frank talk about Charleston, mass shootings, guns and the beginning of the end of suicide in America

Note:  I wrote this post before I heard President Obama’s eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

 

Like millions of other people around the world I was saddened and disgusted by the cold-blooded murders in Charleston last week.  In my view, looking at our nation’s entire history, you are blind if you do not readily recognize the significant strides in civil rights made by and for African Americans and other minorities in this country.  I think you are equally blind, if you are unable to see  how far we still have to go, to live in a society free of hate, hateful acts, and discrimination.

To the families and loved ones of the fallen:

Please accept my deepest sympathies  for your loss; you have been and continue to be in my thoughts.  I cannot fathom how painful it must be to lose a loved one to such senseless violence, and I was moved to tears when I first heard the amazing expressions of mercy-filled forgiveness from some of you on the news.

I heard Anthony Thompson speaking to his wife’s killer say, “I forgive you.”

I heard Bethane Middleton-Brown, Reverend Middleton’s sister, tell her brother’s murderer:  “We are the family that love built, we have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

And I heard Nadine Collier who lost her mother, say this:  “I just want everyone to know I forgive you.  You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

These incredible examples of forgiveness are profoundly beautiful and inspiring reminders of the redemptive power of love.  Thank you for having the courage, and the strength and the compassion and the grace to respond to hate with love as you have.  Your expressions of forgiveness to your loved ones’ murderer very well may have saved other lives by inspiring peace in the wake of this tragedy.  I commend you for leading with your love, and I hope that you may find peace, as you mourn, remember, and pay tribute to the memory of your loved ones.

To the people of Charleston:

The peaceful, love-filled response to these horrible murders shows me and the rest of the world that the words of Alana Simmons will never be proven wrong.  “Hate won’t win,” she told her grandfather’s killer.  The sense of collective unity and strength exemplified by your community’s peaceful response to this tragedy reminds us all again of the unstoppable power of love to continually rise up and overwhelm destructive forces of senseless hate and violence.  Thank you for your strength and fellowship during this trying time for your community.

To the person who repeatedly pulled the trigger on the gun, last week, that killed nine members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church Bible study group:

The murder of a single innocent person is a crime against all of humanity.  Inspired by the amazing examples of mercy shown to you by the loved ones of your victims, I too forgive you.  It’s impossible for you to undo the damage that you’ve done or to make up for the heartbreak that you’ve caused, but it is within your power to show genuine remorse.  I know very little about you and the life you’ve led, but whatever the source is of your hate, I don’t believe that you were born with it.  As a result, I am sorry that whatever happened to you to cause you to think and act as you did last week ever happened, truly I am.  You still do have the power to redeem yourself by working to replace the hate in your heart with love.  I would not be surprised at all if the loved ones of your victims offer to help you do this. Make no mistake, those people are subject matter experts in love, and at the very least, you can learn from their example, and I sincerely hope that you do.

Guns and Suicide in the United States

Considering my personal thoughts and feelings about the importance of the suicide awareness and prevention movement, I’m compelled to take this opportunity to raise awareness about some important, and very probably surprising facts, for many, related to gun violence and how the overwhelming majority of its victims die in this country.

Taking a look at data from 2009 published by the CDC, the total number of deaths caused by guns that year was just over 31,000.  Of those, nearly 19,000, or about 60% were suicides, a number that represents just over half of all suicides that occurred in the US that year.  Around 37% of the deaths caused by guns in 2009, or about 11,500 of them, were homicides, 39 of which occurred during four separate mass shooting incidents, according to data in a Mother Jones report.

So, doing the math, for every one American that was murdered in a mass shooting event in 2009, about 480 Americans died by suicide via a gun.  If you compare mass shooting deaths with all suicides from that year, regardless of the method, this ratio jumps to almost 1000 suicides in America for every single person murdered during a mass shooting incident.

567 Americans have died in 70 mass shootings from 1982 up to and including the one in Charleston last week.  In 2013 about 41,000 Americans died by suicide, averaging 113 lives lost daily.  So, doing the math again, tragically, it only took five days for suicide to claim 567 American lives, the same number of lives lost in every single mass shooting to occur in this country over the last 33 years, combined.  Finally, if the suicide death toll were to remain constant over the next 33 years, we would lose more than 1.3 million American lives over that time period.

To President Obama:

After 20 six and seven year olds were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School you said:  “As a country, we have been through this too many times… And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”  After the mass shooting in Charleston last week, you said:  “…at some point, it’s going to be important for America to come to grips with [gun violence] and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue… collectively.”

I agree with you Mr. President, and I, and my fellow suicide awareness and prevention activists are committed to shifting that thinking, right now.

Every single innocent life lost due to murder is tragic and significant, undoubtedly, but, the facts about suicide and guns that I have presented here clearly demonstrate how insignificant mass shootings are, relatively speaking, as a cause of death in this country.

