Special Report Continued: Surviving My Father's Suicide

Baihly Warfield
November 13, 2017 01:39 PM

Every year, more than 44,000 Americans take their own lives.

They leave behind spouses, children, siblings and friends. Arne Vainio and Alyssa Johnsen are two of the sons and daughters of suicide.

"There's more suicide, I feel like, than people really know about," Alyssa said.

They are left with more questions than answers.

"You never know if there's anything you could have done or not," Alyssa said.

Alyssa is more than five years out from her father's death. Arne is more than 50. Still, grief after suicide endures.

"It's not a one-year grieving thing. It stays with you," Arne said.

But life keeps going. So Alyssa and Arne did too.

"When I lost my father, I needed to do something," Alyssa said. "I didn't know what to do. So I actually started out looking for a walk/run to participate in. And I couldn't find one in the area."

Instead, she organized one in Duluth and has continued for the past four years. Alyssa said around 100 people usually show up.

"I didn't realize ... how many people have been touched by suicide," Alyssa said.

Staying busy got her through each day. But nothing can erase the pain.

"It doesn't get easier," Alyssa said. "You just get stronger."

In Arne's experience, the wound of suicide is deepened by the silence.

"People don't want to bring that up. They don't want to dredge up bad thoughts," Arne said. "So those names, they're kept silent. And that's a disservice to the people who are left behind."

His father committed suicide when he was a little kids. Now, he's doing what he can to correct the misperceptions.

"Not mentioning suicide isn't doing anybody any favors," he said. "People are always afraid that if you mention suicide, you're going to put that idea in somebody's head. But it's there."

Meghann Levitt said Arne is right. She has worked with suicide prevention for years in Carlton County. And she runs the northeast Minnesota division of TXT4LIFE, a 24/7 program with counselors to help someone considering suicide.

"There is a stigma out there that if you ask about suicide, that it's going to plant that idea in somebody's head, and they're going to go do it," Levitt said. "And research has found that that's actually not the case, that asking about suicide actually opens up a lot of communication."

According to the most recent CDC data, women attempt suicide twice as often as men. But nearly four times as many men actually die.

"Males in general tend to use more lethal means than females," Levitt said. "So that's another thing we're checking into. Is it the means that's causing the higher rate? Is it the fact that they may not be seeking help at higher rates than females? There could be a lot of different reasons why."

Reaching those who are most at risk has proven to be a challenge, Levitt said.

"Middle-aged males, it's a hard population," she said. "So kind of trying to dig in and try to figure out the why behind that statistic is hard, but it's going to be really important moving forward."

When seeking help, Levitt said there isn't just one way to help someone struggling or for them to help themselves.

"A lot of people typically think ... if i'm feeling depressed or thinking about suicide, I have to go see a therapist," Levitt said. "That might not be for everyone."

Medication might not be for everyone either, Levitt said. That's why it's important there are options.

"Help is available, but it might look a little different for each person," she said.

Alyssa and Arne will keep using their voices to fill the silence and let in the light.

"Everybody's got their demons. And certainly that's been one of mine," Arne said. "And if you've got 'em, you can either keep 'em in the closet so they open the doors every night and let them haunt your dreams. Or you can open the doors and let the sunlight get them, you know? I think that's the way I've chosen to do it."

Here are a few resources to find help:

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

TXT4LIFE Minnesota

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

National Institute of Mental Health


Baihly Warfield

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