Building Connectedness During Suicide Prevention Month
By Loretta Graceffo
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time to honor those who have died by suicide while also recommitting ourselves to looking out for each other so that further tragedies can be prevented. Suicide is currently 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and more than 47,500 people lost their lives to suicide in 2019.
There are many critical factors that play a role in preventing suicide, from implementing universal access to mental health resources to ensuring that people’s material needs are taken care of. One crucial facet of suicide prevention is called connectedness, which professionals define as “the degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated or shares resources with other persons or groups.”
Connectedness comes in many forms: connectedness between individuals can include relationships with friends, neighbors and co-workers, while connectedness on a larger scale can look like familial relationships. People can also find connectedness through organizations like schools, faith communities, volunteering, mutual aid or activism. Lastly, people can experience connectedness through delving into their cultural traditions and history.
Dr. Theodore George, a neuroscientist, practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, explained the concept of “connectedness” by talking about his own experience with patients experiencing suicidal ideation.
In some ways, suicidal patients are in a similar situation as those diagnosed with illnesses like cancer, he says. While both tended to feel “overwhelmed with emotions...fearful, out of control and anxious about the future,” their paths diverged in one significant way: patients with physical illnesses had the support of their families and friends, who rushed to their side with an outpouring of love and practical aid. Meanwhile, suicidal patients felt isolated, alone and hopeless.
Because of the stigma surrounding depression, suicidal patients had less people to turn to, and struggled having conversations with loved ones about what they were experiencing. His patients described this feeling as “living in a room with no doors or windows.” One good way to think about connectedness is that it’s a way of being that window for someone.
One of the most powerful ways to prevent suicide is by building strong communities of care where people are valued and accepted for who they are. This can be a lot harder than it sounds -- modern society can be stressful and lonely, and increased productivity expectations can make it harder to make time for checking in with the people we love.The pandemic has made it even more difficult to stay connected to the outside world and be fully present with others. And while reaching out to people and inviting them into our lives isn’t a cure for mental illness, research shows that when people feel connected to others, they are far less likely to end their own lives.
Making the time to seek out community and surround yourself with people who care about you may sound simple, but it can make a world of difference. No matter how individualistic American society is, human beings are inherently social creatures who depend on each other for safety, love and belonging -- and as long as human beings need each other, preventing suicide is up to all of us.
Though this may seem like an enormous task, it can often take the form of something as small as texting a friend you haven’t heard from for a while, or chatting with your coworker during lunch instead of eating alone. Now more than ever, we must remember to take care of one another. We all have a role to play, no matter how small.