‘Suicide Crisis’: Media attention brings suicide, mental health disorders back into mainstream light
Suicide is defined as the intentional taking of one’s own life. Unfortunately, the subject of suicide amid the general population has been silent in recent years, excluding the focus on military veterans that were involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Following World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th and Mental Illness Awareness Week Oct. 5th through October 11th, USA Today’s top story this past weekend investigated the “suicide crisis,” and another story focused on a terminally ill woman fighting for the right to end her own life; these stories have brought suicide and mental health disorders more exposure and moved these issues back into the forefront of attention.
According to the USA Today article, there are 40,000 suicides annually in the United States alone. Every 13 minutes, a person in the U.S. intentionally ends their own life. Most of these people attempting to commit suicide or are successful in their attempts are suffering from a mental health disorder; depression is one of the main enablers. Other mental health disorders which can lead to suicide include anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The consequences of attempted suicide and successful suicides due to mental health disorders affect more than the individual suffering, but impact their family members, co-workers and friends as well. With more readily available information about suicide prevention, intervention services and mental health disorder treatment, action to prevent suicide should yield significant differences for the future. Within the last two to four years, the federal government has also initiated better healthcare plans and options to provide affordable and available treatment for mental health disorders.
The right to choose a dignified death
For 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, suicide is defined in a different light. On Saturday, November 1st, the terminally ill newlywed suffering with grade 4 glioblastoma brain cancer plans to take her own life in her Portland, Oregon home. However, her rather rare farewell choice is cloaked with a political stance in an effort to help change laws for dying U.S. citizens who feel they are being forced to endure the full, uncensored, painstaking effects of their descent from their illness.
In January 2014, one year after her marriage, the healthy young woman was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Following several surgeries, the tumor returned and her doctors estimated she had six months left to live. Knowing well about the slow and painful downward spiral, Maynard investigated assisted suicide and decided to move to Oregon from California with her husband Dan where physicians can legally prescribe life-ending drugs to the dying.
Oregon, Washington and Vermont have ‘death with dignity’ laws that allow terminally ill, mentally competent residents to voluntarily request and receive prescription drugs to end their lives. In Oregon:
- There is no minimum residency requirement
- Must be 18 or older
- Capable of making decisions for himself/herself
- Diagnosed with a terminal illness which will lead to death in six months
Two physicians must determine whether the criteria have been met. The request timeline is set up as follows:
- First oral request to physician
- 15-day waiting period
- Second oral request to physician
- Written request to physician
- 48-hour waiting period before you can pick up prescribed medication
- Patient may pick up prescribed medication from pharmacy
These safeguards ensure there’s no chance patients are coerced to hasten their own deaths. The attending physician must be licensed in the same state as the patient. The physician must state that the patient is mentally competent. If the patient’s judgment is deemed impaired, they must be referred for a psychological consultation. The physician must inform the patient of alternatives such as palliative care, hospice and pain management and is required to instruct the patient to notify their next-of-kin of the prescription request. Use of the law cannot affect the status of a patient’s health or life insurance policies.
Assisted suicide is a controversial subject. Nurses who have provided daily care to terminally ill patients in their last weeks typically have a different view. When even the most potent painkillers on earth lose their effect, one is helpless to provide relief.
Suicide in the military
The Army suicide rate tripled from 2004 to 2012 as more than 2,000 GIs took their own lives. Since 2005, about $230 million was poured into suicide research, more than two thirds of that amount contributed by the military.
Current military members and veterans are likely to suffer from underlying conditions in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, the most common mental health disorder inflicted after enduring combat zones. Depression is a common result of PTSD, as these patients often isolate themselves to avoid situations which may trigger flashbacks or bad memories. Untreated depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, even more so in combination with PTSD.
Family members of those suffering from PTSD can develop mental health disorders of their own as they struggle to cope with the fallout from this debilitating disorder. Many troops are reluctant to seek help and try to heal alone. There is still an unspoken attitude that military members should be ‘able to handle it,’ although Veteran’s Affairs have been working to change that perception. There is a VA (veteran’s affairs) website that covers all aspects of PTSD and tells visitors where they can get help.
Journalists, media and advocacy groups have brought forth the necessary attention to mental health disorders and suicide to promote action for treatment and prevention. It requires every single person to take some responsibility for changing the staggering suicide statistics or the laws surrounding assisted suicide in the cases for the terminally ill.
If you suspect anyone of having suicidal thoughts, help them seek aid immediately. Help them find professional help or speak to a mental health care provider for advice.