Imagine for a moment that a magnitude 7.5 earthquake hits Southern California. In its wake, 90 are dead, and 2,300 people are injured. It would be the top story on news channels and in newspapers for days.
Imagine that the next day, another tragedy hits the country, with 90 dead and 2,300 injured—but this time, there's little media coverage. Surely that's an imaginary situation, right?
Each day in the United States, it's estimated that 90 people take their own lives, and 2,300 try to do so, according to 2007 data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Yet somehow, discussing the plight of these nearly 2,400 people isn't common conversation.
Joshua Wheat, 32, isn't afraid to discuss the suicide that occurred in his family. Jan. 7, 2003, is a date that's seared in his mind.
"I had a new girlfriend, and we went out to bars in Sahuarita," Wheat recalls. "I came home after the bars closed. I walked in, and the lights were on. ... I found my father lying on the ground. I went to check on him; he (had) already passed. My mother was in their bed. She hadn't woken up at all. She had been asleep when he shot her. And then he shot himself."
Wheat says there was no suicide note and no overt sign that something was wrong. "We had a nice dinner (that night). Afterward, my dad went to his room to watch PBS. My mom and I sat in the living room and watched our TV."
Life up to that point had been uneventful. "We talked, watered the back yard and walked the dogs. We did our normal routine," Wheat recalls. "It's taken quite a few years to figure out. We can't explain it. I can't beat myself up trying to figure out what I could have done differently."
Still, the memory haunts him. "I'll never get that picture of my parents out of my head. That's probably the worst part—finding them and not being able to picture how my mom really looked before that. I can see her, but the main image is seeing her in the bed with a gunshot in her head."
Wheat's experience is not uncommon for our area. A BusinessWeek report published last year ranked Tucson as the 18th-unhappiest city, out of 50 metro areas. A National Association of County and City Health Officials report in 2004 said that Tucson had the third-highest suicide rate in the country.
Wheat says he wants to help prevent others from having to go through what he did. He's hosting a fundraising event for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) at 9 p.m., Wednesday, June 9, at Hotel Congress. A silent and bachelor auction, along with performances from bands, comedians and pizza-throwing champions highlight the evening. Admission is free, but donations are requested.
Wheat is also participating in the annual Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk on June 26 and June 27, an 18-mile walk in Boston aimed to create awareness about suicide. Visit www.theovernight.org for more information.
Tyler Woods, program director of Survivors of Suicide Tucson, will be at the AFSP event at Hotel Congress, offering support and information. SOS Tucson (sostucson.org) offers support groups and services for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.
Woods says "postvention"—helping after a suicide—is prevention for the next generation. She says those dealing with the loss of a loved one by suicide have a double risk of trying the act themselves.
Woods stresses that we need to change the way we look at suicide. "Stop pretending it's not a problem. It is a problem. ... We have a physical and emotional immune system. Suicide is the depletion of the emotional immune system."
She also says we need to remove the secret and shame associated with depression. "People have a fear of judgment. They are afraid people will say, 'Only cowards get depressed.' Or, 'You have nothing to be depressed about. You have a job, money, a family.' ... Depression can be organic in nature, a result of stress or chemical imbalance."
Wheat echoes the need to have open discussions about depression and suicide. "A lot of people are depressed, and no one knows it. ... (Those who are depressed) need to find someone to talk to and not be scared or embarrassed. There are people out there to help with this. Don't hold it in and do something disastrous."
Consider that in the time you work an eight-hour shift, about 30 Americans will take their lives. This continues day after day. It's a toll that deserves its share of headlines.
Behavioral Health Services
2502 N. Dodge Blvd.
Tucson AZ 85716
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Press 1 if you are a veteran
Based in Phoenix, serves all states
LGBT Youth Suicide Hotline