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Happy Birthdays and Suicide

With suicide rates rising, talking about prevention is the becoming more important—and more personal—than ever.

Happy Birthdays and Suicide Happy Birthdays and Suicide

Today is my friend Randi’s 51st birthday. 

Sadly, she isn’t celebrating it with us. Two years ago last May, Randi took her own life.

Randi and I became friendly when we lived around the corner from each other in Chicago, and our boys were born three months apart. She was with her twin sons when we she introduced herself to me at our neighborhood park by saying, “Hi! I think our boys should be friends.”

I wasn’t there just around the corner when she killed herself—we’d moved back east to Connecticut three years earlier, while she and her family had stayed in Chicago.  By then, we were friends who sometimes kept in touch, mostly on Facebook, but I was neither ‘there’ for her in proximity nor in truthful friendship either. Judging by her final actions, the friendship is what she likely needed more.

Way back when, Randi was the kind of friend who opened up her home and her arms and welcomed you in. She and I were two of a somewhat larger group of new moms in the neighborhood. We, along with our husbands and kids and two other families, started having a monthly Friday evening gathering. Each of us would bring an appetizer or two, a bottle of wine (or two) and hang out, all four families, until night. Randi had the largest house, so it became an event she regularly hosted.

That was a lot for a woman who had beautiful taste and could have made a living decorating homes, although she was a teacher by profession. Having five or six very active toddlers running around, inside or out depending on the weather, was a bold move, given the gorgeous things she had in her house. It didn’t matter, for her place was more a home than house. We’d all wind up putting our kids to sleep in pack-and-plays in different rooms, so we grown-ups could continue having our fun too. (She didn’t even wince that one time my then 2-year-old son threw up raspberries all over her all-white guest room; she handled it with typical Randi grace and laughter.)

She was probably that way because having her boys was a hard-fought effort. She was a little older than the rest of us and it had taken time for her to get pregnant.  So she savored the moments and celebrated each one.

The pictures that accompany this column were taken at the impromptu fourth birthday celebration for her boys—again, it was just the four families who were there. The shot of her with fists aloft was snapped just after she broke open the impossible-to-open-Superman-pinata she’d made by hand.

The other photo is of the cake she’d baked and left plain so that all the kids could decorate it themselves. Those hands belong to all of our six toddlers squeezing frosting and dumping sprinkles all over the cake. A natural teacher, she knew what would bring her boys and their friends joy. She knew how much more important fun and family were over everything else. Or so I thought.

Sure, we'd had conversations about things that troubled us even though most of our times together we laughed. I knew there were instances when Randi was unhappy or even depressed. We confided things to each other, but I certainly never dreamed those things would be Randi's undoing. I remember her more often happy than sad.

These pictures are the last photos I have of our times with Randi, and they're how I like to think of her and remember.

I think of her often, especially when there’s news coverage of a suicide—as when the story broke about what appeared to be a murder-suicide in New Canaan over the last weekend.

The most recent time was when I read a news story just today, about the rising suicide rates in the United States. According to a study being released in the November issue of in the American Journal of Public Health, suicide has surpassed motor vehicle deaths as the leading cause of injury mortality in this country. What’s more, the researchers state that the suicide rates have risen substantially. It’s not surprising, given that suicide rates have been seen to increase during times of economic difficulties.

The authors of the study suggest that measures put in place over the last decade were effective at reducing motor vehicle accident deaths, and “similar attention and resources are needed to reduce the burden of other injury”—including suicide.

I recently saw another report about the increase in suicide rates among active duty soldiers.  As of June, the Pentagon reported that the number of suicides spiked this year, with an average of one suicide a day. Most instances of suicide amongst soldiers in the Army happen when they are not deployed—but risk factors often cited include post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple combat tours, traumatic brain injuries, marital and financial stress and substance abuse.

According to the CDC, the latest suicide numbers for the US population overall cite 2009 stats—there was a total of 36,909 reported suicide deaths in this country that year alone. There are no published data for 2010, the year Randi took her own life.

What does it mean to talk about resources and attention that needs to be paid?  Education. Publicity. Mental health support. Institutional programs. And simply just talking about it. We need to do more to erase the stigma surrounding suicide, we need to care less about the discomfort of bringing up the subject. I think if Randi had only reached out. I think if I had only asked, a little more directly.

So perhaps what I can do is devote some attention to it today, as a too-late birthday present to my friend Randi. If there’s just one person you reach out to today, tomorrow or the next, whether you’re feeling sad enough yourself or know some who is. Reach out, talk, ask.

Happy Birthday, Randi. How I wish I could tell you that in person.

If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.TALK (8255). All calls are confidential.  Learn more at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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