“The only thing she’d say was that she was so alone.”
“Sometimes she’d be holding the baby on her hip, and one child in each hand and trying to walk with her groceries at the same time, and she’d drop the diapers or something on the ground. She couldn’t handle everything at once.”
“She started calling family and apologizing and saying sorry and it was like nobody knew why.”
It isn’t hindsight that tells us why LaShonda Armstrong drove herself and her family into the Hudson River, killing herself and three of her four children. It isn’t the sum of her life as recalled by others. Any one stressful detail of her life put her at risk for depression. One detail in particular doubled her risk for suicide—and no one is talking about it.
The why is answered in the information about recognizing and helping the depressed and suicidal person, which has been spoken, printed, published and repeated thousands of times over. So for the umpteen-thousandth time—plus one:
FACT: No one can predict what a distressed person will do.
That’s the whole point of every book, video, lecture, seminar, brochure, leaflet, pamphlet, and billboard listing the warning signs and risk factors for depression and suicide. No one can predict what the depressed and suicidal person will do.
MYTH: No one can assume a distressed person will do something.
Yes, you can assume the distressed person is going to do something and it won’t be pretty. Assume it and act accordingly. An overwhelmed person’s signs of distress must be taken seriously, be given due attention, and be reported to a help agency when things don’t get better. Don’t leave this person to their own devices.
MYTH: Depressed people are always sad and/or crying.
FACT: Not all depressed people express sadness and/or cry.
Depression is a vacuum on emotion, motivation, and energy. It leaves a person numb, and ironically, in pain. Some rage, others drink heavily or do drugs. Some hold their pain inside, and as a result may suddenly lose or gain a lot of weight, have anxiety or panic attacks or suffer stress cardiomyopathy (Broken Heart Syndrome).
If someone is suddenly saying/doing uncharacteristic things; if someone expresses distress or despair; if someone suddenly begins chronic use of phrases that include (but are not limited to) “I’m overwhelmed,” “Everything’s so crazy,” “My life is spinning out of control,” or “I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this,” assume s/he is in danger of doing something that could harm him/herself and/or others.
If someone suddenly begins to make widespread amends or apologies; if they start giving away possessions, especially of great sentimental value; if they were depressed for a long time but are suddenly cheerful; or if an already distressed person’s mood suddenly worsens, assume s/he is in danger of doing something that could harm him/herself and/or others.
MYTH: Only a professional can help a suicidal person.
FACT: Professionals are not psychic.
Not understanding all the nuances of depression and suicide is not justification for doing nothing. If you know someone is distressed, that’s all you need to know to call for help. Professionals can’t help someone they don’t know is in trouble. If the person is in imminent danger or threatening others, call 911.
MYTH: Depressed people sleep a lot.
FACT: Depressed people sleep a lot if they can.
This single detail of LaShonda Armstrong’s life was one of her most obvious risk factors. She had four children, the youngest not a year old. She’d been a single mother for 10 years, since age 15. Taking nothing else about her life into consideration, this situation alone has chronic sleep deprivation written all over it, and with that, her risk of suicide was doubled.
MYTH: LaShonda’s last Facebook post was “cryptic.”
FACT: “Cryptic” means “mysterious in meaning.”
Only the unfeeling would read “I’m so sorry everyone forgive me please for what I’m gonna do…. This Is It!!!!” and think, “Oh, it’s so mysterious. I wonder what it means.”
MYTH: Preventing a suicide saves a life.
FACT: Preventing a suicide prevents a death. Saving a life takes work.
Author Robert Fulghum said, “There are many ways to lose your life. Death is just one of them.” Suicide is the worst thing a person can do to themselves, but that doesn’t mean self-destructive behavior that doesn’t result in death should be dismissed.
Not liking the answer to the question of why doesn’t mean there isn’t one. LaShonda ran out of ways to keep her life from getting any worse. There is no evidence she knew another way out. Options aren’t instinctual and no one has come forward to say, “I told her about this or that resource.”
Not until LaShonda’s to-do list was too-gone did anyone step forward. Her words and actions were meaningful enough for reporters the day after, but not meaningful enough to call a help agency the day before. This habit of speaking knowledgably about the person after the fact debunks the myth that most suicidal people hide their pain too well for others to see it.
Until someone commits suicide, a lot of people think there’s nothing they can do. After they’re gone, help is no longer an issue. The suicidal person who cannot be stopped is rare. The person who could help but doesn’t is common.
It would’ve been handy if LaShonda had taken to the streets with a megaphone and announced her plans, but that isn’t how it works. Suicidal ideation does not come with skywriting or declaration in 3D Technicolor. It does, however, come with a host of warning signs and risk factors.
Millions suffer with arms as laden and hearts as heavy as LaShonda’s, and they’re just as disregarded. When even our military servicemen and women who are among the most highly regarded members of our society have a hard time catching a preventative break, what chance does someone like LaShonda have?
Unfortunately, we’ve made it clear that the distressed person won’t be news to us until they do something newsworthy.