These days, it seems as though everyone is addicted to something. From sex and shopping to chocolate and video games, there is no shortage of outlets for those seeking to numb their feelings or get a rush. And while all addictions have the capacity to destroy lives and must be taken seriously, a lesser known and rarely talked about addiction recently drew the attention of the nation.
At just five designated locations in Philadelphia and Memphis, groups of people gather for a 12-Step meeting, not to discuss their problems with drugs, sex or gambling, but to share their compulsive desire to die. Suicide Anonymous, which was founded in 1996 by Kenneth Tullis, a psychiatrist in Tennessee, is a self-help group for people seeking to recover from chronic thoughts of suicide and death.
"If the ’12 Steps’ work for everything else, why not for preventing suicide?" asked Tullis, who himself attempted suicide seven times and recovered only after extensive therapy and 12-Step work.
Some participants have struggled with depression, addictions and other mental health disorders. Others have physical health problems or terminal diseases and have made repeated attempts to end their own lives. Underneath most of the discussions are profound sadness, guilt and anger. For those who live too far away or are reluctant or unable to attend in person, some meetings can be joined via telephone, Skype or Google Plus.
Suicide Anonymous, like Alcoholics Anonymous, is a social support system grounded in personal accountability and reliance on a higher power. It is not a professional counseling service or crisis center, and does not replace other forms of treatment for those contemplating suicide. Participants talk openly about their deeply personal struggles without fear of judgment or threats of hospitalization or reports to law enforcement. They offer useful resources for those looking for additional help.
Some addiction specialists believe that thoughts of suicide may be addictive in much the same way as drugs or alcohol. People contemplating suicide often feel a sense of relief before committing a self-destructive act. Researchers are currently searching for the same type of genetic link that has been identified in other addictive behaviors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 35,000 people commit suicide every year in the U.S. Experts believe that if more people had access to Suicide Anonymous and related programs, there would be far fewer suicide deaths.
"It’s insane for a problem that is this epidemic," said Janet B. who helped form a local chapter in South Jersey, Pa.
Although Suicide Anonymous has undoubtedly saved lives, others have been slow to reach out. Groups that were launched in Los Angeles, New York and Great Britain never drew enough members to continue gathering, perhaps because of the stigma of talking about these issues.