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Each year, 800,000 people in the world die by suicide (WHO). That is the equivalent of at least five Boeing 747 jets crashing and killing all 416 passengers every single day.

plane-crashGuest blog by Jess Stohlmann-Rainey with the Carson J Spencer Foundationhttp://www.carsonjspencer.org

When incidents like the Germanwings plane crash happen, I have to put my mental armor on. I have to prepare to defend myself as a person living with a mental health condition and my work as a suicide prevention advocate. I get ready for everything from micro-aggressions to outright bigotry. One of the most challenging dynamics as a suicide prevention worker, mental health advocate, and person living with a mental health condition is the pervasive and dangerous hold that stigma about mental illness has on the minds of the public. These paradigms mark people with mental health conditions as unpredictable, untreatable, and dangerous. On a good day, this can be an annoyance. On a bad day, it can be paralyzing or even life-threatening.

Why people die by suicide is complex, but it is not mysterious or unpredictable. Many people have devoted their careers to exploring exactly these issues. People die by suicide because conditions in their life have led them to feel alone, like they are a burden, and have acquired the capacity to die. If you want to learn more about this “why” question, the knowledge is out there. I recommend reading Dr. Thomas Joiner’s work or the American Association of Suicidology’s Journal, “Suicide & Life Threatening Behavior.”

Most Media Coverage Looks for a Sensational Answer
Following tragedies like the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash, most media coverage focuses on “why?” and looks for the most sensational answer. The desire to understand why tragic events occur makes a lot of sense to me. The truth is we are unlikely to discover every detail about an individual’s decision to die by suicide, especially if we begin looking after their death. We are never going to know the perfect storm of conditions that led to this tragedy; we will never be able to catalog exactly what went through Andreas Lubitz’ mind before his death. More importantly, we are likely asking the wrong questions. What we do uncover when we look for these answers, tells us more about a broken culture around mental health than about the events that occurred.

MANY People Die by Suicide – Where is the Public Outcry?
Each year, 800,000 people in the world die by suicide (WHO). That is the equivalent of at least five thBoeing 747 jets crashing and killing all 416 passengers every single day. Over one hundred of those passengers would be U.S. citizens (CDC). This doesn’t even begin to address suicide attempts, which are happening at 25 times the rate of deaths. Where is the public outcry? Why isn’t our media appalled by these tragedies? Who decided that these lives lost are less news-worthy?

The death of Andreas Lubitz has awakened powerful responses from the public, ranging from grief to outrage. I believe much of this response has been misplaced.

We should be feeling the poignant loss of each person that dies in isolation and despair. Every 40 seconds, we should feel the grief of yet another preventable death. There should be heartbreak over the hundreds of thousands of people who agonize silently through suicidal intensity. We should be grieving for the survivors whose worlds are radically altered by these losses.

CRASHThere should be outrage. We should be angered to our very core that so many people are suffering and dying alone and afraid. We should be irate that people who have diagnosable and treatable health conditions are so afraid of the consequences of disclosure that help is beyond their reach. We should be horrified that stigma is so deeply ingrained in our cultures that preventable deaths are occurring again and again.

Action Steps
And after we feel all of these things, we need to act.

* Speak up when you hear shaming, blaming, or discriminatory language used about people living with mental health conditions.

* Challenge the media to use the resources available to them to cover suicide and mental health safely and with compassion.

* Use our voices and votes to tell our governments to treat these issues like they are important public health concerns. Tell them to provide funding for and collect data about mental health, suicide, and prevention strategies.

* Demand that our prisons and criminal justice system reform to provide support and recovery opportunities for the 70% of inmates who need treatment instead of using incarceration as a form of social control.

* Advocate for our young people by helping schools and youth development programs implement best practice suicide prevention and mental health promotion programs that will change the culture of stigma for future generations.

* Create workplaces that can be spaces of productivity and connectedness, safe guarding employees and connecting them to early effective care so they do not become a part of the 70% of suicide decedents who are working aged.

* Use discourse to engage your friends and family in productive conversations about mental health and suicide. Focus on hope, help, and resources. One hundred one-minute conversations can change the world.
Put on your armor with me. Every minute of our inaction is costing people their lives. We need to stop responding to deaths after they have already happened. We need to stop looking for someone to blame. It is time to take responsibility for the culture we have been creating. It is time to confront the real enemy head on.


Jess Stohlmann Rainey is CJSF’s Senior Program Director. Prior to coming to CJSF, Jess was a youth worker and advocate for five years, and previously managed sexual assault and domestic violence advocacy and LGBT youth center programs. Her work focused on skill and leadership development to improve the life skills of underrepresented groups as well as advocating for policy and cultural change within political and educational institutions. Jess has presented nationally at conferences on topics of youth engagement, leadership, gender, sexuality and violence prevention strategies.

Additional note: The author of the Impact blog lost a good friend to suicide in April 2008.