Guest Commentary

Suicide survivors know life is not always easy, but being alive is worth it


My son, Kelsey Buzzanco, should be enrolled and taking classes in his final semester at UH. Kelsey was an incredibly bright kid and really popular. He had a sarcastic and clever sense of humor and he was an adrenaline junkie. Riding motorcycles, he’d blow by me doing 130; riding bicycles, he’d lose me on the rugged trails at Memorial Park; paddling kayaks, he’d get in the wake of a Jet Ski and try to capsize his vessel.

I’m using the past tense, as you’ve probably noticed, because I lost Kelsey; he killed himself on March 11th, 2010. I’m a “survivor” of suicide, as the families and friends of those who died by their own hand are called. There are many, many survivors like me. I live every day with the indescribable pain of missing my son.

But I’m not writing this to tell you what a great kid Kelsey was, or to offer comfort to other survivors. Suicide, especially among college age people, is a grave and growing problem. And this week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and Saturday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. And we all could use more information about this national health crisis.

The statistics on suicide are alarming. About 35,000 people kill themselves per year, almost 100 a day. Those who study this issue estimate that for every successful suicide, there may be 50 to 100 attempts, which would amount to more than 1 million a year. Females attempt suicide three times more frequently than males, but males complete suicides almost four times more often, usually because they use deadly force like guns (as Kelsey did), which account for over half of all successful attempts, or hanging.

Among young and college-age people, suicide is the third leading cause of death, at about 4,300 per year, behind accidents and homicides. In the past few years, suicide rates among the middle-aged have risen alarmingly, certainly to some degree because of the economic calamities in which we find ourselves.

The issue of suicide can’t be separated from larger issues of mental health, which is why campuses can be particularly risky environments. College can be a wonderful experience, but brings stresses and obligations that are generally new to young people.

Many college students have ADHD; many students are on medications or self-medicate; alcohol is abundant; and many kids are stressed, anxious, or depressed. Over 90 percent of completed suicides can be linked to some type of mental disorder, like those mentioned above. Put in the added pressure of paying tuition, perhaps working a job, taking care of families, and getting good grades, and many young people find themselves in crisis.

So how do you spot a potential suicide, and what do you do if you’re struggling? Unfortunately, many of the warning signs of suicide reflect the daily worries of any teen or young adult. Obviously, if someone mentions suicide, that person should be taken seriously and encouraged to get help. A history of psychological problems that seem to worsen can be a sign. Alcohol or substance abuse or a sense of hopelessness or nihilism might be a tip off. If someone is acting erratically and has the means for harming oneself nearby — pills, guns, etc., — then it’s worth talking to that person and encouraging help.

I always knew Kelsey had psychological issues, and I talked to him about it all the time — “all you do is bitch and moan” he said to me often. Still, I couldn’t predict how bad he felt, how weary and hopeless he was. If you feel that way, or someone you know does, try to talk to them. It’s not weak to ask for help, to simply say “I’m stressed out” or “I don’t know what to do.”

The UH Counseling Center is trained to help out college students. Talk to your family, your friends, a mentor, a counselor, whomever. Silence can, in fact, be deadly. Stay away from guns and other means of harming yourself. As bad as you feel, things will change. It won’t always be easy, and life will always throw you some curveballs.

The world isn’t full of unicorns and rainbows, but there are people who care about you, and want you around. And we don’t need any more “survivors.”

Robert Buzzanco, Ph.D., is a UH history professor.


  • Kris

    Informative article on a very troubling subject, Bob. Even though we got a little crossways, I am always around to lend an ear or a shoulder should you need one. You know what I have been through with my own son, so I can relate somewhat to what you discussed in the article. Call or drop me an "e" if you feel inclined.

    Hugs,

    Kris

  • Kim

    I'm a SOS survivor of suicide my husband 2009. GOD bless you keep praying!
    Kim

  • Sandra

    I read your article and was so very sorry for your loss. I too lost a son 3 years ago May 28th. Its funny, but for a while, you have to tell yourself to do so many thing that normally come natural, like turning off a light, or picking up a comb to comb your hair. I finally had to ask the Lord to help me find myself, and He did. I could not have made it without Him. I never knew any one personally, who had lost a child, until I lost Bobby. Now I know many. I hope the best for you and your family. I hope your story helps many families that ever have to go thru any thing like this. To me its like you have a big hole in your heart and it never heals, you just learn to live with it. Lucky for me I have 3 other children who also loved Bobby and love me, and I them. May you be richly blessed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cpatrickfirst C Patrick McIlvain

    Professor Buzzanco – Thank you for your willingness to talk about the personal loss of a child due to suicide. Losing any family member or friend to mental illness/disease is never easy to talk about. I do think though the more we can talk about suicide and or mental illness we will be able to decrease the number of deaths caused by this illness/disease. Talking about one's mental illness is so very important to get it out of your body and into the real world where folks can say, Yes, I understand first hand what you are saying, Thank you for letting me know that I am not all along in fighting this war.
    Please join me in being a part of The Houston Walk for Mental Illness Awareness – http://thehoustonwalk.org/. We are here to help, support and educate and let our "Walk With A Purpose" 501.c-3 groups raise funds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/montrosepatriot Montrose Patriot

    I lost my best friend (art car artist Jeff Towns) to suicide 7.14.09; those within the Houston art car community consider suicide a taboo subject although my late friend is up in the heavens with the late Rev. T. Mitchell Jones and Tom Kennedy.

    The Houston Art Car Klub named an award after Jeff Towns since 2010 4 those committed as the artist in need when an unfinished project or service was tendered. To this present day, the art car community has mourned his loss despite one of his final art cars currently in the care of his widow, Jill Johnson.

    This was not the first time I faced this – when I was 11, my first godfather committed suicide in Crested Butte, Colorado and back in 2006, my dear friend Cassie K Goodin took her own life in a Brooklyn, NY loft 11.27.06 after she served as part of my support group when my mom passed.

    Rev. Montrose Patriot

  • Bob Buzzanco

    Thanks to all. Hang in there! Can't say it gets better–but you endure it.

  • Anil Kelso

    Great article. I'm so glad to see that you are working to help prevent this from happening to others. No one wants to be a 'survivor'.

    Miss you Kelsey

    – Anil Kelso

  • Kathy Zerda

    I hope all of you will put April 14, 2012 on your calendar for the 3rd Annual UH "Out of the Darkness" Campus Walk for Suicide Awareness and Prevention. I too lost a son to suicide, and like most "survivors", I would like to impact the statistics and encourage those suffering from depression and suicidal ideation to seek help instead of choosing suicide. The Walk will start at Lynn Eusan Park. Please help spread the word. Let's make this 2012 Walk a true University of Houston-wide event!

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