I respectfully urge you to consider using your bully pulpit to lead a conversation in this country about access restrictions on guns as a way to save thousands of American lives.  A 2014 study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that: “Reducing the availability of highly lethal and commonly used suicide methods has been associated with declines in suicide rates of as much as 30%–50% in other countries.”  What’s most interesting about this finding is that restricting access to the means of suicide can dramatically impact the suicide rate without even addressing the mental health condition responsible for the suicidal ideations.   This is a vitally important insight, because suicidal ideations are often impulsive and very hard to predict.

A 50% reduction in the number of suicides caused by guns in this country would save over 10,000 lives in one year alone!  At the current rate, it would take over 600 years for mass shootings to claim that many lives in this country.  President Obama, I implore you to consider re-framing the gun control debate in this country. Focus it on the most likely way, by far, for a gun to be involved in the death of an American. Focus the gun control debate, on the least talked about major cause of death in this country. Focus the gun control debate where it belongs and has the greatest potential to save the most lives.

President Obama, please, focus the gun control debate, on suicide.

To all Americans:

In closing, I’ll add that I’m convinced that suicide will not remain on the list of the top ten leading causes of death in America for much longer.  Me, and thousands of others like me, already personally touched by suicide, are committed to lowering  the suicide rate, and we are an unstoppable force, powered by love.  It is only a matter of time before we build the political will necessary for this country to take the collective action required to dramatically reduce the number of lives claimed by suicide.  I believe this relatively small group of thoughtful, committed citizens is about to cause a beautiful tipping point in this movement, but we need more Americans to join us in this fight to finally bring about the beginning of the end of suicide in America.  Please consider volunteering your time and energy or donating money to a suicide awareness and prevention non-profit.  Here are links to the websites of three major, national ones :

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Active Minds

The Jed Foundation

Finally, I call on every American to either learn about or remind themselves about the warning signs of suicide and what to do about them if you see them within yourself or in someone you know.

Thank you for reading and please take the time to share this post.

Sincerely,
Francesco Bellafante
June 26, 2015

Update:  A question from a friend has prompted me to add a link for the scientific research into gun violence in this country, and a link to a recent piece from Slate.com.

For a collection of scholarly research articles on guns and suicide see the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

For an article from Slate.com about gun violence in America from January of this year see ‘ and ‘ piece:  The Myth of the Good Guy With a Gun

National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Last Friday was National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, and I had the pleasure of spending it meeting and speaking with some wonderful people at the world renowned Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  A fellow American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Greater Philadelphia Chapter Speakers Bureau volunteer and I shared important information about the problem of suicide in children and young adults, as well as about the various training programs and resources that the AFSP provides to healthcare professionals, educators and the general public.  I was inspired by the people I met today and their sincere desire to make a difference in doing what they can, to help people struggling with suicidality.  I look forward to participating in additional events at CHOP in the near future!

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Tim Ferriss Gets Personal About Suicidal Ideations

Tim Ferriss has long been a role model and inspiration to me as far as self-actualization.  He wrote an extraordinary blog post this week about his own personal experience with suicidal ideations while a student at Princeton, and he offers his insights on the subject.

I commend and congratulate Tim on sharing his story, and I hope that I can enroll him in the idea of the two of us having a “frank talk about suicide” in the near future.

Some Practical Thoughts On Suicide by Tim Ferriss

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An Open “Ask” to @instagram to Become a Suggested User

An Open “Ask” to @instagram to Become a Suggested User… because Instagram, the Instagram community, especially the Philadelphia one, and seeing and sharing photos bring me so much joy, and because  every single picture I take would never have existed if I had not been so fortunate just over seventeen years ago.  Photography means more to me than I ever imagined that it would, and I know that this is just the beginning for me with regards to  this creative art.  For the time being however, digital photography is a hobby that I am so happy to be so passionate about.  My focus is working to reduce the suicide rate, and Instagram is unquestionably the social media platform where I already have the largest number of connections, and becoming a Suggested User would likely increase my number of followers by an order of magnitude or more I believe.  I also believe that people who hear what I have to say about my experience leading up to and since my suicide attempt, will lead them to be more likely to seek help instead of attempting suicide.  I know my pictures inspire some people, having nothing to do with the fact that I am a suicide attempt survivor, but that information is in my profile, and it’s simply a game of numbers.  The more people I reach, the more people I can help, and someone at Instagram could push a few buttons and turn my nearly 1500 Instagram followers into 15,000, which sadly is less than half of the number of Americans that died by suicide last year.

If you’d like to follow my photography of mostly pictures of Philadelphia and its inhabitants, please follow me on Instagram.

