December 2015 Bar Bulletin
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December 2015 Bar Bulletin

Changing the Suicide Discussion

By Frank Selden


I started law school shortly after turning 40. Married, children at home, and no savings to fall back on, I needed to work nearly full time to keep up with expenses while attending law school full time.I felt driven to settle for nothing less than an A during undergrad. The dean’s office advised against such a demanding schedule during my first year. A friend at a gym I attended recommended Hydroxycut, an energy-increasing and fat-burning formula, which at that time contained a high quantity of ephedrine. Before my first quarter ended, I attempted to take my life.

Years later we would learn that the ephedrine formula caused mood swings, amongst other dangerous side effects. A class action lawsuit bankrupted the company, a lawsuit to which I was not a party unfortunately. However, blaming ephedrine proved not fully accurate. I returned from a tour in Iraq with severe PTSD issues, and again attempted to end my life. I survived the attempt with emotional and physical scars, but it killed my marriage and nearly ended my legal career.

I learned to address the past and present issues in healthy ways. Then I volunteered to work with suicidal individuals, primarily with vets through the V.A. system. Helping people choose life through a myriad of problems forced me to find ways to adapt to issues I've never encountered, strengthening my own resolve and gratitude. More recently, I started providing feedback to the V.A., including proposing changes that will better help us help those who need us most. What follows is part of that feedback.

In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General's office published its first "National Strategy for Suicide Prevention." In his Preface, then Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher wrote, "[T]he Strategy is not the Surgeon General's strategy or the Federal government's strategy; rather, it is the strategy of the American people for improving their health and well-being through the prevention of suicide."1The Strategy's Foreword chronicled suicide prevention efforts to that time and is worth reading for anyone interested in the movement's history.The Strategy did represent the best of what we knew about suicide at the time. However, we now know mental disorders are far more complex. For example, objective 3.2 from the 2001 Strategy states, "[I]ncrease the proportion of the public that views mental disorders as real illnesses that respond to specific treatments." One does not cure or render ineffective a suicide-thought-producing mental disorder simply by prescribing a medication in the way one might use antibiotics to combat a bacterial infection.

The Surgeon General's Office revisited its Strategy and published an updated version in 2012. The recent Strategy paints a more realistic picture about suicide. Suicide prevention shifts from a mental health issue to a broader health perspective, so that "a person who is struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide is given the services and support he or she needs to recover from these challenges and regain a sense of complete physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being."2 The 2012 Strategy includes a table mapping all of the 2001 Strategy objectives into their 2012 counterparts, if applicable. The former objective 3.2 now "focuses on promoting the understanding that recovery from mental and substance use disorders is possible."

While I believe the 2012 Strategy shifts the focus into objectives more likely to reduce suicide, as of the end of 2015 suicides continue to increase. I want to influence the way we think about suicide because I believe that how we frame the discussion is part of the problem. I also want to propose a few ways individuals with suicidal thoughts can participate in the national discussion that could give them a reason to live, which will possibly detract from them ever thinking of suicide again.

Empower IndividualsI recommend that we expand the theme of empowering individuals to recognize that individuals are already empowered to end their own lives. We as individuals know we own this power. Suicide is sometimes not the tragic conclusion of a confused or unstable person, but the conscious choice of a rational mind seeing no better solution to the individual's issues or stressors.I realize that this Strategy is the creation of the Surgeon General's Office, an office respected by the American people -if that can be said of any government agency these days. The SG’s Office does not set fiscal policy; it does not pass regulations. And I am truly grateful for this Strategy and all of those who collaborated in its creation.Still, as a "suicidal," I do not feel or believe that the SG's Office is on my side when I read that the goal is to reduce my ability to live or die on my own terms. Want me to trust you? Recognize me for who I am.

Remove the StigmaWhen is a decision to end one's life a tragedy or not a tragedy? Who gets to decide?

I know a few people who help others transition to the next life. Transition teams contribute a larger perspective from which to view life as empowered humans. They also work with families and friends in the grief process to receive the gift of the person who left. The process is triggered by someone’s decision to let go, allow their soul to leave this world for what comes next.

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