Why you should care

Because America’s suicide rate is at a 30-year high.

Usually, it’s the dead of night when the phone startles Chuck awake. He jumps into his pickup truck and drives an hour on dark, empty roads. When he arrives at the scene, it’s swirling with flashlights and motion. Detectives are questioning, a forensics team is swabbing. Amid the activity, Chuck always knows what to look for — the catatonic stares of people who’ve just lost someone to suicide.

Chuck goes to those people. In his slow Southern drawl, he talks to the distraught wife or boyfriend or parent. He tells them how his son, a baseball player, committed suicide when he was 16. “I slow their spin down,” says Chuck. “I want to give them hope.” Chuck usually stays with the bereaved for an hour, maybe more. Sometimes he will stay close as a mother wakes her children to tell them that their father has hanged himself. Then, when it’s time to leave, he gets back in the car and goes home to his sleeping wife.

You don’t wait for someone to figure out how to get the support they need, you go to them. I think [suicide postvention is] a genius idea whose time has come.

Julie Cerel

Here in Denton County, Texas, suicide is frequent, the cause of 74 deaths last year, according to the state’s health department. Those left behind by suicide — survivors, they’re called — are more vulnerable to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and, ultimately suicide. That’s where people like Chuck come in. Chuck, who asked that we use only his first name, volunteers for a chapter of an organization called Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors. Amid rising rates of suicide in the United States, LOSS has become a leader of a growing movement centered around the concept of “postvention,” which aims to connect survivors with support services as soon possible. “You don’t wait for someone to figure out how to get the support they need, you go to them,” says Julie Cerel, president-elect of the Association of Suicidology. “I think it’s a genius idea whose time has come.”

Although postvention has gained mainstream traction recently, the concept has been around for decades. It was the brainchild of Edwin S. Shneidman, a psychologist who formally created the field of suicidology in 1968. He claimed that the largest public health problem was neither prevention nor intervention, “but the alleviation of the effects of stress in the survivors whose lives are forever altered.” Studies show that Shneidman was right: Survivors are prone to major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behaviors at a rate that is two to 10 times higher than that of the general population. And it’s not just family members and close friends who are susceptible after a suicide. Cerel’s research reveals that the devastating effects of each suicide loss can traumatize as many as 100 survivors.

Data from 2014, the most recent available, shows the U.S. suicide rate surged to a 30-year high, with spikes in nearly every demographic. Some suicide-prone organizations have been slow to respond to the threat, but are now waking up to the increasing need for postvention. In June, the Department of Defense released a postvention training guide for commanders. Only last year did the National Institutes of Health publish a countrywide standard suicide postvention operating procedures for fire departments. And in schools, the Texas Suicide Prevention Council, for instance, has outlined post-suicide protocols for schools and the media, designed “to help with postvention by not sensationalizing suicide or normalizing it for vulnerable at-risk populations,” says the organization’s co-founder, Merily Keller.

Some would argue that more counties need postvention programs like these and LOSS. This past winter, Lisette Roca, 40-year-old former resident of Collin County, Texas, witnessed her boyfriend, a police officer, commit suicide in public. Because she was not a resident in a LOSS county, it wasn’t until a few months later when she happened to attend a community vigil to commemorate the area’s suicide victims that she met Tracy Maddoux, a former LOSS team coordinator. Within days, Maddoux sent a LOSS representative out of the Denton County area to visit her. Roca, a software engineer, still finds it difficult to work full-time and remember things. But she says LOSS helped her understand and cope with feelings of guilt, depression and how suicidal minds operate. Since January, Denton’s chapter — 30 volunteers and one part-time employee and funded by the state’s Zero Suicide program — has served more than 200 people.

One of Denton County’s medical examiners, Bob Murphy, calls LOSS every time there’s a suspected suicide. He’s seen LOSS survivors and survivors of a new suicide embrace within minutes of meeting. “It’s priceless,” Murphy says. Last year, before LOSS in Denton did on-site calls, he worked a suicide of a stepfather. Within 90 days, the daughter also had committed suicide. “I will always question whether or not we could have saved the girl.”

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