Wednesday, September 8, 2010

World Suicide Prevention Day: Kurt Vonnegut, Despair and Saving Lives

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s
life was touched by suicide
“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., an American novelist whose words and life story are particularly appropriate for this World Suicide Prevention Day. Vonnegut’s mother died by suicide and this event marked his whole life, appearing as a theme in many of his works such as Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five.

“I more or less told him that if he ever pulled crap like that again, I was going to come down on him like a ton of bricks," said Mark Vonnegut in reference to his father’s suicide attempt in 1984. Like his father, Mark lives with a mental illness and is a writer, the author of two memoirs. The two supported each other through the father’s suicide attempt and the son’s breakdown, hospitalization and eventual graduation from Harvard Medical School. Suicide, like mental illness, is rarely a story that features one protagonist. But once the story has stopped, the rest of the players struggle to find closure. We can see reflected in Vonnegut’s books what is true for anyone touched by suicide: the scar from the loss runs long and it runs deep.

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center,“ Vonnegut wrote. Perhaps one of the reasons that his writing is so appealing is that he was able to speak from a place of despair, which was paradoxically the fuel for his often-gentle humanistic vision. Though people may feel there is no one with them on that edge, the reality is that many have stood in that same place of hopelessness, and many understanding listeners are available on suicide hotlines, at support groups and among mental health professionals.

We may never fully enter into another’s reasoning behind the decision to end their own life, but we can all challenge ourselves to become better listeners so that we can be there for each other when we’re seeing things from somewhere far from center. Download NAMI’s toolkit with resources for individuals, families and providers for some ideas that will get you started with asking the right questions or looking for a listening ear. As Vonnegut said:
“Why bother? Here's my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about…You are not alone.”
If we all need to learn the signs of depression and take talk of suicide seriously, there are a few groups of people who may need extra attention. Almost all of us know someone who is unemployed or a veteran. Both are at a higher risk of suicide. We need to hold them especially close.

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a passage that could well describe the depths of depression. If you feel this way, or you suspect someone you know does, please reach out. We don’t have to be perfect ourselves to make that connection, to help or be helped. The man of many troubles and much compassion, Kurt Vonnegut, said of his son’s mental illness,  “We saw something beautiful when you got well. The recovery was worth it.”


LOLA said...

thank you. I had been unemployed until recently.Having had depression from mild to severe over most of my adult life, being laid off from a job I was good at and liked (local advocacy for a large NGO) made my feeling of worthlessness even worse. I finally got hired at a low level wage job that had health insurance but continue to feel low, that my life is out of control and inadequate . I am glad a NAMI newlsetter appeared in my email recently and I was able to find your blog.

Anonymous said...

I am a writer and an artist that struggles with mental illness. This post touched me very deeply. So much so I wrote a poem about getting through my last suicidal ideation. it is as follows:

I grew tired of hearing my own thoughts
echoing through my mind
I grew tired of relearning what I've been taught
and wishing for my own demise

seeI'm a soldier..I've been waging my own war
praying for lady death to open her doors
but her portals stayed closed
no matter how loud my begging rose
sitting with a gun against my skull
with the lack the courage to pull
the trigger

so you can call me a coward
or you can call me brave
it doesn't really matter
the end result is just the same

I lost all hope but now I'm
moving past it , hoping it is everlasting
I am lost in your translation
and I know your losing patience

but I don't want your map to life
I don't need your help to survive
and as for my destination
I have arrived

It's a tiny little place
away from the fast paced
beyond the fake
I'm taking down my walls
my masks are shattering as they fall
moving past all that I've been told
I'm breaking my own mould
and living in my own soul

because even when I wanted to die
give up on everything and no longer try
it was not me I wanted to kill
but the powerlessness that filled
me to the point of dread
and so I thought Id be better off dead

see I've found now what I was looking for
behind the threshold of a life no more
it's the end of expectation, not of myself
a place where creation is born
and my worn down heart
can begin to heal itself
so now the truth is finally out
I didn't want an ending
I wanted a new start.

Thankyou , Lesley

Anonymous said...

Rest in peace, Mr. Vonnegut. The world is a better place with your legacy of thoughtfulness and creativity.

Mr Rosewater said...

I was drawn to Kurt's books long before I understood why. He helped me get through my childhood, which was no small feat, and he still helps me today. I am glad he is now at peace, but only after a long, productive, inspirational life. Thanks for invoking his spirit here.

James Morgan - Puritan Financial Advisor said...

Though people may feel there is no one with them on that edge, the reality is that many have stood in that same place of hopelessness, and many understanding listeners are available on suicide hotlines, at support groups and among mental health professionals.

Daniel Taverne said...

I appreciate your post here, although I'm rading it some time since you wrote it. I particularly like the final portions giving people like me permission to help suicidal (or potentially suicidal) people by lending an ear.

I started a suicide prevention blog: "Don't Do It!!! where I kind of try being that voice that gives the potentially suicida pause. I encourage them to get help.

So,I'm spreading my link around the internet and doing research. I'm going to include a quote from this post: "I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about…You are not alone.”

Thanks for what you wrote here.

Cendecon said...

We provide hundreds of clean-ups for suicides each year. We know the suffering it can cause on families. Our hearts go out to anyone dealing with this situation. It's not easy, but there is always help available.

Ellen Biggs said...

Like Mr. Fitzpatrick mentions in his article, it is important for others to see the signs of depression in others that lead to suicide. There are great resources like which offers great information on how to prevent suicide. The more information we know the better.