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The City Journals

Let’s end the suicide stigma by talking about it

Sep 13, 2021 10:59AM ● By Karmel Harper

Alison Stroup remembers and honors her sister, Annie, who died of suicide on December 3, 2020.   

By Karmel Harper | [email protected]

Brene Brown said, “What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” As World Suicide Prevention Day approaches on September 10, social media will most likely display photos and quotes honoring Robin Williams, who tragically ended his life in 2014 at the age of 63. 

Though celebrity photos and random “copy, paste, and share” posts that merely spread other people’s words about suicide are becoming more frequent, the few seconds of scrolling by these messages are not nearly as effective and preventative as sharing one’s own personal experiences. 

Engaging in the difficult conversations about suicide are often intertwined with grief, trauma, stigma, and shame, but they are a significant key and tactic to raise awareness and prevention. Sarah Stroup, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Monarch Family Counseling in Herriman said, “Suicide ideation hides in dark corners. By talking about it, we’re shedding light on it and increasing the safety.”

Alison Burk of Kaysville has made it her life’s mission to raise suicide awareness in honor of her sister, Annie, who passed away on December 3, 2020, 4 weeks after ingesting pills that resulted in a coma and eventual organ failure. Annie died at the age of 36, leaving a husband and 4 young children behind. When Annie passed away, the family felt alone and isolated as the outreach to support them was limited. Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, they felt like members of their community did not really know how to support or help them. “We are grieving alone,” said Burk. 

However, statistics reveal that suicide is affecting more and more people every year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness  said that 41,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide in 2019-2020. 1.3 million adults have attempted suicide, 2.7 million adults have had a plan to attempt suicide and 9.3 million adults have had suicidal thoughts. Utah has the fifth highest suicide rate in the nation. According to Utah.gov, from 2017 - 2019 the age-adjusted suicide rate in Utah was 22.0 per 100,000 persons, with an average of 660 suicides per year. In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10-17 and 18-24.

When Herriman High School experienced a cluster of suicides within a few months in 2018, the community was rocked and Stroup and her colleagues were on the front lines helping families through their tragedies and working with local teens to prevent further deaths. Stroup said, “Our community talks about it now. We share our experiences and help each other because we have experienced the devastating consequences from not talking about it.” While it is a difficult and heavy topic to discuss and some parents fear that discussing it might give their children the idea to consider suicide, research has shown that talking about it actually reduces the risk and increases safety. Stroup’s best practices for talking to your children include:

-Using age-appropriate language with each child. The words you use for an elementary age child should be different from the words you would use for your teen.

-Finding an appropriate time to talk to your child when there are no other distractions

-Asking open-ended questions such as “Tell me about a time you thought about ending your life” rather than  “Do you feel like killing yourself?”  Avoid “yes or no” questions. 

-Practicing empathy. Listen to your child from their viewpoint and validate their struggles.

-Utilizing a “safe word” or “code” for your teen to say or text to indicate they are not okay. An example is using the green-yellow-red  phrasing where your child can text “green” to indicate they are okay to “red” meaning they are in immediate danger. These short words are easier to express than several sentences trying to convey their feelings.

-Seeking help from a therapist if you need help talking to your child. 

Stroup also stressed if your child is in immediate danger, do not wait until their therapist appointment which could be days or weeks away. Take them to the emergency room immediately, where crisis social workers can assess and provide help and resources. Stroup said research shows that only 25% of teen suicides are impulsive - that they make the decision and act within five minutes. While teaching coping skills is a main goal for therapists, it is extremely crucial for the 25%. “If they can be okay for five minutes when they are in danger, they exit that impulsive range,” said Stroup.

Other ways to be proactive include visiting a medical doctor or pediatrician to receive a full check-up, including a hormone panel and bloodwork to assess Vitamin D levels to eliminate or remedy any underlying physical issues that may cause depression. With autumn upon us, Stroup and her team become especially vigilant as suicidality increases in the fall and winter months. She encourages parents to be especially watchful during this time of year, particularly after Daylight Savings Time ends in November. Observations of teachers, coaches, neighbors, school counselors and other people that spend a lot of time with your child are also important. “It takes a village to shine the light in all of the dark corners,” said Stroup.

Survivors who have attempted suicide have the strongest voice of all, for their stories allow others who are struggling to know that they are not alone. 23-year-old Brooklyn Hull of Eagle Mountain has struggled with depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder ever since she was 11 and has been in and out of residential treatment centers over the years. She has attempted suicide over 12 times. The most recent was in May 2021 when she attempted to hang herself in Provo Canyon. Hikers and Lifeflight rescued her but the lack of oxygen caused 2 strokes and spinal hemorrhage. Hull said, “I want to help kids who struggle and those who don’t have a voice and don’t know how to say they need help.” Hull, a writer, plans to start a blog to share her experience. “A pen and paper can’t judge you. But a person’s body language and expression can come off as judgmental when you try to talk to them.” Hull’s mother, Tenae. said, “People tend to judge and be mean but they don’t want to step up and be part of the solution. But there are compassionate people out there. When we lived in Herriman, the fire and police departments knew Brooklyn by name and were always so kind and helpful.”  Today. Hull is excited about the future and is focusing on her health and endeavors to help others.

When her sister Annie died, Alison Burk created a foundation to spread suicide awareness and to honor her sister and who she was as a person. Burk said, “Annie loved nature and all living things. She loved to catch dragonflies and butterflies, and even water snakes at Bear Lake.” Her website www.anniesstoryfoundation.com provides articles, resources, and items to purchase where proceeds will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Annie’s name. The merchandise, modeled by Burk’s daughter, includes t-shirts and bags displaying colorful graphics of butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, and peace signs - conveying the bright messages of hope and healing needed to overpower the dark corners of stigma.

If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidality, please use the following resources:

-American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or www.afsp.org

-Call 800-273-8255

-Text TALK to 741741

-The SafeUT App a text/talk crisis hotline which can be downloaded at  https://safeut.med.utah.edu/

-The Trevor Project website and hotline for LGBTQ+ www.thetrevorproject.org or 1-800-488-7386

-Monarch Family Counseling at www.monarchfamilycounseling.com