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Content Note: This article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation.
Suicide rates are climbing to a point where officials have begun talking about this as a public health issue, not a mental health issue. In 2016, the most recent year with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 45,000 suicides. That’s roughly double the rate of homicides. Suicide has become one of the ten most common causes of death in this country. For people between the ages of 15 and 34, suicide is actually the second most common cause of death.
Of course, these modern figures still skew toward the low end of accuracy. After all, they generally do not include people who commit suicide without leaving a note in ways that could seem like accidents. Many drug overdoses and even single vehicle crashes that prove fatal are likely linked to suicidal ideation.
However, the statistics being what they are demand that our society begin to take action. Sure, it’s great to listen to pop songs whose titles include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and who talk about hanging on and finding hope. It’s also wonderful to have a more honest discussion with ourselves about suicide and mental health in our culture.
Still, it’s important to remember that we can’t all just watch feel-good TV shows talking about how life matters and change what’s happening. When it comes down to it, the passive consumption of anti-suicide messages isn’t going to do enough to change what is happening in our society. Those messages mean nothing to someone in a moment of ideation.
We need to start offering better mental health support for people before they reach the point where they feel like they have no choice. A significant number of people who kill themselves do not have a prior diagnosis with a serious mental health disorder. This is likely partially due to social stigma related to seeking mental health care and the large number of people who can’t afford medical care in general.
More importantly, we need to do what we can to help people help themselves. Legalizing cannabis is a critical first step to reducing the national suicide rate. In states with legal access to medical cannabis, statistics show a notable decline in suicide rates, particularly among men.
Studies have found legal medical cannabis results in a 5 percentage point drop in suicide rates and a 10 point drop among young men. That’s with a system that largely limits and slows safe access. Imagine what impact quick, recreational access could have. The War on Drugs is quite literally keeping people from accessing a medication that could keep them alive in a moment of absolute desperation.
While I am no fan of gender essentialism, it is true that men are more likely than women to use a firearm for suicide. That likely explains why the male suicide rate declines more noticeably in areas with medical cannabis access. Cannabis could be the lifeline that makes all of the difference in the world to somebody on the brink of suicide.
This topic is a very personal one for me. As I have previously explored here at Ladybud, I struggled with suicidal ideation for much of my life. It is only in the last few years that I can truly say I have broken free of the idea that I would inevitably die by my own hand .
I have and will continue to credit cannabis with helping me work through my emotions and find better balance for myself. More importantly, at times when I was in crisis, cannabis provided me with an immediate emotional shift that kept me from causing greater harm to myself than I already had. There is more than one time in my past when cannabis was the only thing that stopped me from following through with a plan for suicide.
Unfortunately, the only reason I was able to access cannabis was because I qualified under Michigan’s relatively strict medical cannabis program for a physical injury. My history of depression and self-harm wasn’t enough to qualify for the program. Although I am no longer a patient here in Michigan, I will always continue to advocate for people who need safe and legal access. I am heartened to see that my state is adding more qualifying conditions for medical cannabis, but I am desperate to see more protections and safe access.
At the end of the day, a medical cannabis program isn’t enough. There is a waiting period and too many hoops to jump through for people struggling with severe depression and suicidal ideation. Adult recreational access is the only compassionate solution. If a person is in distress, they should have immediate access to something that could change their mind and save their life. I feel more strongly about this now than I ever have in the past.
Not even 3 months ago, I lost somebody I loved to suicide. He had struggled his entire life with mental health problems and had a history of suicide attempts. He was also looking for a job, because he had a four-year-old son to support.
Although he knew cannabis helped him, he would not smoke it. He didn’t want to limit his opportunities. He ended up killing himself on what may have been an impulse in the middle of the night. He did not leave a note. There were no indications of any prior planning. Somehow, he had gotten his hands on a gun.
It is common for people in my situation, dealing with the profound grief of a suicide, to look for any possible excuse, explanation, or scapegoat. For a while, I focused on what the toxicology report might include. Then, I raged about why someone with a history of mental health issues could get a gun. There is no answer after a suicide that can undo the damage done.
No one is accountable for what my friend did other than himself. However, it is also true that our society utterly failed him and continues to fail more than a hundred people every single day. He deserved support in seeking treatment. He deserved stability without being dependent on hunting down a job. He deserved access to a medication that could have helped him make it through that night.
I have never claimed that cannabis is a panacea that works in all cases, but it is an effective emergency medication for people in extreme emotional distress. I stand by my previous assertions that cannabis can be the difference between life or death for someone who is spiraling downward. I often find myself thinking that if my friend had had the option to just smoke and go to bed, we would still have him in our lives.
There are so many people who could benefit from quick and legal access to cannabis. There are people struggling with addiction, those with mental health issues, military veterans, and other survivors of trauma who could all benefit greatly from the ready availability of cannabis.
As a society, it is our job to look after the weakest among us. Sometimes, the weakest people look like the strongest. It is impossible to judge how someone experiences life on the inside. All we can do is hold space for the people that we love and do our best to offer support for people who need it. I will always believe that legalizing cannabis is an important first step toward a more compassionate culture that embraces and supports people with mental health issues instead of shutting them out and leaving them to their own devices.
As our country continues to battle a raging opioid/opiate/heroin addiction epidemic and rising suicide rates, it’s important to remember that while cannabis may not cure these social ills, it could help drastically in some cases. The people most at risk of harming themselves need the rest of us to step up and do what we can to make their lives more bearable.
For other Ladybud articles that discuss suicide, please click here.
Photo Credit: Featured photo by x1klima via flickr under (CC BY-ND 2.0)