By Shannon Collins
As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said recently, “Suicide is a complex and devastating event that affects us all. The painful loss of life and its heartbreaking aftermath spread beyond the individual and immediate family, taking a toll on fellow service members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and society itself.”
For me, suicide is personal. As I hear songs such as “Butterfly Kisses” and “Daddy’s Hands,” and as I watch a movie such as “Father of the Bride,” the words “self-inflicted gunshot wound” echo in my mind. I will never have that special relationship between a father and a daughter. And, it isn’t because of a tragic automobile accident or a physical disease; it’s because of suicide.
I grew up not knowing my father because he chose to take his own life. Years after his death, I was able to connect with family members to try and learn more about him and try to understand why he committed suicide. I learned that, like me, he was an Air Force veteran. He was married and divorced several times and eventually turned to alcohol and drugs in an effort to cope. One of his ex-wives killed herself with a shotgun and years later, he used that same weapon on himself. I don’t think I will ever forgive him for taking his life and the chance for my sister and me to get to know him and love him.
According to the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization, more than 1 million people worldwide died from suicide in 2012, more than those killed by homicides and war combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 34,000 Americans took their own lives last year, surpassing the number who died in vehicle accidents. According to the CDC, while attention has focused on young people in the past, the rate of those between the ages of 35 to 64 who killed themselves grew by 30 percent between 1999 and 2010.
Those considering suicide may say, “You just don’t understand the pain he was in.”
I grew up knowing about my father’s suicide, and I also had a traumatic childhood that lacked any therapy. I grew up fighting depression. I believe this led me to have suicidal ideations as a child. In my adulthood, I was sexually assaulted while a member of the military and that led to post traumatic stress. I initially did not seek out mental health help but eventually did at the urging of a fellow Airman. “Rank doesn’t matter,” she told me. “You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your people.”
In 2012, I was hit with the downsizing of the Air Force after 14 years of military service. I wasn’t able to retire or join the Reserve or Guard. I was depressed and crying all of the time. My military career was everything to me. I considered suicide, but after years of being strong and independent, I finally reached out to some of my family to help me get through my dark days. My cat let me cry into his fur; my brother let me cry into his shoulder. I picked myself up, admitted I needed help, and got the medication and therapy I needed.
Because of the help I received, I realize now how important it is to share my story to help get rid of any shame or stigma that comes with depression or suicide. The warning signs are not always obvious. Very few people give away all of their possessions or say goodbye to people. Most don’t want you to know they’re hurting. But they do withdraw and start acting out of character. They don’t participate in life as much or they may laugh a little less than usual. If people come to you, please listen; let them know that the stigma isn’t there anymore and that they are strong for admitting they need help.
“What we need to remember – what our entire country needs to remember – is that these brave individuals shouldn’t be avoided or stigmatized,” Hagel said. “They need to be embraced. Whether you’re a service member, a veteran, a DoD civilian, or a friend or family member of someone who is, you have the power to make a difference. It only takes one person to ask one question or make one call – and the single act can save a life.”