My username is @iamphiladelphia

Thanks!
Francesco

Flippin’ dawn’s early light from last Sunday #dawn #sunrise #iamphiladelphia #igers_philly #BenFranklinBridge #flip #flipagram To those who work at @instagram thanks very much for creating, maintaining and letting me use this application… for free!  I’m going to start making and posting videos outside of IG, aimed at reducing the suicide rate very soon. I would appreciate more than words can describe, the largesse of being made a Suggested User in order to dramatically increase the chances of providing potentially life saving information (lessons learned as a result of being a  suicide attempt survivor) to more people, more quickly. I was a follower of two other Philadelphia IGers (@billycress & @kylehuff) before they became Suggested Users because their photography inspired me, and I saw what happened to their follower counts, once they were suggested. Having nothing to do with my cause, this application has literally changed my life by stoking my interest in photography.  I cherish this hobby like none other in my life. Thank you again for doing what you do. Francesco  Cully, I don’t think you’re even on Instagram so I will share this to Facebook as well, for you. Thinking about what Tom Brokaw said back at graduation, you remember… It’s easy to make a buck, it’s harder to make a difference. We need your help… Go Irish! Don’t know who you know, but thanks again bud. balls #secondchances #makingadifference #grateful #gratitude

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Speakers Bureau Volunteer

On Friday, April 17th, seventeen years, one month and fifteen days since my nearly fatal suicide attempt, I spoke publicly, for the first time, about it, at Lower Moreland High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  The prior week I had participated in a training session conducted by members of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the leading, national non-profit in suicide awareness and prevention  in the U.S.  The training was provided for people who want to aid the AFSP’s mission by speaking on behalf of the organization and the cause, whenever needed.  Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, a new Pennsylvania law going into effect will require at least four hours of suicide prevention training every five years for professional educators of students in grades 6-12.

The training that I helped conduct at Lower Moreland High School is named:  More Than Sad: Suicide Prevention Education for Teachers and Other School Personnel.  It teaches those who work in schools about suicide in young people and how they can help to prevent it.  The training consists of very useful and easy to understand information, delivered via a slide presentation and a short video as well.  I look forward to the opportunity to deliver this invaluable training many times this year in and around Philadelphia.

If you would like more information about the AFSP or the More Than Sad Suicide Prevention training program, please click here to navigate to their website.

17 years, 1 month, and 15 days since my suicide attempt, I’m off to speak in person for the first time about suicide at a Philly area high school!!

Auditorium at lower Moreland high school before the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Philly chapter training event for staff and teachers.

frank talk about suicide #1 – the beginning of the end of senseless suicide

Future frank talks about suicide won’t include me reading off of an iPad nor the imperfect infinite white background, hopefully… but honestly, I have at least 150 to 175 pages of manuscript copy to write, so I’m letting this go as is.

 Who am I and what is frank talk about suicide all about?

I’m someone, who 17 years ago, fell asleep inside of a running rental car that I had turned into a makeshift carbon monoxide gas chamber.  In the early morning hours of March 2nd 1998, I went through the most painful, most terrifying and most transformative experience in my life when I stopped breathing, and eventually went into cardiac arrest.  I had what is commonly referred to as a near death experience.  This website, is one place where I will share the story behind how I ended up in that car 17 years ago and as well as what has happened since then, leading up to the launch of this project and the career transition I am making from IT project leader in finance to author, public speaker and behavioral healthcare advocate.

The project, simply put, is one where I will aim to be the change that I wish to see in the world.

In his recently published book, The Innovators, Walter Isaacson describes a camp that Larry Page, Google co-founder and CEO attended when he was growing up.  This camp extolled the idea of “having a healthy disregard for the impossible,”  and Page is quoted as championing the value in “trying to do things that most people would not.”  The idea of making the seemingly impossible, possible is one that resonates with me. So, with that as a context, in sharing my story and the lessons learned from it, I aim to play my part in helping to cause:

the beginning of the end of senseless suicide in America and beyond.

I know that phrase begs the question, is there such a thing as sensible suicide?  This topic will be the subject of an entire frank talk in the coming weeks, but for now, suffice it to say that despite the fact that I believe that Jennifer Michael Hecht’s recently published book:  Stay:  A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, should be required reading for all high school freshman and their parents despite that notion I do not believe that it is impossible for someone to make the case, that ending ones unbearable, and ostensibly unending pain and suffering is completely senseless.  It has always been interesting to me that many pets, in this country, seem to be afforded more compassion than our own most cherished loved ones when it comes to end of life questions for sentient beings dealing with seemingly unbearable amounts of pain and suffering.

Why am I using the domain name iameinstein.com to host frank talk about suicide?

