September is National Suicide Prevention Month here in the U.S.A.

The very first time I recall hearing the term suicide, I was 10 years of age.

Sean* was a cousin of my cousins on the maternal side of my family. In our family, my siblings and I were taught that a cousin to cousins could also be considered our cousin. 

Sean was within the same age range as my older sister and I, about 10 or 11 years old. There’s only a span of 11 months & 11 days between our birthdays, commonly known as “Irish Twins.” When I think back to the early 70s, I recall times when all 20-25 cousins would be together, celebrating birthdays, holidays, or any given special occasion.

Yes, there would be those moments when one of my cousins would get upset, especially if we divided into teams and there was an odd number. The disdain wouldn’t last long because Sean would always get called away from the group by his Mom. Our playtime of hide-and-seek, jump roping, red light-Green light, Mother May I, tug-of-war, Mr. Fox, and other engaging games were free from technology and we would typically have fun. Many of my cousins and I lived with secrets of mental and physical demons, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). 

Collectively, most of our parent’s thanked us for assisting with our younger siblings. Sean was the oldest child in his family and would always be asked to help with his much younger brother and sister. I can still hear Sean’s Mom constantly calling his name. “Sean go get a diaper.” “Sean, come and take care of these babies.” Sean, go and make bottles…” “Sean…” “Sean…” “Sean.” “Sean.” “Sean.” “SEAAAANNNN!”

One day, Sean felt that he could no longer handle the pressures of all the adult responsibilities placed upon him as his childhood was slipping away. 
With his Dad’s handgun, Sean placed the gun to his temple and with a single shot, Sean committed suicide. The only reason we knew this is because of the note that Sean had left behind.

My parents tried using age-appropriate terms to explain suicide to my siblings and me. Like a record with scratches that doesn’t move past the scratches, so did the mental photo in my head, envisioning pieces of Sean’s brain and blood on his bedroom walls.

This bright brown-eyed girl, who already had difficulty sleeping, believed that the monsters under my bed were actually the very individuals who had sexually molested me. I couldn’t fall asleep unless I was lying next to my mom. My dad worked the afternoon shift and when he arrived home from work, he’d take me to my room where I’d remain awake for the remainder of the night. Most often, I thought about Sean’s blood upon his bedroom walls.

At the next family gathering, no one said anything about Sean. The very same avoidance of not speaking about Sean occurred at each family gathering thereafter. In actuality, it wasn’t until I became a teenager, arriving at school on a Monday morning and being told that one of my teachers, Mr. Bernstein*, who lived in my neighborhood, had committed suicide. Mr. Bernstein had gone to Belle Isle on Saturday morning, sat on a bench, and slit his wrist. Mr. Bernstein’s body was found the next day. I instantly thought of Sean. 

During the late 70s, I don’t believe that the Detroit Public Schools thought of the impact of such issues on students, staff, and faculty.  The Administration of the high school I attended didn’t bring in support services such as Mental Health Professionals. While he left a note at his home, I still pondered why?

Over the years, after I’d learn of additional individuals that had committed suicide, I continued to wonder why. During my initial graduate studies, I took the course “Death & Dying”, which provided a great deal of insight for me. I became more and more purposeful in supporting suicide prevention programs that I sought and received several professional certifications. 

September More than 34,000 Americans commit suicide every year, and suicide is among the top five causes of death for Americans aged 10-54 and is the second leading cause of death for adults 25-34. Research by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that a child who has many very negative experiences can be 30 to 50 times as likely to attempt suicide when they are teens or adults. (https://www.center4research.org/childhood-youth-experiences-link-suicide/)

More than 5% of women and 2% of the men reported having attempted suicide. You are not alone. If you live in the US and are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free and confidential support. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For crisis support in Spanish, call 888-628-9454.

*Names changed to protect identities.

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