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We all must consider how to help people in despair find healthy lives

We all must consider how to help people in despair find healthy lives
Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Over two decades ago — Dec. 14, 1997, to be exact — I painstakingly wrote a public commentary called “The Valley” detailing the life and the final days of my beloved child, Judson, who had died by suicide at the age of 20.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a national organization, recently shared some troubling news explaining that the average life expectancy of Americans had declined in 2016-2018 due in part to the rise of suicides.

Of special concern are active and retired veterans as Memorial Day speakers around the country reminded us. The VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention tracks suicides of our men and women in the armed services. There were an average of 20 suicides a day in its most recent analysis.


In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death; homicide ranks 16th.

Every day, approximately 112 Americans die by suicide or one every 13 minutes. Women, it has been determined, attempt suicide more often while men are more likely to die as a result of suicide. Overall, there is one completed suicide for every 25 suicide attempts.

Depression treatment essential

It has long been known that depression, one of the major causes of suicide, affects one in four Americans ages 18 and above in a given year. Additionally, half of all Americans experiencing an episode of major depression do not receive clinical treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Chuck Slocum
Chuck Slocum
For those who do receive mental health treatment, however, the good news is that 80 percent to 90 percent are successful when using a combination of therapy and medication.

Minnesota experience

Nearly 800 Minnesotans die by suicide annually, averaging 14 people per 100,000 residents, on a par with the national numbers.

Minnesota’s suicide rate since the death of my own son remains high; it’s been on a slow, steady rise for nearly two decades.

Additionally, it is becoming clear that suicides are not evenly spread across the state. Suicide rates for men increased in the metro area; overall, suicides are significantly higher outside the Twin Cities, where it’s often harder for people to access mental health services.

Grief bursts

Suicide is one of those issues that most people do not think about until they are tragically thrust into doing so, as I was. I have learned over the years that experiencing “grief bursts” is common among survivors. After a suicide, most of us begin a search for some kind of understanding of the death of our loved one, even though we know these issues may be impossible to determine.

Suicide is preventable in the vast majority of cases. It is a treatable brain disease, and newly developed treatments work,” according to the executive director of Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE) Dan Reidenberg. A national suicide research report of which Reidenberg was involved has defined a clearer understanding of why people become suicidal, the predictive risks of such behavior, and what interventions are most successful.

Suicide survivors — those loved ones who are left behind — often discuss how it seems that medical science is far more successful in treating diseases of the body than it is in treating diseases of the mind. One issue of concern is the confidentiality of medical records regarding mental heath treatment of those over age 16, oftentimes preventing parents whose children are in therapy from having sometimes critical information about the recommended treatments available for their children. How can a young person — or anyone else for that matter — suffering from a brain disease be counted on to wisely make his or her own mental health treatment decisions?


In 2019, more than 40,000 Americans will die by their own hand, leaving behind some 250,000 suicide survivors like me, many of whom stand ready to help prevent future suicides.

All of us must consider how to help those who most need it to climb from the valley of despair into the sunshine of healthy lives lived purposefully.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 06/13/2019 - 09:25 am.

    I believe much of the despair in America can be traced to economics.

    The trend of this economy has separated us from the land, making the relationship mostly abstract, exacerbating abuse of the land; unhealthy land and water, unhealthy people.

    Economics has increasingly impoverished working people, with downward pressure on wages and benefits for 40 years. A production economy turned into a service economy has not been good for the spirit or the pocketbook for tens of millions of people.

    Today’s economics also favor monopoly, consolidation, economies of scale, effectively penalizing small business and local production, which tight communities rely on.

    All of this contributing to a lack of hope about the future, a general sense of hopelessness; hope for the future is essential for mental well being.

    Instead from media all we hear is how good the economy is, how strong it is.

    Medication and treatment are like bandaids over structural, foundational, societal illness. So much depression is not in any way normal. It is a function of a society that prioritizes all the wrong things.

    A truly healthy economy would result in healthy water, soil, air, species generally and people. Instead we pollute the water, land, air, exterminate species, and spend 20% of GDP on Health Care that is mostly an expensive (and lucrative) bandaid.

    Which is why I am starting a nonprofit, to build a food forest, farm and restaurant, to show what ecological, foundational economics that is healthy for land, water, pollinators, people and community, looks, feels and tastes like. Back to basics.

  2. Submitted by Deborah Gelbach on 06/13/2019 - 12:07 pm.

    This is as most beautifully written and heartfelt piece that pulls each reader inside the grief of a parent who has lost a loved one. It must have been very difficult to put those thoughts down for I’m certain Chuck relived the pain of the loss of his son in real time as he searched for the words and phrases. And yet, this information is so valuable for all of us to know–because we can never predict, as he points out, when someone we love may take that one unretractable step–and we are launched from being family members to survivors.

  3. Submitted by Kevin Burke on 06/13/2019 - 08:46 pm.

    I have been fortunate to know Chuck Slocum since the early 1970s. we are not close but I have admired many things he has done and written about. This commentary was quite moving and I suspect not easy for him to write about. We cannot bring back his son nor erase the pain of his loss but we can do something to help prevent others from suffering the same fate. Write your legislator & advocate for funding to address the issue of mental illness. And if you know people whose love ones died of suicide care for them. They hurt.

  4. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 06/14/2019 - 08:28 am.

    Chuck, nicely done.

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