CNN (Ryan Prior): 1 in 4 young people are reporting suicidal thoughts. Here’s how to help

Wikipedia article about this film.

Wikipedia article about Aaron.

Aaron’s website and weblog (or blog) .

I wish we lived in a society where Aaron could have truly felt like he could safely communicate his despair to someone he trusted (in order to help make the pain of his despair go away), rather than doing what he did: resorting to suicide (in order to make the pain of his despair go away).

All my life, I’ve tried to create at least a microcosm of that kind-of society. But it takes at least two honest, mature, self-assured, and mutually supportive people to accomplish that goal. And in all my life, though I remain open to the idea that there may be a few such people among the three hundred million in the US, I’ve never encountered a second such person myself. I suspect that Aaron might have encountered the same scarcity.

And I suspect that Alexandra Valoras might also have encountered the same scarcity when she took her own life in Grafton, MA at age 17 on 02018 March 19, between 5 and 6 years after Aaron. Tragically, even though she lived with her parents, it seems to me (based on her suicide and her written thoughts leading up to her suicide) that she felt like she could not trust even her parents enough to communicate her despair to them.

My mother tended to suffer from a similar despair, though she had the strength to soldier on through the despair and lived to a ripe old age, having passed away more than a decade ago from natural causes. Mom taught me an important poem that I wish someone would have shared with Alexandra in response to her writing in her diary:

“You are broken.
You are a burden.
You are lazy.
You are a failure.”

In his 01927 poem Desiderata, Max Ehrmann wrote: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Her to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Don’t strive to be a success or to be an engineer, Alexandra; just strive to be happy. Alexandra needed to hear that from someone who cared about her. Hearing that might’ve been all she needed to make it through 02018 March 19 alive. I wonder how many other people need to hear that today from someone who cares about them.

Instead of creating and fostering such empathic people every day, our society creates myriad people like Michelle Carter who at age 17, repeatedly urged and goaded Conrad Henri Roy III to take his own life in Fairhaven, MA on 02014 July 13 when he was age 18, between 1 and 2 years after Aaron. 

I like a quotation that highlights what I consider to be the only acceptable alternative for all people who encounter this scarcity: “And in the end, all I learned was how to be strong alone.” I don’t know who originally wrote this. And although I sense that the original author saw this sentence and its lesson as some kind of failure (“…all I learned…”), I see it as the most essential success for anyone (I would revise it as: “…I finally managed to learn how to be strong alone.”).

I wish I had known Aaron. If I had, I would have told him that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

It’s easy to say and to write this simple sentence, especially for someone like me who doesn’t feel that despair himself. But it’s more difficult to truly believe it, deep down inside, day after day, indefinitely, especially for someone like Aaron who was feeling that despair (most empathically demonstrated by atheist Ricky Gervais‘ in his character Tony after the loss to breast cancer of Tony’s wife Lisa in Netflix TV series “After Life”) for years.

For example, according to the wikipedia article about him, Aaron was arrested in Cambridge, MA on 02011 January 06 and was indicted on felony charges by a federal grand jury on 02011 July 11. And 737 days after being arrested, on the evening of 02013 January 11, Aaron’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, found him dead in his Brooklyn, NY apartment. A spokeswoman for New York’s Medical Examiner reported that Aaron had hanged himself. So I think it is reasonable to guess that Aaron managed to live with that crippling despair day after day for at least 736 days before finally succumbing to the need to make the pain of his despair go away by suicide.

If Aaron had learned in his short bright life how to be strong alone, then I think he would still be with us today, and undoubtedly would be still a profoundly positive influence on his loving family and on society.

But I didn’t learn how to be strong alone until I reached my fifties, so I know it can be extremely difficult in youth. And even an incredibly highly accomplished person like then-CNO Jeremy Michael Boorda seems not to have learned how to be strong alone; even in his fifties. For Admiral Boorda also died by suicide at age 56 on 01996 May 16 (mere weeks before I was to meet him), between 16 and 17 years before Aaron. And Robin Williams (wealthy and world-famous comedian and apparently-happy funnyman and the voice of Lovelace the Rockhopper and Ramón the Adelie in the 02006 film Happy Feet) died by suicide at age 63 on 02014 August 11, between 1 and 2 years after Aaron.

It can apparently happen to the best of us at any age. I wonder how many consecutive days of that crippling despair Admiral Boorda and Robin Williams lived through before they succumbed to the need to make the pain go away. It seems to require not only decades of life experience, but also tremendous wisdom, to be able to learn this important ability: how to be strong alone.

But I think it’s a necessary life skill in the society we live in today. And I think this necessity is also an indictment of our society as it exists today; that our society systematically drives many people to consider suicide and simultaneously discourages us all from expressing empathy for those who have the courage to share that they are considering it; we relegate this to the role of a professional (who acts because it is their professional duty for which they receive financial compensation) rather than a friend or a family member.

I reject the notion that suicide is always the result of an individual suffering from a mental pathology like clinical depression. Instead, I would often diagnose pathology in the society. For I think that only the strongest young people are capable of learning how to be strong alone. I admire those strong young people immensely, for it’s a monumental task that even wealthy and successful people with 50 or 60 years of life experience often fail at.

In 01969, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote: “And in the end, the love you take [receive?], is equal to the love you make [give?]…”.

And it’s a lovely and desirable sentiment, and I wish it were true in some society somewhere, but decades of living in the US has convinced me that it’s not true in our society today. Instead, in our society, to avoid the fate of Aaron (age 26) and Alexandra (age 17) and Conrad (age 18) and Admiral Boorda (age 56) and Robin Williams (age 63), “And in the end, each of us must learn how to be strong alone.”

Apparently in 02003 (based on the release date for his album Weather Systems which featured Track 02 “I”, an earlier take on his more popular “Imitosis”, a word I think he coined as the name of the diagnosis I would give to our society’s pathology mentioned above), Andrew Bird wrote the lyrics for his Armchair Apocrypha Track 02 “Imitosis”:

He’s keeping busy
Yeah he’s bleeding stones
With his machinations and his palindromes
It was anything but hear the voice
anything but hear the voice
It was anything but hear the voice
That says that we’re all basically alone

Poor Professor Pynchon had only good intentions
When he put his Bunsen burners all away
And turning to a playground in a Petri dish
Where single cells would swing their fists
At anything that looks like easy prey
In this nature show that rages every day
It was then he heard his intuition say

We were all basically alone
And despite what all his studies had shown
That what’s mistaken for closeness
Is just a case for mitosis
And why do some show no mercy
While others are painfully shy
Tell me doctor can you quantify
‘Cause he just wants to know the reason, the reason why

Why do they congregate in groups of four
Scatter like a billion spores
And let the wind just carry them away?
How can kids be so mean [Michelle]?
Our famous doctor tried to glean
As he went home at the end of the day
In this nature show that rages every day
It was then he heard his intuition say

We were all basically alone
Despite what all his studies had shown
That what’s mistaken for closeness
Is just a case of mitosis
Sure fatal doses of malcontent through osmosis
And why do some show no mercy [Michelle]
While others are painfully shy [Conrad]
Oh tell me doctor, can you quantify?
The reason why?