Mental Health

Coping with a Loss From Suicide

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Newscasters and viewers of Fox 2 Detroit are reeling after the apparent suicide of meteorologist Jessica Starr, leading many to question how an apparently successful, bubbly wife and mother of two could take her own life.

“We have no answers,” said Fox 2 morning host Deena Centofanti, not long after the station announced Starr’s Dec. 12 death. They did not disclose how she died. “We’re shocked and sad. We’re trying to understand our grief and we’re trying to work through it together.”

On set shortly after the announcement, Henry Ford psychiatrist Doree Ann Espiritu, M.D., recommended that Starr’s colleagues, friends and family focus on positives about her.

“This is a time to really be there for each other, to talk and celebrate Jessica’s life,” said Dr. Espiritu, who specializes in depression, mood disorders, healthy aging and behavioral problems. “It would really help to focus on the here and now – to acknowledge the grief and pain and yet there are a lot of things we can do for each other.”

She said it is healthy to cry and acknowledge the grief. But loved ones should try to avoid dwelling on “what ifs.”

“In any death, there are a lot of what ifs, a lot of questions: ‘What did I miss or how could I have helped?’ or especially, ‘Did I see Jessica in pain, or was there something I ignored?’” she added. “But at times like these, it makes it even more painful if we continue to question, because we may never find answers. For now, stick to your lifelines – what keeps you going, what gives you hope. Is it faith? Is it family? Celebrate things that are good. It’s easy to stay in the dark, thinking about death. The more questions you have, the more you blame God, the more you blame each other for missing things, the more difficult grief becomes.”

She said being supportive of those grieving is key.

“The most important thing is to listen,” she said. “If we right away say, ‘It’s ok, we’ll get through this,’ that’s ok, too. But there’s nothing that anyone can say specifically that make things easier. Listen to each other. It’s ok to cry, it’s courageous to cry – of course it’s painful. But the more we try to come up with solutions, the more difficult it becomes because everyone grieves differently.”

Related Topic: 3 Ways to Help Children Through Grief

The Stigma of Suicide and Mental Illness

Dr. Espiritu pointed out that suicide happens in every sphere of life. It’s an illness that can affect anyone — rich or poor, married or single, young and old, with children or without.

“The majority of the individuals who die from suicide don’t even get diagnosed with depression,” Dr. Espiritu said, citing a 2014 study by Henry Ford Health System doctors that found 83 percent of people who commit suicide have seen a medical doctor in the year prior, yet only 45 percent were diagnosed with depression. “A lot of them see their primary care doctors a month or two before their death, but they don’t see a psychiatrist. So in the community, how would you know that someone is suffering?”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), risk factors of suicide include:

  • A family history of suicide or child maltreatment
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • A history of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression, or alcohol and substance abuse
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Cultural belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Feelings of social isolation
  • Poor access to mental health treatment
  • Relational, social, work or financial loss
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Unwillingness to seek help due to stigma

What to Do If You or Someone You Love Is Thinking of Suicide

One of the biggest myths surrounding suicide is the belief that talking about it or asking about it, increases the chances someone will commit suicide.

“We know talking about it usually decreases the risk,” says Cathy Frank, M.D., who leads psychiatry and behavioral health services at Henry Ford Health System. “The most important thing if you’re feeling suicidal is talk to someone.”

That conversation can take place with a primary care or family doctor, a friend or loved one, a significant other or religious leader. There are also hotlines available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One potentially hopeful note is that suicidal feelings tend to come and go, she says, so if people can reach out to someone during or before a crisis, often that helps mediate the risk for that period of time.

According to the CDC, factors that work to prevent suicide include:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for those seeking help
  • Family and community support, or being connected with others
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the most common cause of injury-related death, more than the number killed in motor vehicle deaths, according to the CDC. It accounts for the loss of nearly 37,000 American lives each year.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Dr. Doree Ann Espiritu is Medical Director of Behavioral Health Integration for Henry Ford Health System. She sees patients at Henry Ford’s One Ford Place building in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center — Columbus in Novi. 

Dr. Cathy Frank is the Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Services at Henry Ford Health System. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Troy.