Elayne Klasson: A trauma team to ease the pain

Elayne Klasson: A trauma team to ease the pain

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When I first started writing Klass Notes last summer, I asked my editor if she had any suggestions for columns. This was the time of several tragic celebrity suicides, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade among them, and the topic was on a lot of people’s minds. She suggested I write about suicide, but even with a PhD., I felt woefully inadequate to explore this difficult subject, feeling there were people far more qualified than me to do so.

But I have recently been looking at it a bit differently. If we fear talking about difficult things and assume that only experts have the answer, we may be making an excuse for remaining uninvolved.

Suicide is a national problem we cannot ignore. According to an article last year in Scientific American, every 11.7 minutes in the U.S., a person takes his or her own life. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country—nothing short of an epidemic.

This week, Sept. 8-14, is National Suicide Prevention Week. According to the Suicide Prevention website, one of the prominent causes is what mental health professionals have been saying for decades: social isolation.

Yes, the factors contributing to suicide are complicated, but lonely people are especially vulnerable. Some say that if a person wants to kill themselves, they’ll find a way. Yet, according to professionals, this is not always the case.

If suicidal individuals are connected to mental health professionals, the rate of suicide decreases—especially if these mental health professionals: therapists, psychologists, social workers—have had some training in suicide prevention.

Research has shown that some forms of treatment do work with suicidal individuals. However, in order to get that kind of help, interested people cannot be afraid to bring up the topic of self-harm to people they fear are at risk. This is difficult when a suicidal friend or relative gives you the brush-off.

“I’m fine; don’t worry,” may be the words said, but an isolated, depressed and lonely person may look far from fine. “You don’t seem fine, what can I do?” may be a more difficult question to ask, but could be life-saving.

This means getting involved. And, it might mean getting involved with a difficult and tricky situation.

Last month, my former daughter-in-law Tanya (not her real name) lost her 28 year old brother to suicide. She is my former daughter-in-law because she and my son divorced. However, I didn’t want to divorce her, so despite the awkwardness, we’ve stayed good friends. But that’s for another column.

Tanya’s brother had been sad and isolated for a long time. She hypothesizes that the tipping points for him had been a recent job loss and some physical ailments— not serious, but which left him feeling weak and vulnerable.

She also hypothesized that social media had its role in her brother’s suicide. Tanya used a term I had never heard before: FOMO or "Fear of Missing Out."

Tanya’s brother was practically addicted to social media. She is sure that his constant reading about everyone else having a good time or having their lives more put together than his, contributed to her brother’s feeling of isolation.

With maturity, we may understand that the pictures people post on Facebook or Instagram are an illusion of happiness. These pictures show a superficial and air-brushed version of someone’s real life. But, to a depressed young person lacking in self-esteem, the apparent happiness pictured on social media contributes to a feeling that they don’t measure up to their peers in relationships, possessions, or fun.

I want to tell you about something unusual which happened in my former daughter-in-law’s family following the suicide of her brother. Tanya works for a Federal government agency that trains and dispatches Trauma Teams. These four or five individuals are sent to a family’s home after a traumatic death. Tanya says that when she got to her parents’ home, just hours after her brother took his life, the Trauma Team was already waiting out front.

“We’re here to help in any way you need,” they said. “We’ll make dinner, walk the dog, sit with you in silence, or sit with you and talk.”

This team stayed several days until the worst of the shock had worn off. Tanya was so touched by their kindness that she’s now volunteered to take the training herself with her agency and become a member of a Trauma Team.

I thought how good it would be if we each had trauma teams that could be dispatched after a death or other traumatic event. These people need not be licensed professionals, but ordinary individuals who can bring compassion and warmth to a family in need.

Wouldn’t it be something if whenever life was piling a lot on us, a group would show up and lend an ear and a hand and do the things large and small that are needed? Maybe if we did, the rates of suicide might finally decrease.

Perhaps if we looked to our friends and neighbors to see if they needed help in a tough time, we could be Trauma Teams to each other. We might ask the questions, “What do you need? How can I help?”

If you, a friend or family member is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The center is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Elayne Klasson, PhD in psychology, is a writer and recent transplant to the Valley. She was formerly on the faculty at San Jose State University. Her new novel, Love is a Rebellious Bird, will be published this November.


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