Psychologist uses his own life lessons – including a failed suicide attempt – to help others thinking about taking their own lives
After someone commits suicide, family members and friends are left to wonder why. They reconstruct recent events and interactions, trying to recall any signs that their loved one was contemplating taking their own life.
“The biggest feeling is guilt for not seeing it,” said Dr. Josh Smith, a licensed clinical psychologist. “Even when the individual does not show any discernible signs you feel like there is something that you missed.”
During National Suicide Awareness Month this month, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) encourages everyone to share resources and stories in an effort to simply talk about the highly stigmatized topic.
In Kentucky, suicide is on the rise, with 776 deaths occurring in 2017. There were 584 deaths by suicide in Jefferson County between 2011 and 2015.
To help tackle this issue, the Louisville Health Advisory Board is holding free suicide prevention training at 85 locations around Jefferson County from Sept. 9 through 15 in association with National Suicide Prevention Week. The 90-minute “Question. Persuade. Refer.” (QPR) sessions are designed to teach people how to respond to someone in crisis and are taught much like CPR. To learn more and see a complete list of the times and locations, please go online to qprlou.com.
The goal of the training is to educate people on how to talk with someone who might be at risk.
Dr. Smith’s story
Dr. Smith has a private practice in New Albany, providing therapy to children on the autism spectrum, but suicide has been an issue in his life since he began he began having suicidal thoughts as a teen.
Two of his brothers have taken their own lives. And six years ago, Smith jumped off the Second Street Bridge in a suicide attempt of his own.
Fortunately, he was rescued. Since then, he has been treated in a mental hospital, has gone through an outpatient program at Our Lady of Peace, and has gone on to earn a doctorate in psychology. He is married and has four children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum.
“Things got better in a hurry,” he said. “They can always get better. It’s amazing how numb I was. I’m actually afraid of heights, but I felt nothing. My dissertation had been thrown out, I was working in a job that didn’t pay enough money. I had student loan debt. Our special-needs children required a lot of care. I had tricked my brain into thinking my family would be better off without me in it. I thought there were no options to make my life better.”
Turning it around
Smith said he was admitted to the University of Louisville’s mental hospital, and later was an outpatient at Our Lady of Peace. When he finished his treatment there, he was offered a job, which he did while completing his doctorate.
He said that he still sees a stigma in society toward people who contemplate suicide.
“The biggest thing I could say is that all of us need to do what we can to take away the stigma. I started having suicidal thoughts when I was 16 and didn’t tell anybody because I was scared about what might happen.” he said. “No matter where you’re at, no matter what you’re feeling or what is going on in your life, things can get better. Things can always get better and never be afraid to tell someone what’s going on in your life.”
Most people think of suicide when a celebrity takes their own life, such as the recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain. But the fact is that suicide rates have increased by 30 percent since 1999, and nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide in 2016 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Smith said the best thing anyone can do is to talk about their feelings or concerns. Though it can be difficult, he said people should just ask if their friend or loved one had thoughts about it.
“They don’t always want to die, and they’re trying to figure that out,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for a person to have a suicidal thought, especially a person who is going to therapy or has been diagnosed with a disorder. Fifty percent of Americans have had a suicidal thought at some point in their life. Clarify that if they have those thoughts they can come to us and talk about it.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, the national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line is also available 24/7 by texting HOME to 741741.