Reflections On Suicide Following Suicide Awareness Month
This past weekend was a special occasion for Austen Riggs. We’re just entering the richness of the true New England autumn, with trees shedding their leaves in brilliant red and gold. And this autumnal environment seems just right for our Austen Riggs reunion weekend, which contains both messages of hope and of warning.
Every three years, former patients and staff return to meet with current patients and staff for an Alumni Reunion. Riggs seems to be a place to which people want to return. Alumni talked about the course of their lives since leaving Riggs—it’s clear their experience here has stayed with them; everyone agreed that being here enriched their lives. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to think every patient left here simply “cured.” It is hard to hear about the relapses of some into depression and suicide attempts after treatment here. For some former patients, the full benefit of treatment at Riggs was experienced long after discharge. These people learned a lot about themselves and their relationships in ways that ultimately changed their lives, but it took time for this to help. I was also moved by the examples of previously suicidal patients, suffering with seemingly intractable addictions or mental illness, who then went on to build amazing, creative, and clearly rewarding lives. This is usually without further suicide attempts. We know from our Follow Along Study, for example, that 75% of previously suicidal patients were free of suicide as an issue in their lives at the seven year follow up.
Of course, we all know that treatment comes without guarantees. Freud said that the goal of treatment is to turn “neurotic misery” into ordinary unhappiness. Perhaps we still make the mistake of equating psychological suffering with psychiatric illness. Psychiatric illness can be treated, and often improves, but personal suffering is more private, less easily remedied, and may also be more valuable. The ways we suffer say much about who we are. And suicide is a response to intolerable suffering.
Allen Shawn, the writer, composer and musician who spoke at the reunion left us with a few unforgettable thoughts. He told us that that he had come to value anxiety as an important part of humanity. He also spoke about the ways art and music unite us; through art, the artist converts intense and sometimes intolerable feelings into an expression that we all can share.
The suicidal person suffers alone. We must continue to find ways to address this suffering. Treatment is only part of the answer, although in treatment centers we can and should try to find ways to do better. Beyond treatment, in our communities, our country, our culture, we can find ways both to cultivate hope and to speak with each other about suffering. I think that Austen Riggs does many things well, but perhaps the most important part of life here is the way we are encouraged to take our inner experiences seriously, and to share them with one another. The sharing of suffering may not be a cure, but through it we may find a better way to live our lives.