Trigger warning: This blog discusses teenage suicide and depression.

If you are currently experiencing any thoughts about suicide, call 988. Help is available.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s a time to raise awareness for this highly stigmatized topic, which many people avoid talking about altogether. I can understand why. It’s painful and traumatic. It often feels like there aren’t the right words to express how we feel.

But it’s the second leading cause of death among individuals between 10-14 and 25-34 (and the 3rd leading cause of death among those ages 15-24).1 Suicide impacts so many of us—either indirectly or directly. This topic is personally very important to me. So, in the spirit of raising awareness and reaching out to others who might be struggling, I’m sharing my personal story.

I Lost Someone from Suicide

When I was 17, my best friend died by suicide. We were both seniors in high school, and I can still remember evenings spent sitting and talking on the tailgate of his beat-up old truck. He was so cool, and at age 18 already gave off Humphrey Bogart vibes. He struggled with what I thought was mild depression. But even looking back, it seemed his behavior was typical for a teenager. For so many of us, everything was hard… so many feelings, so much stress, so many relationships to negotiate, so much homework, so much planning for the future, and so little control.

I had experienced death before. My great grandmother passed away when I was young. A friend’s mother who struggled with diabetic kidney disease passed away just a year or two before. I’d even experienced traumatic death when a family friend’s 2-year-old son drowned in their pool. But nothing prepared me for this suicide.

I can’t speak to what would have helped him… what could possibly have prevented him from committing suicide that night. I wish I knew. I wish he and everyone around him had known what we could have done to keep him here. At the end of this blog, I’ll provide support resources that experts recommend for people struggling with thoughts of suicide. Having more information might have helped all of us tremendously.

But what I can speak about is my experience afterwards.

I almost failed my senior year of high school. I couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings. I was overwhelmingly sad that I would never see him again, and on top of that… all the stigma around suicide just piled on. I blamed myself. How could I have not known? I blamed him. How could he have not asked for help? I blamed the world. How could we have driven him to this?

My feelings of depression worsened. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the help that I needed. My parents didn’t know what to do or how to fix it, so they didn’t talk about it. To prevent “suicide contagion,” our school refused to address the suicide at all, which meant not publicly acknowledging his death. They refused to give us the day free to go to his funeral (I went anyway, of course). They refused to memorialize him in school or in the yearbook. They provided no counseling support. When I reflect on their lack of response, I’m just so angry about the way the school failed to support all the students who were hurting.

The two saving graces that year were: Two of my morning teachers overlooked my excessive absences and didn’t fail me. One teacher pulled me aside after class and gave me some religious materials about handling grief. The materials didn’t resonate with me, but I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that any adult saw me and recognized what I was going through.

Even at my darkest time, I never had actively suicidal thoughts, but the struggle and sadness left me passively suicidal. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake back up. I just wanted all my feelings to go away. It was a very dark year. Going away to college the next year helped start the healing process. I got the opportunity to leave all the daily reminders of the loss, focus on entirely new things, and develop new habits and mindsets. But twenty-three years later, I still talk about this experience in therapy.

I can’t say I’m grateful for the experience—obviously I would prefer this never happened and that my best friend hadn’t died at 18. But I have learned a lot about support and mental health over the past twenty-three years.

Lessons Learned After a Suicide Loss

Suicide contagion is a real phenomenon. Multiple studies show that suicidal behavior can be contagious.2 When people hear about suicide (especially repetitively or dramatically), suicide rates in those exposed to suicide information go up. However, ignoring suicide still leaves people struggling without support and can lead to suicidal tendencies in people who lost a loved one to suicide. Providing professional counseling and mental health support for people exposed to suicide is a significantly better choice than ignoring suicide.

As hard as it is, when someone you are close with has lost a loved one to suicide, reaching out is critical. You cannot fix the situation, but you can listen, supply a safe space, let them express their grief, and recognize the difficulty of the situation.

Providing a guide for the stages of suicide grief can help a person navigate their feelings. I would have still asked the same questions— “What if I had done more? What if I had noticed? What if he had reached out? What if I had told him I loved him more? What if. What if. What if.” But I would have had some framework and help while experiencing the shame and guilt.

Reaching out to others experiencing the same thing can be life changing. I didn’t connect with some of the other people most impacted by my best friend’s death. I had a very negative reaction and dug in hard to the belief that “No one can possibly know what I’m going through.” I still have feelings of shame of how I treated some of the people around me during that time. Being open to peer support (perhaps peer support from people I didn’t already know) might have helped me deal with that struggle in healthier ways.

We must talk about the realities of suicide. I’m grateful to Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. I’m grateful for all the conversation and resources. I’m grateful to you for having read this post. Please find support resources below that might be helpful if you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts or if you have lost someone from suicide.

Support Resources