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Suicide Has Ripple Effect on Families, Communities, Societies

  • Carol Pearson

Dorothy Paugh was nine when her father took his life. "I count that day as the last day of my childhood. Because from that moment on, I had no sense of security. I had no sense that the world was a safe place," she said.

Her father was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a place of repose for presidents and military heroes. Paugh's father served bravely in World War II. After his death, the White House sent a letter from "a grateful nation" that her mother hung prominently on the wall by the front door. Paugh says her mother wanted her children to remember their father as a war hero, and not to focus how he died. But, they never spoke about his death. Paugh said it was a special type of isolation.

People commit suicide in every country, rich and poor. In fact,the World Health Organization says about 75 percent of suicides happen in low and middle income countries, where it was the second leading cause of death in 2012, the last year for which the WHO has statistics. In that year, it was the 15th leading cause of death worldwide. Young people between the ages of 15 and 29 are particularly vulnerable.

Suicide is preventable

But medical experts say suicide is preventable, and they try to draw attention to that on World Suicide Prevention Day, which this year is September 10.

Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America, compares suicide to the end stage of cancer, a terminal point in mental illness or disease.Gionfriddo said, "Suicide is the ultimate stage four event for a lot of people who have serious mental illnesses, and frankly it's the ultimate stage four, late-stage event for a lot of people with other kinds of chronic diseases as well, too, who might not have had a mental illness."

On its web page, the World Health Organization notes that "early identification and treatment of depression and alcohol use disorders are key for the prevention of suicide...as well as follow-up contact with those who have attempted suicide, and psychosocial support in communities." Experts also say people need to change the notion that those who commit suicide are cowards.

Paugh says she thinks her father got overwhelmed. "He was no coward. He fought in World War II."

Guns and suicide

The WHO urges countries to reduce access to the means of suicide. Statistics show having access to a firearm increases the risk of suicide, and in fact, in the U.S., half of all suicides are committed with a gun. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said there are ways to change that statistic. "We can make the firearm safer. We can make people safer with their firearms, and then we can make the environment itself safer."

Paugh's son Peter bought a gun, to go target shooting and for protection. Then her life was shaken once more. "I lost my son in 2012," she said. Peter was 25 years old when he shot himself.

Paugh often carries her favorite picture of her son. "It's so understated, but he has piercing blue eyes. He's paying attention. He's looking at the world with love, I think." And he has a hint of a smile on his handsome, young face.

Dorothy Paugh's son Peter was 25 years old when he died.

Dorothy Paugh's son Peter was 25 years old when he died.

One death every 40 seconds

Every year some 800,000 people die as a result of suicide. The World Health Organization says this translates to one death every 40 seconds. Beyond this, suicide impact families, societies and communities.

Paugh agrees. "The ripple effect is enormous...his brothers, his girlfriend, myself, his father. It's a shock that takes years to recover...to find footing again."

The shock of the suicide deaths of her father and her son inspired her to become a suicide prevention advocate. "If we think someone may be troubled, ask them outright if they are having thoughts of suicide. It's not a comfortable conversation, but it's a lot more comfortable than a funeral....That's my hope and and my purpose in speaking about suicide. So people know it is preventable."

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