Dava Guerin

Dava Guerin

As National Suicide Prevention Month is upon us, the need for suicide intervention could not be more critical, especially for men. Not only do approximately 44,000 people die by suicide every year in the United States, but the majority who succeed are men. While 90% have some form of underlying mental health issue, many do not seek help, and hide their disease from their loved ones. Those left behind face a complex web of emotions and are at higher risk of dying by suicide themselves.

According to The American Association of Suicidology, survivors of suicide are unwitting victims of among the most traumatic of human experiences. And as we are living through the worst pandemic since 1918, research suggests that during periods of extreme financial stress, suicide rates rise exponentially.

I should know.

Almost ten months ago, my husband of twenty-five years, left the house and never returned. It was a bright sunny day, made even brighter when he sent me a text message saying, “I love you.” One minute later my son called in a panic and read me the message he and his brother received from my husband a minute before mine. The chilling text said: “Goodbye. You two are the finest sons any father could have.”

I knew something was terribly wrong. I ran downstairs and found one gun missing and two manila envelopes on the bed with my name on them. On the first of four pages, my husband wrote: “By the time you read this you will know what I have done.” I immediately called 9-1-1 but by then it was all over. My husband, 72, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, proud U.S. Coast Guard veteran, and a retired Wall Street executive, drove to an abandoned restaurant, sat down on a pile of leaves and dried pine needles, put a 9mm Glock in his mouth and shot himself.

My life would never be the same.

Over the next few weeks, I learned that other women who were married to successful older men, had the same experience. Their husbands who were laid off from their jobs, or suffered injuries on the job, died by suicide with little or no warning. While they, like my husband, showed many warning signs of suicide, none of us knew what they were. Could we have prevented their suicides? Perhaps not. But understanding the risk factors and warning signs might have made a difference.

What I never knew, as well and my husband’s friends and colleagues, was that he had suicidal ideation and was suffering from a hidden and untreated major depression. Had he had a pain in his arm I might have taken him to the hospital for treatment of a possible heart attack. If his speech were slurred and he did not know who I was, I would have called 9-1-1 for a possible stroke. But suicide? I, like many of the women I spoke with since my husband’s death, had no idea what the warning signs were.

But there were signs.

Among some of the risk factors of suicide include having access to guns, a family history of suicide, drug, and alcohol abuse, not being afraid of death, and others. But the warning signs, though subtle in men—who I believe suffered from toxic masculinity like my husband—were there, nonetheless. He had abrupt changes in behavior. One day he was cheerful, and a few days later agitated and annoyed. A week later overly solicitous. He also isolated himself from his loved ones — both physically and emotionally — another ominous warning sign. In addition, he began writing endless lists, apparently getting his affairs in order; I missed them all.

In his suicide note he apologized for making what he called an “appallingly rational” decision to end his life. He cited his financial failings, and throughout the four pages described his despair, feeling old and useless, and most of all, a failure, a word he repeated at least 10 times. He wanted to return to work but realized the reason he never received a firm job offer was because of his age. He described the humiliating rejection as a millennial not wanting to hire his or her grandfather.

My husband is now at peace and out of his pain and despair. Tragically, suicide survivors like me, continue to struggle. But there is hope. Learn the warning signs and risk factors of suicide, and help our men communicate their fears and vulnerabilities before it is too late.

Dava Guerin is the author of six books including, “The Eagle on My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life.” (University Press of Kentucky; October 2020)