Imagine sadness so profound, despair so deep, that it seems the only way out is suicide. Tragically, that scene plays out for hundreds of San Diegans every year.
In 2012, 413 men, women and, yes, even children, died at their own hands – a record number of suicides in San Diego. Sadly, the number of self-inflicted deaths continues to rise, with no end in sight.
Perhaps that explains the huge turnout recently for the annual “Save a Life” Walk sponsored by Survivors of Suicide Loss. A record crowd of 2,000 gathered for the annual 3.1-mile trek around Balboa Park, with most walking in memory of loved ones lost to suicide. (Learn more www.soslsd.org).
Despite the disturbing theme, as a survivor (I lost my mother to suicide) and participant, I assure you the “Save a Life” Walk is neither depressing nor somber, but full of love, laughter and hope – due, in part, to the presence of Pastor Joe Davis.
As we gathered together before the 5K begins, emotions run raw for many. But Joe’s uplifting invocation never fails to include a perfect prayer to comfort those who have survived the loss of a loved one to suicide.
You might say Joe’s the perfect guy for the job! Every day, as chaplain for the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office, Joe ministers to grieving families dealing with all kinds of traumatic death, including suicide.
Every time he speaks at the annual Walk, Joe says he can count on someone coming up to him, reminding him about the time he came to their home, “with the news that their son, or wife, or father had died at their own hands.”
It’s an emotionally taxing job, but the affable and easy-going Joe believes he’s been called to comfort families and friends of loved ones who have died. He deals with death of every description. “What makes suicide different,” says the chaplain, “is that other deaths can usually be explained.” So Joe says his job is to be there for distraught loved ones “trying to make sense out of something that never makes sense.”
He admits, dealing daily with death and human anguish hasn’t been easy. Several years ago, plagued by emotional stress and stomach problems, Joe turned to prayer asking, “If I’m supposed to be doing this, why is it so hard?”
He believes God’s answer was loud and clear, “If you’re going to get that involved, you’re no good to the families and you’re no good to me.”
“Now, instead of being part of the storm,” explains Joe, “I’m the calm in the midst of the storm.”
But last year, in a tragic irony, the “storm” came to Joe personally when he got the call that rocked his world. Following years of depression, his own father had taken his life. “It was the most painful, horrible training I’ve ever had,” Joe told me, tears welling up.
As he deals with his own lingering pain, Joe believes his experience has helped him better help others. “Now I can honestly say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’”
And so Joe continues his unpaid job, as the only full-time chaplain for a medical examiner in the US, with his faith and signature sense of humor to carry him through the next crisis.
“I don’t know the shelf life of a coroner’s chaplain,” quips Davis. “I’m just being obedient to where I’m supposed to be.”
Thank you for making a difference, Joe.
Q&A with Badalin Helvink, M.D.
According to Badalin Helvink, M.D., medical director of the Psychiatry Program at the Palomar Center for Behavioral Health, suicide is our nation’s top public health issue. Here she explains how we all play a role in saving lives.
Carol: Why is the suicide rate rising?
Dr. Helvink: Violence, economic stress, substance abuse, depression and anxiety, family history of mental illness, access to guns, lack of access to health care … take your pick!
Carol: How do we get a handle on the problem?
Dr. Helvink: First, by talking about it. Sadly, a stigma still exists when it comes to mental illness.
Carol: Why can’t we get past the stigma?
Dr. Helvink: Unfortunately, the barriers are still there. Families don’t want to talk about it. Patients don’t want to be on medication.
Carol: What about the media?
Dr. Helvink: Sensationalized celebrity suicides can actually cause a copycat effect. Cyberbullying through social media causes severe pressure on kids. Nearly 16 percent of kids admit thinking about suicide.
Carol: Sounds like an issue for everyone.
Dr. Helvink It takes a village—a collaborative effort of family, friends, community and providers.
Carol: How can I help prevent a suicide?
Dr. Helvink: If you know someone who’s struggling – isolating, consumed with sadness or morbidly preoccupied – don’t wait for them to “snap out of it.” Reach out.
Carol: How do you know when it’s serious?
Dr. Helvink In my practice, if I hear, “I’m a burden” or “I can’t live like this anymore,” or when a teen hears her friend say she “wishes she were dead.” If they voice it, take it seriously.
Carol: Some say suicide is an act of cowardice.
Dr. Helvink: I invite them to have compassion about something that’s tragic, and for many, a result of major depressive disorder.
Carol: Can there be a happy ending?
Dr. Helvink: I had a patient who took a serious overdose. After successful treatment for her depression, she told me she never knew she could actually feel good again.
Carol: What do you want people to know?
Dr. Helvink Depression is a very treatable condition. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is help.
See our full story on Behavioral Health in The HealthSource.
Mental Health Awareness Month
May is Mental Health Awareness Month which is a good time to be extra vigilant with friends and loved ones dealing with extreme sadness or a sense of hopelessness.
Warning signs that someone may be thinking about or planning to commit suicide include:
• Always talking or thinking about death
• Clinical depression – deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating that gets worse
• Having a "death wish," tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving fast or running red lights
• Losing interest in things one used to care about
• Making comments about being hopeless, helpless or worthless
• Putting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, changing a will
• Saying things like "it would be better if I wasn't here" or "I want out"
• Sudden, unexpected switch from being very sad to being very calm or appearing to be happy
• Talking about suicide or killing one's self
• Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
Be especially concerned if a person is exhibiting any of these warning signs and has attempted suicide in the past. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, between 20 and 50 percent of people who commit suicide have had a previous attempt.