Every year, one million people commit suicide, according the Suicide Prevention Resource Center
, leaving behind family and friends to grieve and wonder why. September is Suicide Prevention Month and, public health advocates are running campaigns to raise awareness about the warning signs of suicide and how to prevent it.
Joan Wickersham's father, Paul, committed suicide when he was 61 by shooting himself in the head. "It was a complete shock to have this happen in my family," she says.
For the next 15 years, the author tried to understand what seemed to her an incomprehensible reality: that her loving father chose to end his life.
"My father was a wonderful father," she says. "He was kind and witty, elegant and sophisticated, but he was also deeply in pain, deeply unhappy and very secretive. He had business pressures and he had health concerns, although nothing life threatening. He had all kinds of sadness in his life, which I think he really concealed very well."
Suicide, Wickersham says, is a double loss. "Not only did I lose my father, but I lost my sense of who my father was," she says. "And so you lose the person and you lose the memory of that person that in other circumstances could be comforting you. When my father died this way all the memories I had of him came into question because I had to question how well did I really know him?"
In her book, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order, Wickersham tells her story, hoping her family's painful experience will comfort others.
"I think there is a kind of shame and a kind of taboo attached to suicide," she says. "We would prefer to think it doesn't happen. I think we have to acknowledge it does happen. We have to acknowledge that it's a mystery, that we don't understand it very well. I just wanted to give a sense of what it is really like to go through this."
Wickersham says there is a reluctance to talk about suicide, adding, "I would love to see more honest conversation about it."
Jerry Reed, the director of Suicide Prevention Resource Center, encourages such honest conversation. He says that shared experiences can help put a face on the numbers and break the silence around what he considers one of the world's most serious public health issues.
"Across the planet, we lose about one person every 33 seconds to suicide," he says. "Here in the United States, every year, we lose about 32,000 Americans to suicide. Out of the 32,000, approximately 6,000 to 7,000 are older adults, approximately 4,000 are younger individuals, the remaining 20,000 to 21,000 individuals are between the ages of 24 and 64. And behind each and every one of those numbers is a family, an individual, a community, a school, a workplace, that's touched by the loss of someone to suicide."
Across the United States and around the globe, campaigns are planned this month to raise awareness and support for suicide prevention. September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.
"We encourage activities, whether here in the United States or abroad, to do what they can in their own communities," he says, "whether it is a public service announcement or working with the local administrators of the jurisdictions, maybe working with the schools, reaching out to the media to just bring attention to the preventable public health problem of suicide."
Through such campaigns, Reed says, people can get more information about why someone would commit suicide and ways to prevent it.
"Certainly in the United States, it's suggested that about 90 percent of completed suicides have a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder connection," he says. "So, really, depression is a factor both here in the United States as well as abroad. That must be something we look at."
"We know so more today than we knew earlier about effective treatments, effective diagnosis," Reed says. "Early intervention and prevention can be life saving for people who struggle with depression or other mental illness or substance abuse disorders."
Reed says he hopes more attention is given to this serious problem not only during Suicide Prevention Month but all year long. This way, he says, more people will be aware of the warning signs that a loved one is thinking about suicide so they can provide the support and help to turn their loved one back towards life.