Suicide is complicated. Though there is only one definitive, devastating result of the completed act, there are countless roads that lead to it. Long Island psychotherapist Nancy R. Goldstein says that “there is no one go-to book” that is recommended to patients or used in the professional treatment for suicide prevention. Risk for suicide and the clinical presentation of depression varies among different demographics. Assessing suicidality and depression are very different in an elderly person and a teenager, different in men and women, and also may differ according to race and ethnicity.
But there is one chilling aspect that everyone—professionals and laypeople alike—knows to be true: the statistics are staggering and are worsening every day; the national suicide rate is up 25% since 1999. Among the gruesome litany of stats are the facts that it is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and that suicide claimed the lives of nearly 45,000 people in 2017. Annually, there are approximately 1.3 million attempts—meaning there is an attempt every 28 seconds. In the wake of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, an urgency has arisen to find answers for those at risk, and for the survivors left to cope with the loss of loved ones.
The good news is that, although there isn’t an easy solution, books can help. Jen Altman, a New Jersey clinical psychologist, agrees with Goldstein that it is difficult to identify a single book but says that “literature is so powerful.” She cites three overarching issues that can lead to suicide: alienation and lacking a sense of identity, perceiving the world as a lonely place and feeling disconnected, and an inability to cope with or solve problems. Books, by enabling readers to see themselves, can tell them that their stories do not have to have tragic endings—that there is an alternate path, a way out. “We all need a mirror,” Altman says.
It’s no surprise then, that so much of the literature about suicide is either in the form of straightforward memoir or contains elements of it. But one recently published book, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, takes a more scientific approach. In 2009, a student from the local high school in Palo Alto, Calif., killed himself by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Within six months, the high school lost four more students to suicide along those tracks. Kravetz, a science journalist, explores what caused these tragedies and how it was possible that a suicide cluster developed in a community of concerned, aware, and hypervigilant adults. He found the answer in “social contagions”: the physiological, psychological, and social factors that can combine to establish highly volatile states of mind.
For many, more than science or therapy, faith brings solace and hope in struggle. Yet, according to Rachael A. Keefe, author of The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention (Chalice, out now), “There’s so much silence around suicide in the church that it is quite literally killing us.” A pastor and suicide survivor, Keefe shatters the silence of the church on the topics of mental health, depression, and suicide prevention. The book includes resources about how to educate congregations about suicide prevention, a “What Your Congregation Can Do Now” section, clinical and theological reflections on suicide, and scriptures and prayers for clergy and church leaders, suicide loss survivors, and those struggling with suicidality.
Finding Solace Through Other People’s Stories
IIn Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves (Univ. of Chicago, Nov.), Jesse Bering mixes science and personal experience. Throughout his 30s, Bering, a successful psychologist and writer, thought he was going to kill himself. After he emerged from those dark years, he became curious as to the science and psychology of suicidal impulses: Are they a uniquely human evolutionary development? Would his personal battle return? In Suicidal, he brings together scientific studies, personal stories, and cross-species comparisons to help readers critically analyze their own doomsday thoughts and better understand their condition.
Originally published in 2002, Susan Blauner’s How I Stayed Alive When My Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention is on the recommended reading list of the American Association of Suicidology and endorsed by the National Council for Suicide Prevention. A survivor of multiple suicide attempts, Blauner eloquently describes the feelings and fantasies surrounding a suicide and offers affirmations and suggestions for those experiencing suicidal thoughts and for their friends and family.
Published last year to much acclaim, Cree LeFavour’s harrowing memoir, Lights on, Rats Out, will be available in paperback on August 21. In the book, she recounts her journey from self-harm and offers her personal take on psychiatric treatment. She moves deftly between meticulously kept records of the dialogue and observations from psychiatric documents and her own memory.
As the deaths of Spade and Bourdain reaffirmed, fame and fortune are no safeguard against unhappiness. Legendary rap star and cofounder of Run DMC Darryl McDaniels speaks out about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts in the 2017 book Ten Ways Not to Commit Suicide. Overwhelmed with success, McDaniels turned to alcohol as a retreat from pain, but eventually he plunged into severe depression and became suicidal. In addition to telling his own story, he provides essential information on resources for getting help.
