive” things such as moving, adding a new family member, adolescence, a new job, or even marriage, our coping skills are already taxed. Throw in a big loss or trauma—a break-up, a death, or a car accident—and, wham! We’re overwhelmed.
Normally we’ll get a little more support from family and friends, from our religion, from a crisis line, and ideally, self-care.
But sadly, if our mental health falters or fails, it’s like someone having pneumonia or brain cancer that everyone ignores. At best, someone says, “buck up, petunia.”
Medical attention and/or therapy and medication can help get us through it, no sweat, but we’re afraid to ask for the help we need.
That’s because of stigma.
Stigma leads to silence, prevents treatment, causes loss of life.
So, What Can You Do?
Ask for help. Almost all mental health disorders can be successfully treated.
Suicide is preventable.
Work on your coping skills: supportive relationships with loved ones, exercise, sleep, diet, spiritual life, meditation, daily structure.
Read others’ stories. There are so many great YA books out now that give the real low-down on all aspects of mental health. Here’s some on suicide. (Goodreads list of books that deal with suicide).
Share your story – this is the ultimate way to fight stigma. The more we talk about mental illness and suicide, the more we help us all.
And last but not least, ask someone you’re worried about how they’re feeling. Then listen.
Meet Author Ann Jacobus
Ann Jacobus earned a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, volunteers for San Francisco Suicide Prevention, and is the author of YA thriller Romancing the Dark in the City of Light (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Griffin).
18 year-old Summer Barnes just arrived at high school in Paris and is depressed, anxious, and thinks that changing her location or meeting someone will solve everything. Plus she’s got a drinking problem, not to mention sleeping, eating, focusing, and doing-her-work problems. She meets two guys who pull her in opposite directions. As suicide starts to look like a solution, one boy pulls her toward the light, and the other one pulls her toward darkness.
About Romancing the Dark in the City of Light
When Summer’s behavior manages to alienate everyone, even Moony, she’s forced to decide if a life so difficult is worth living. With an ending that’ll surprise even the most seasoned reader, Romancing the Dark in the City of Light is an unputdownable and utterly compelling novel.
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network