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By Will Wright
When someone dies by suicide, they often leave behind friends and family who spend years trying to cope with the loss.
About 30 of those people, called suicide survivors, shared their stories and emotions in the W. T. Young Library on Saturday. The event was one of many around the world for International Survivors of Suicide Day.
Providing a place to share the common bond of death is meant to give comfort in an informal, judgment-free atmosphere, said Julie Cerel, associate professor in the College of Social Work.
Cerel, who has specialized in suicide prevention and bereavement, said people don’t realize how common suicide is and how many people are affected by it.
In Cerel’s research, she found that about 40 percent of Kentuckians said they had been affected by suicide. About two times as many people die from suicide in America every year as people who die from homicide, she said.
College students have especially high suicide rates.
For college-aged students, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, according to the UK Counseling Center website.
Cerel said when a student dies by suicide, especially when they live in a residence hall, it can have a devastating emotional impact on a large number of people.
“Suicide loss brings about traumatic grief,” said Paula Rymer, a social worker at Community Hospice. “It brings about complicated grief.”
Though Cerel said rates are high among college students, she also said it is hard to gather data on exactly how many die every year because of the lack of research funding. She did not know how many have died in the residence halls of UK.
On Saturday after watching a documentary about the grieving process, many gathered in a circle for a healing ceremony where they shared the name of their loved one and how that person impacted their lives.
“This gives people an opportunity to make contact with people without putting them on the spot,” social work graduate student Douglas Weaver said. “It’s actually a pretty informal way of talking about this stuff.”
Cerel believes that research into helping the bereaved is just as important as research into suicide prevention.
“People think that grief and bereavement isn’t as important as intervention,” Cerel said. “What they don’t realize is that helping the bereaved does help prevention.”
People who have lost someone close to them by suicide are significantly more likely to attempt suicide themselves, Cerel said. But there is still not much research into helping the bereaved.
“There really isn’t money for this kind of research,” she said. “I’m one of the few internationally … doing this type of work.”
Cerel said some of that is because companies do not want their name on a donor list for suicide research because of the social stigma that exists about suicide and their family and friends.
In the 1970s people were reluctant to talk openly about breast cancer in a similar way that people today are reluctant to talk about suicide, she said.
Companies have no problem giving money to breast cancer awareness charities because the social stigma about breast cancer has drastically diminished over the past 40 years, Cerel said.
“My hope is that the stigma around suicide goes away in the same way (as breast cancer),” she said. “I think society is becoming more open about mental health and suicide.”
Rymer said the stigma comes partially from a want to blame someone for the death because it was intentional.
“During bereavement … people carry that guilt,” Rymer said. “People say, ‘They chose to die.’ (But) we’re finding, by talking to survivors, that many people had an undiagnosed mental illness.”
To talk to someone about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Someone is available 24/7 and the call is free. Or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.