tAs in many jurisdictions of the world, the U.S. Virgin Islands sees far too many people taken before their time through suicide. Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 added a great amount of stress to many Virgin Islanders. Mental and behavioral health services that could save lives are in short supply in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In March, Governor Albert Bryan Jr. issued an executive order declaring a mental health care emergency in the territory. Police have reported on at least five apparent suicides over the past two years in the territory. The actual total today may be higher.
The tragedy of hearing an individual committed suicide because they feel like it is their only choice is heartbreaking. Many individuals that have feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or emotional pain do not know there are people out there to help them. Some people are so deep in their pain that they do not think about the people out there who love them and will help them fight their battles. Some even hold back on getting the help they need because of the stigma others may place on mental health concerns.
“Some people are going through a lot, but have trust issues, where they have tried to talk to someone in the past and they spread their personal information to others,” said Lola Fahie, an individual who has experience in social work. “For some people, they just hold it in thinking they would be a bother to someone else, not realizing it is hurting them. Some individuals have been holding a lot in since childhood, and have a breaking point where they can’t take it anymore and do not know where to go get help. Mental health is real and people need to know that there are places on the Virgin Islands where one can get help.”
It is often a surprise to the loved ones once they learn a friend, family member or even celebrity has committed suicide. People are left wondering how and why. How did I miss the signs, or why did they take their own life? What was the final straw that led them to believe they prefer death to life? What were they going through?
Families go through the five stages of grief/loss. First, denial and isolation; where the individual learns about the loss and is denying the situation. “This is not happening; this can’t be happening” are thoughts that often come to mind. Second, anger; this anger may be directed towards the deceased loved one, family, friends, strangers or objects. Third, bargaining; during this phase one, may secretly make a deal with God, or use “if only” statements such as “if only I had talked to him/her more,” “if only I had sought mental health help,” “if only I had known” etc. Fourth, depression; there are different types of depression that one can fall in to. In this stage, there are feelings of sadness about the deceased. Fifth, finally, is acceptance; this stage is often confused with the belief or idea that everything is OK, and the individual is “OK” with what has happened. However, this stage is more about an individual accepting the reality for what it is, accepting that they have lost a loved one.
“When I first heard about his death, I did not believe it, I was in denial for quite some time. This was someone I knew from young and he never showed the signs. I just wish I would have reached out to him, maybe if I did, he would still be alive” said a Virgin Islander who lost a friend to suicide.
“Many people find it difficult to talk about suicide … even mental health professionals. It can be uncomfortable and scary, but it is so important to have these difficult discussions. It could save someone’s life,” said Erin Salzbrun, a high school therapist at Antilles School. “Schools should play a big role in fostering discussion with young people about suicide. One thing we’ve done at our school is to create small groups for students to discuss difficult issues like mental health problems, family difficulties, interpersonal challenges and painful emotions. This is especially important as it is more likely that a student will report something to another student rather than to an adult.”
According to Kathleen Smith, writing on the website Pdycom, some warning signs to look out for include but are not limited to:
– Isolation from loved ones,
– Feelings of hopelessness,
– Not feeling worthy,
– Talk about death, wanting to kill themselves, feel like they have no purpose, not wanting to exist,
– Giving away possessions or writing a will,
– Increase of substance use/abuse,
– Gathering materials such as pills or a weapon, and
– Saying goodbyes.
Remember each experience and show different signs. Just because someone is showing one of these signs, does not necessarily mean they are suicidal. The same goes the other way around, just because someone is not showing one of these signs, it does not mean they are not depressed or thinking about suicide.
A Virgin Islander who asked that their name be withheld, said living with depression is a day-to-day process.
“I have been depressed for about the past 15 years,” the person said. “I thought about hurting myself here and there, and I even tried it once when I was younger, but because of my religious beliefs, I stopped. The thoughts were still there though until I started going to therapy and talking to someone. I used to think it was embarrassing, but honestly, it was life-changing. Therapy did not only save me, but it gave me the skills and tools that I can now take and use for a lifetime. Tools that I can use to help my friends and family when they are depressed.”
Do not let the stigma stop you from getting the help you need, the help you deserve, the help that could make a difference in your life, the help that could save your life. When one is depressed they tend to forget or have a difficult time understanding that committing suicide is eliminating the possibility of having a brighter future where things are better for them.
“Suicide is a major health concern, yet it remains a taboo subject, which has deep roots in our culture. The sad reality: suicide can affect anyone at any time of life, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, race, gender or religion. It’s also closely linked to mental disorders that take away an individual’s freedom of choice. I believe the Virgin Islands could do more to help those suffering from mental health and suicidal issues,” said Salzbrun.
If you are having a hard day, take a moment to catch yourself. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat that a couple of times. Now, with each inhalation, think of something that makes you happy, something that makes you smile. With each breath out, think of something negative. When you exhale, release those negative thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it helps to visualize it. One way of visualization is to imagine writing down something negative on a piece of paper, rolling it in a bottle, and blowing it away in the ocean with each exhale. Finally, while your eyes are closed, put your hand on your heart. Take a moment to hear or feel the beating.
Remember, be mindful of the touch and sound of the heartbeat, because that feeling brings purpose. You have a purpose, there is a reason God wants you alive at this moment, so do not give up. For all you know, you are fighting the hardest battle right now to get to a beautiful place in life.
The feeling of hurt and pain will not last forever, you just need to fight through it to get to the brighter days. You do not need to fight this battle alone, help is out there!
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are several clinics to go to get help, including Mind Body Health and Psychology, JW Behavioral Center, Thrive Therapy, Ashar Counselling and Psychological Services, Insight Psychological, Synergy, Island Therapy Solutions, Department of Mental Health and East End Clinic (Individuals should talk to their primary doctor if they are not sure where to get help).
If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255, anytime.
Editor’s Note: Nour Z. Suid was born and raised in the Virgin Islands. She graduated with a doctorate in clinical psychology and is working on a doctorate in naturopathic medicine. She works locally as a therapist with individuals of all ages to help those with mental illnesses.