Karyn Washington death puts suicide, mental health back in spotlight

OPINION - I believe we need to understand that there is a more compassionate way to address the topic of one’s decision to take their own life...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Editor’s note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Karyn Washington.

With the sudden death of  motivational blogger Karyn Washington, who was an extraordinary life force and inspired so many of us through her blog, I am reminded that the reality of suicide is becoming more present in our society.

I believe we need to understand that there is a more compassionate way to address the topic of one’s decision to take their own life.

According to the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide (NOPCAS), there are two ways to describe suicide.:

1) “Committed suicide” refers to an act of violence. It sounds as if the person committed an act of violence against someone much in the same way as someone who commits rape/murder

2) “Died by suicide”–which is a more humane description because the act is not a violent one against someone else—it is/was a personal decision to end their own life.

Dr. Dawn M. Porter of Family Renewed describes the term “committed suicide” as a phrase that has a more visceral feeling.  The phrase may remind the survivors of the lasting perception of the volitional act that took the life of someone they loved and/or cared about. Using the language “committed suicide” can essentially re-traumatize the survivors, only to significantly recreate the pain they experienced when first hearing of the death of their particular loved one and create or recreate a sense of helplessness or survivor guilt.

However, the term “died by suicide” uses a more universal language of death in our society, and is potentially less likely to re-traumatize the survivors allowing them the time and space they need to heal when provided the necessary resources.

Because of the social stigma surrounding mental health in general and suicide in particular, survivors often feel isolated in their pain and may not know how to express their loss. As with any death, the only way for them to heal is to mourn the death. However, with suicide, the choice of language describing other deaths by suicide can inadvertently cause an added level of trauma to a survivor’s own particular experience and healing.  As a result of fear and the misunderstanding of mental illness and suicide, survivors of deaths by suicide often feel alone with no support.

As it is mentioned in my book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, written out of my own debilitating depression, suicide often seems horribly sudden, but whenever we learn the details, it turns out that suicide doesn’t typically come out of nowhere.  Suicide is often an act of total “last-ditch” desperation…a word that comes from “no hope.”  This feeling of desperation, or no hope, is more often than not the farthest extreme of depression.  Because 15 percent of people who suffer from extreme depression have a lifetime risk of suicide, we as a community have got to recognize the signs of depression if we hope to begin to have an impact on the rates of suicide.

How we choose to describe suicide has a lasting impact on those who have ever been impacted by someone who has died by suicide.

Connecting with one another, and sharing our stories is only the beginning to helping others recognize that they are not alone in their struggle.  It is a way to begin the healing so that we as a community can begin to heal and move forward.

Be the one to make a difference.  Be mindful of your actions and connect with those from your past and present; connect with those in your circle or connect with someone who can be there for you before another life is lost by suicide.

Terrie M. Williams is a licensed clinical social worker, noted mental health activist and author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.