Monday, January 26, 2015

Do We Have What It Takes to be Helpful with Suicidal People?

Update 2016: This article was featured in my book
"Saying NO to Suicide", with added commentary.

(credit: Kendrea Johnson Family)
Recently, I read about Kendrea Johnson, a six year old girl who allegedly hung herself with a jumprope. Her case has bothered me deeply not just because it was a senseless death of an innocent child, or because of the sadness she must have experienced by being put into the foster care system, or even just because the idea of a six year old struggling with suicidal ideation is so disturbing. I was bothered because I do not know how I could have helped such a child if I had been given the opportunity.
“I’m sorry.”
“I’m sad for what I do.”
These notes, written in purple marker, were left behind. They break my heart. Her foster mother claimed she talked about jumping to her death out of a window because Kendrea claimed nobody liked her. She drew a picture at school of a child hanging by a rope. If the coroner’s report was to be believed, she had tried unsuccessfully to hang herself before, too. How could nobody see this little girl needed help?

If I was there, I imagine I would have told her that she was beautiful and important to the people around her. I like to imagine that I would have helped her find constructive ways to deal with her feelings of abandonment. However, even if I had been there, I wasn’t part of her life. I wasn’t family. I would have returned to the safety of my world at the end of the day, and she would have stayed there in her world where family stability, maternal guidance, and emotional support were denied her. Without being able to teach her over time to see her suicidal feelings as separate from her identity, or being able to help her develop cognitive behavior coping strategies to deal with her confusion and misery, my advice would just be words that lose meaning as soon as I left. The core of her life was fractured.

I’ve been pondering this issue because my learning disabled thirteen year old shouted at me the other day, “I wish I was dead!”—all because I took her iPad away. I had caught her watching Netflix three hours past her bedtime, so I removed her iPad from the room. Overtired, she burst into tears and shouted that at me, among other dramatic and caustic things. I was completely floored. Where did she learn such language? Who taught her these concepts? Then again, who taught me when I was fifteen how to write morbid poetry about death as a romantic solution for my pain? Why do some of us latch onto the language of death as a twisted coping mechanism?

I don’t have answers for these questions, but as I await my editor’s feedback on my book on overcoming suicide, these thoughts contribute to my post-completion doubts. Many authors experience this. They wonder, “Is my book any good?” Since I wrote a self-help book for people struggling with suicide, my doubts are, “Is my advice helpful?”

I realize with some dread that much of the advice I gave in my book would be almost useless to Kendrea and my daughter because it was written from an adult perspective for people who can reason with their emotions. Children aren’t the only ones who have difficulty with this concept. Can suicidal people who are emotionally overwhelmed gain anything from my book? In a broader sense, all advice can be questioned. How tailored is it for the listener? When you have a scarred individual, getting them to see their life in a new way where they are valuable is a difficult task. It requires work and effort over time. When you can’t reason with somebody in throes of suicidality, how can you help them?

My answer to that is “Any way that you can.” Even the effort counts because in the end, we are all inadequate in one way or another. To quit giving support is to give up on people. I’ve talked to my daughter about her dramatic statements the other day and helped her see that they were over the top—that life is worth living even without her iPad. I didn’t approach the subject that night, but waited for her storm to have passed when she could be reasoned with. Unlike Kendrea, my daughter’s cry for help was self-pity, not a true wish for self-annihilation. Even still, I dealt with her with sensitivity and love.

Sometimes people who cannot fathom suicidal ideation don’t feel they need to exercise sensitivity and love. They don’t have patience for other people’s problems, and they come across as uncaring when they dismiss these suicidal urges as a weakness of moral character. Was Kendrea responsible for her actions? Was she selfish? Was she a quiter? I don’t believe that was the case at all.[1] We need to see that each case is different. Some people are more aware of the repercussions of suicide than others. We need to react dynamically. These questions of responsibility that we ask of an adult are meaningless when applied to a child or an emotionally impaired adult. In Kendrea’s case, she was innocent and didn’t know how to process her emotional pain in a constructive way. She needed help, but she was six, and who ever heard of a six year old child being at risk for suicide?[2] So her very complicated needs went unaddressed.

Fortunately, most of us are very cognitive of our actions. We see the big picture. It is to the cognitively aware that I reach out—the people like me who want to fight the dark urges, not give into them. When I was at death’s door, I reasoned with myself and turned back towards life. I like to believe that I was not special—that anybody can do as I did with the proper motivation and skill set. It is my hope that my book can reach them & their family members to give guidance by using my experiences. We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, those who cannot see reason need us to intervene and help them as best as we can. They need rescuing. We can’t give up on them.

News items of people who experience tragedy far remote from us can make us feel impotent, especially when that tragedy hits close to home. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with the emotions these events trigger. I can’t do anything about Kendrea. Her life is regrettably gone. However, I can channel these feelings into being a better dad for my daughter today and tomorrow. I can channel these feelings and increase my empathy to help those around me. I can commit to being more aware of the signs of those who struggle with suicidality. I suppose it’s a way of paying things forward. Take the lessons we learn from others and apply them to our own lives. In this way Kendrea lives on. In this way we can be truly helpful.

Did you hear of Kendrea's story before? How did it make you feel? How does this story change your approach to suicidality?

  1. My religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches us that children are not responsible for their actions until the age of eight—that they are incapable of sin. It differs from other Christian faiths that teach a child is guilty of Adam’s Transgression and therefore in dire need of baptism/christening. I mention this so that you understand where I am coming from.  ↩
  2. According to the article, there were 33 suicides among children ages 5–9 in the U.S. between 1999 and 2006. Statistically, this is very rare. However, I was not able to verify the information. None of the statistics I found on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed deaths for children younger than ten years old.  ↩