As spring comes to the valley I’ve been reveling in nature walks with friends. On the pathway south of Melody Ranch, mountain bluebirds balance expertly on last year’s grass stalks. On the slushy Snake River dike north of Emily’s Pond, bald eagles, ducks and swans festoon the waterway. The world is waking up, sloughing off winter and pulsing into action with blooming, courting, nest building.
And yet. On a recent walk with a friend I learned about two separate incidents of attempted suicides by adults in our community. Hearing these anecdotes worried me. I had recently spoken with Jackson Chief of Police Michelle Weber, who told me the police department received 31 crisis calls in the 28 days of February. Of those, 40% were mental health related.
“We are responding to people in crisis daily,” she said.
Weber clarified that those calls are not all suicide calls but also crises related to family stress and housing. As the earliest crocuses emerge in Jackson gardens, some valley residents are sinking deeper into excruciating pain.
This may seem counterintuitive. Isn’t spring the season of hope and renewal? Not for some. Research shows that suicide rates spike in April, May and June.
Scientists are still not sure what fuels this phenomenon. Some hypothesize that spring may give people who are suicidal not hope but, rather, enough energy to follow through with their suicide plan. Other factors may include light, hormones or even allergies.
Wyoming has the highest per capita rate of suicide in the nation, making it the seventh-leading cause of death in the state. Even though national suicide rates dropped overall during 2020, the pandemic has worsened people’s mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the number of Americans suffering from mental illness jumped from 1 in 5 before the pandemic, to 2 in 5 now.
I am no stranger to suicide. My good friend Stephen died by suicide in February 2008, just as the daffodils were brightening his garden in Portland, Oregon. He had struggled with bipolar disorder most of his life. Our friendship was based on being comrades-in-arms against our mental health challenges — my foe was major depressive disorder. He lost his battle, not because of weakness or lack of help, but because of how lethal the illness can be.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “Suicide is related to brain functions that affect decision-making and behavioral control, making it difficult for people to find positive solutions.” Even though I’ve never been suicidal, I know what it is like to have my brain be my enemy. That kind of deep-seated mental anguish is impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. One of my doctors told me that he didn’t think of depression as a mood disorder so much as a whole-body, whole-being disorder.
The depressed person believes she is a burden to others. The suicidal person believes her death will be worth more to her loved ones than her life.
According to the Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90% of people who die by suicide have an underlying mental health condition such as depression, bipolar disorder or substance abuse. These are treatable conditions.
The good news is that not everyone who contemplates or attempts suicide will die that way. I know far more people who have struggled with suicidality and lived than I do people who died from it. My own life has taught me that we should hold out for treatment.
Like Stephen, I sought multitudes of therapies and medications and lifestyle changes to cure my depression. For the longest time — 30 years — nothing worked well enough. I always fell back in the dark hole. It was unbearable, but with the help of loved ones I found a way to bear it. And bearing it meant that each day I got closer to the treatment that would work for me.
Through a combination of ECT, medications, therapy, yoga, nutrition, exercise and spirituality, I am well. My depression is fully in remission. I wish Stephen was alive so I could share this with him and give him one more reason to keep living.
As we enter this month known both as the sweetest and the cruelest, I want people who are suffering to know there is hope. Our lives are worthwhile, to ourselves and to our loved ones. Like gorgeous, winged creatures returning to our nesting grounds, we were meant to survive, and thrive.