I view Albert Einstein as the most creative paradigm shifting change agent that humanity has ever known.  For years I have said that Einstein likely rolled over in his grave when TIME Magazine put him on the cover of their Person of the Century issue without changing the title of the magazine, at least for that one issue to: TIMEspace or SPACETime.  Einstein overturned Newton and transformed humanity’s conception of this existence we share.  As he said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”

Powerful forces within the American healthcare system are already at work to transform the patient experience for those suffering from behavioral health disorders.  I am using the name of this extraordinary man to serve as a guiding inspiration to add to the conversation already underway aimed at making behavioral healthcare in this country more patient centered than it currently is.  Moreover, despite the fact that Einstein’s most notable achievements were in the field of theoretical physics the creative genius of this man was certainly not limited to that topic.  These two popular quotes of Einstein’s will serve as guiding principles for me on this project to reduce the suicide rate:

Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.

Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.

In addition to this website, I intend to share my story and the lessons learned from it, in as many ways as possible, with the objective of trying to cause a Malcolm Gladwellian Tipping Point to occur that results in a precipitous drop in the US suicide rate.  I truly believe that the stage has been set for such a positive social epidemic to occur.  The advancement of the suicide awareness and prevention movement over the last decade and a half has been impressive and the dramatic impact that mobile technology is already having on the transformation of behavioral healthcare in this country is evident, and clearly a sign of encouraging things to come.

Every means to share this story is on the table for me so as to increase the chances of creating the largest positive impact as possible for as many people as possible, as soon as possible.  First, my primary focus right now is completing the manuscript for a book about this story entitled – committed.  Also starting tomorrow, I will begin to market the story rights for committed to major film production companies online at iamhollywood.com.  While committed will hopefully be of particular interest and value to those struggling with suicidal ideations specifically, and behavioral health conditions in general, the story I have to tell is clearly one centered on three key universal questions:

  1. What will you do with you life?
  2. Who will you share your life with, as far as a partner or mate, if at all?
  3. What is going to happen to you when you die?

Second, I plan to begin giving in person ‘frank talks about suicide’ at high schools and colleges, followed hopefully by conferences and other suitable venues.  I plan to give my first in person frank talk in the Fall of this year.

Third, years ago I established a non-profit corporation named The Give to Live Foundation Prior to the end of 2015 I plan to re-launch this foundation as a think tank and philanthropic funding organization that searches for and funds projects aimed at causing Tipping Point like changes in America that will lead to the precipitous drop in the US suicide rate.  The measurable goals for this outcome include finding a co-Founder who will serve as the Executive Director, as I focus on fundraising a to be determined number of dollars before the end of the year, to fund our first suicide reducing tipping point idea.

Fourth one very specific, practical step that I am taking as I make this transition to becoming an activist is to understand why the Centers for Disease Control’s National Violent Death Reporting System has yet to be funded in all 50 states and do what I can to see that it is fully funded, for years to come.  You don’t have to know much about change management in general to understand the importance of being able to precisely measure that which you are attempting to change.  As I stand here right now, I’m ignorant of what stands in the way of this happening, but my assumption is that it is a challenge of mobilizing the political will to get the necessary funds appropriated.

Finally, to conclude this first talk, I want to share some particularly frank talk about my own near death experience that occurred just over 17 years ago as I said at the beginning the experience was the most painful, most terrifying one of my life and it was also the most transformative for two reasons.

  1. Because of what I learned about myself, and existence itself, as I understand it as a result of the experience and, because
  2. unlike every other experience in my life the memory of what happened 17 years ago when I couldn’t breathe, and my heart stopped that memory has never faded into the distance for me rather it follows me as a constant presence, and reminder of what I learned.

The arguably sad truth about that fact is that I have spent almost all of the last 17 years pretending that I didn’t learn what I learned, leaving out the fact that I have never shared about this experience publicly, until now.

I’m committed to changing that going forward and I’ll begin right now.  Unless you’ve read Susan Blackmore’s book entitled Dying to Live chances are you’ve never heard a story about a near death experience like mine. And in fact, that book only contains a single sentence referencing one particular man’s near death experience that, like mine, does not resemble the others stories you usually hear when someone comes as close to dying as possible while still having the opportunity to talk about the experience afterwards.

To be more specific I saw no light at the end any tunnel my life did not flash before my eyes there were no deceased relatives or historical figures or anyone at all there to greet or guide me anywhere.

For most of the experience I was in an infinite, completely black void and the only thing I could hear was the voice inside my head that I know as myself as I came to realize that i wasn’t breathing, and worse, if i didn’t do so soon my life as I know it would end.

The two key things I learned during the experience were:

  1. No matter how painful and terrifying the experience of death may be for someone in the end everything, and I mean everything is going to be alright, and
  2. The only thing standing between you and whatever you want to be, do or achieve in life is you.

My name is Francesco Bellafante and you have just listened to the first frank talk about suicide at iameinstein.com. Thank you for your time and attention.  Please come back next week for more.