Vicki Graham was 14-years-old when the first death she experienced in her life was the suicide of her grandfather in 1963.
Twenty years later, she was again faced with suicides — of her uncle and his sister. The two deaths came only weeks apart.
“You see lots of deaths when you get to be older, but suicide is different because they actually want to die,” Graham said. “We’re born wanting to live … so it often doesn’t make sense to us.”
Being a suicide survivor — the family member or close friend of someone who has died by suicide — has motivated Graham to work toward prevention of suicide, she said.
The emotional trauma of dealing with a suicide “has been likened to the same amount or pain that a prisoner of war goes through,” she said. “The ‘why’ that will never be answered … is the toughest thing to overcome.”
Over the course of the last two decades, Graham has worked as the director for a 24-hour crisis hotline run through the Prince William County-based non-profit Action in the Community Through Service (ACTS) and has founded a local support group for suicide survivors.
MORE THAN 10 years after first volunteering as a phone operator for the Arlington-based non-profit 24-hour crisis hotline CrisisLink, Alexandria resident Dale Gardner has become a trainer for other volunteer phone operators in addition to his work as a voice for people in the midst of crises.
“It’s part of one of the fibers that make me who I am,” said Gardner of his work with CrisisLink. “I have been brought into so many different people’s lives, only if it’s just for a moment … and can really feel like I’ve made a difference to that person.”
“If somebody is suicidal, I hope we can have a chance to talk and be able to get through this together.”
It is that role as a compassionate listener, Gardner and Graham said, that has made all the difference in the world for some who had been contemplating suicide.
It’s also one that suicide prevention advocates throughout Northern Virginia are pushing for people to take with friends and family members who may be suffering from extreme bouts of depression in light of National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 10-16.
IN 2004, Northern Virginia had 132 suicide deaths, with 67 in Fairfax County. That figure outnumbers homicides in the region four to one, according to Carol Loftur-Thun, executive director of CrisisLink.
“Suicide cuts across all gender, ethnic and certainly socio-economic lines,” Loftur-Thun said, “and it’s such a big problem because it’s one of the most preventable tragedies that is out there.”
According to figures released by the American Association of Suicidology, since 1999, the suicide rate per 100,000 Americans has fluctuated between 10.7 and 11. The rate was highest among people aged 65 and over, hovering around 15 per 100,000 since 2000.
By comparison, homicides in the United States in 2004 occurred at a rate of 5.5 per 100,000 people.
In the last two years, CrisisLink has seen a 77 percent increase in calls, with more than 22,000 calls coming last year, Loftur-Thun said.
But the increased number of calls is not necessarily a bad thing, she added.
“We take the high volume of calls as a good thing because it means that more people are getting to us and talking with us,” Loftur-Thun said.
CrisisLink saw an increase of about 135 percent among people aged 15 to 24 in the last two years.
Suicide is the third most common cause of death for people in this age group nationally, accounting for 3,988 deaths — or 11.9 percent of total deaths among young people — in 2004, according to American Association of Suicidology's figures. While the number of suicides accounts for a large portion of the deaths of young people each year, that number has decreased steadily since 1994.
But for every death by suicide, 100 to 200 suicide attempts are made by young people each year, according to the association's data.
THE REASON anyone attempts to commit suicide is because of deep emotional depression and a feeling of entrapment, according to Patricia Meyer, a licensed social worker based in Fairfax County.
“People who commit suicide … are living with a psychological pain that is unfathomable to the people around them,” Meyer said. “They feel isolated. They feel like there is no one left that they can turn to.”
The pressure and structure of modern life as a young person can often lead to these feelings of isolation and failure that could lead to suicidal tendencies, she added.
“Today, we overly focus on things like GPA, SAT scores and the notion that if you don’t get into a good college you will never be able to be a success in your life,” Meyer said. “The teenager can feel like they’re constantly running and trying to catch a train, but they can never make it … they have to live with that constant pressure.”
In order to spread the word about suicide prevention and young people, CrisisLink regularly visits local area high schools and colleges to speak with young people about suicide and give them the hotline phone number.
The most immediate thing that parents, friends, family members or co-workers can do for people who may be visibly going through this is to sit down and listen compassionately, Loftur-Thun said.
“It helps to … allow them to connect to somebody who wants to talk and it gets them to start thinking about alternatives,” she said. “It gets them to understand that there are people who care about them.”
THE ASSOCIATION ESTIMATES that for every suicide that occurs, at least six people are deeply affected by it, becoming classified as survivors. That means, according to these figures, at least 188,904 people were affected by a suicide in 2003.
For this reason people must be aware and cognizant of the emotional well-being of those around them, Loftur-Thun said.
“We want to get it out to the public that [severe depression] is not an uncommon problem, you almost assuredly know somebody who has suffered from it,” she said.
For Meyer, it’s about letting people know that they’re not alone.
“We have to care about each other,” she said. “The minute we don’t, the world becomes a much harsher and colder place.”
“And everyone feels the effects.”