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Tearing Families Apart at the Border Can Lead to Long-Lasting Trauma and Risks of Suicide

I never met Marco Antonio Munoz, the 39-year-old Honduran man who died by suicide while in the custody of a Texas jail after being separated from his family while seeking U.S. asylum. But I wasn’t surprised to hear about his death. I talk to men on the brink of suicide for a living, and spend a lot time talking to people about suicide in my “off hours” as an executive board member for the American Association of Suicide.

You may have heard that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and a leading cause of death globally. Some of you may also know that suicide is the leading cause of unnatural deaths in U.S. prisons and jails. And yes, that includes the kinds of facilities where we are detaining people for deportation.

When mental health professionals assess someone for suicide risk, they typically ask about something called adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Research tells us that ACEs can increase risk of suicide attempt and death, and if you have six or more of ACEs, your risk of a suicide attempt goes up 2,400%.

Just being in one of these detention facilities adds at least three ACEs to a child’s risk factors: a strong likelihood of physical or emotional neglect, parental separation or divorce, and incarceration of a household member. And of course, children in these facilities may have entered with other risk factors already present.

That’s why, once again, I was sad, but not surprised to hear some of the first reports that some children were attempting suicide in these detention facilities. They’ve been away from their families, who mental health professionals would usually turn to as a protective factor against suicide, and they’ve been in facilities where the staff are reported to be under strain. And it’s unclear whether President Trump’s executive order to keep families together will apply to the 2,300 children who have already been separated from their parents.

When you read about suicide in the news, usually it’s accompanied by a narrative about mental illness, and a plea to get help, usually by reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).

But how do you get help in a detention facility, in the system that is causing your crisis by design? How can you be connected with your friends and family in the place where they are being suddenly ripped away? And what if your suicidal crisis is caused, not by personal illness, but by the unbearable strain of social forces beyond your control? We know that these kinds of experiences impact mental health, and put vulnerable children at risk of suicide attempt and death for years to come.

I never spoke with Munoz, but I’ve spent countless hours talking to fathers who are thinking about suicide, many of whom are devastated by loss of custody, isolation from families, and severed relationships. The raw heartache and grief is breathtaking. According to the most recent CDC report, loss of children and relationships is a leading precipitant to suicide.

 

I never met Munoz’s wife, but I have been present with people trying to understand the deaths of their spouses. There is no “why” for a suicide that is a good enough reason to ease the devastation felt by survivors. According to research by Dr. Julie Cerel, each suicide loss exposes over 100 people to trauma and risk, and those people will spend a lifetime trying to find an answer that will never satisfy their grief.

I never talked with Munoz’s children, but I have spoken to children who had to grow up without a father, suffering the double whammy of losing a parent to suicide, as well as living through the traumatic circumstances that led to their parent’s death.

The world is a painful place, and that pain can kill people. No one deserves to suffer a suicide, and no one deserves to survive such a horrifying loss. We do not have to create systems of suffering. We know better than that.

Dr. April Foreman is a licensed psychologist and executive board member of the American Association of Suicidology.