Finding Meaning – A Key Approach to Suicide Prevention
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and September 10th marks World Suicide Prevention Day. Each September we take time to acknowledge all who have been affected by suicide and raise awareness about suicide prevention. Globally, there are approximately 700,000 people who die by suicide every year. More than 41,000 individuals die by suicide in the United States, which is almost double the number of homicides in any given year. There is also a ripple effect that occurs when someone dies by suicide and thousands of friends and family members wade through the muddy waters of their grief.
In honor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we asked Dr. Steven Nicholas, author of Living Ideation A New Approach to Suicide Prevention and Intervention to discuss how he has been affected by suicide, and share his life’s work around raising awareness about suicide prevention.
In your book, you share how you lost your brother to suicide. How did his loss impact you?
I was gutted when David took his life. Like many traumatic events, I can recall every detail of that day. I lost my closest brother and my longest friend. It was an irreplaceable bond. My life’s trajectory shifted seismically that afternoon, and every meaningful decision that I have made in the past seventeen and a half years has been impacted by his absence.
How did this experience impact your thinking?
My last response stated that I have been impacted by his absence. Truthfully, that absence is an enormous presence. Presence and absence are the same thing if we pause and absorb the concept. My loved one is absent yet I can find him in any moment of my life (I’m talking about him right now). I cannot share an experience with him, but I can insist on a meaningful interaction with whomever I am spending time with. This includes spending time with myself. His absence has sharpened my attention to life and I am flooded with the opportunities in front of me.
How is your approach to suicide prevention different from other models?
I think that many well-intended survivors of suicide loss try to attach meaning to their grieving process, and my approach began as a massive projection of my experiences. I was quite irritated at the research and programming that was geared toward recognizing signs and symptoms of suicide. It simply didn’t resonate with me. Does a person have thoughts and behaviors that can be described as suicidal? If so, what happens next? I see most symptom reduction models as an extension of a medical model where we identify symptoms and then try to reduce/eliminate/treat them. Paradoxically, I believe that the medical model is stigmatizing and reinforces the notion that suicidal thoughts and actions are aberrant.
Living Ideation is a philosophical approach that is deeply rooted in Constructivism and Existential thought. If we recall the concept of presence and absence, suicidal ideations are a dearth of living ideations. Perhaps the expansion of living ideations can reduce the existence of suicidal ideations. Please know that Living Ideation is not meant to be a Pollyanna approach that says “just look at the bright side!” Not even close. Look at the dark side and get to know it. It exists because of the duality with the light side. It simply acknowledges that dark and light coexist. Both suicide and life have presence and absence.
Living Ideation is a suicide prevention and intervention model that acknowledges pain and non-pain. Having empathy for pain and despair can illuminate the rooted feelings of love and hope. The complimentary emotions can promote cognitive dissonance; at least love and hope have a fighting chance to compete with an abundance of pain.