Trigger Publishing, which has offices in the U.K. and the U.S., calls itself “the voice of mental health” and specializes in books on the topic. Its Inspirational series consists of memoirs written by people who have recovered from difficult struggles, who tell their stories with humor and hope. Coming out this month is Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: Taking Myself Apart, Putting Myself Back Together by Debbie Hampton, in which she recounts how she woke up strapped to a hospital bed after having ingested more than 90 pills, causing lasting damage to her brain and body. The mother of two young children, Hampton had to relearn how to speak, eat, and fit back into society.
Surviving the Wreckage
There are two types of survivors in any discussion of suicide. There are those who survive suicide attempts, and struggle to recover and be free of their demons; and there are those who have lost someone to suicide, or grapple with a loved one who is suicidal. The following books aim to help the latter population of survivors.
Comedian Adam Cayton-Holland’s career was just taking off when his 28-year-old younger sister, who struggled with mental illness, killed herself. Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragic-Comic Memoir (Touchstone, Aug.) is his moving tribute to his lost sibling and an inspiring guide to navigating grief and pain. Funny and frank, Cayton-Holland shares his journey of choosing life in the wake of a devastating loss.
Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief—A Revolutionary Approach to Understanding and Healing the Impact of Loss (Da Capo Lifelong, Sept.) by Los Angeles therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, who specializes in grief, takes a more measured approach, positing that anxiety is a sixth, largely unrecognized stage of grief and providing practical strategies for healing.
Ken Falke and Josh Goldberg adapt the mental health strategies used for veterans to make them practicable by anyone in Struggle Well: Striving in the Aftermath of Trauma (Lioncrest, out now). Falke spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy as a explosive-ordinance disposal (EOD) specialist. Goldberg spent 11 years as a communications executive for two of the world’s biggest corporations. Both have struggled with suicidal thoughts. In 2017, Falke founder of the EOD Warrior Foundation teamed up with Goldberg to found the Boulder Crest Institute, which seeks to help all those who struggle with posttraumatic stress to find strength and achieve lifelong growth.
“Traumatic events throw our lives into turmoil in unpredictable ways; no two people will respond to them in exactly the same manner,” write Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, the authors of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges (Cambridge Univ.), the second edition of which was published in May. Both are experts in psychology and neurobiology. Southwick is on the faculty of the Yale School of Medicine as well as at the School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, where Charney is dean. What will resonate with readers is not their unparalleled credentials but that both have endured severe traumas of their own and have overcome them.
In Things Jon Didn’t Know About; Our Life After My Husband’s Suicide, released in 2017(Jessica Kingsley), Sue Henderson candidly recounts her experience as a single parent after her husband took his own life. In addition to describing the emotional impact of her husband’s death, she offers advice on how to talk to children who have lost loved ones about death and suicide, how to support them as they grow up, and how to be aware of the heightened emotional risks they face.
Teens at Risk
Suicide statistics among teens are even more staggering. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages 12–18. Amanda Shofner, a publicist at Free Spirit Publishing, says, “It’s more important than ever to put books in kids’ hands that can help them cope with depression and suicidal thoughts.” She suggests three such titles from Free Spirit.
Registered nurse Bev Cobain—cousin of Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994—penned her 2007 book When Nothing Matters Anymore to reach out to teens with a lifesaving message: “You don’t have to be sad, discouraged, or depressed. There is help and hope for you.” Cobain shows teens how to recognize depression in themselves and others, as well as how to understand its effects and take care of themselves. She provides treatment options, facts about therapy and medications, and explanations regarding the differences between various types of helping professionals—such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, physicians, and counselors.
Richard E. Nelson has given more than a thousand workshops across the U.S. on suicide prevention and youth at risk. In The Power to Prevent Suicide: A Guide for Teens Helping Teens, written in 2006 with coauthor Judith C. Galas, he spells out the warning signs, guides teens through the steps of reaching out to a friend, and explains when and how to seek help. School Library Journal praised it as “an excellent, practical manual that is easy to read and understand.”
What to Do When You’re Cranky and Blue by counselor and clinical psychologist James J. Crist, which came out in 2013, is written for children ages nine to 13 who may find themselves feeling down. Crist teaches kids 10 “blues busters” to shake unhappy feelings. He shows how to talk about feelings, boost self-esteem, make and keep friends, and enjoy time alone.