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The Briefing: Bringing light to the darkness within

WASHINGTON – "We all have two selves: The self we show the world, and the real self we live in."

A drug-abuse counselor told me that one time, and I felt shocked and shaken by the truth of what she said.

Let it shake us all. Let us look around at the ones we love the most and accept the hard fact that we may not really know them. And let us resolve to try ever harder to break through the walls we all build up around ourselves, because lives could depend on it.

Now this might seem to be a weird way to begin a political blog, but look at this one, really, as a public service announcement about a public health crisis – one that could become even worse after last week's deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.

The nation's suicide rate increased 25.4 percent between 1999 and 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported late last week. In New York State, the suicide rate rose at an even higher rate: 28.8 percent.

Those two decades included all sorts of alienating developments that could leave people feeling troubled or even desperate: the Great Recession, the opioid crisis, a crisis of partisanship that divides families and ends friendships, a technical revolution that supposedly left us more connected but instead left us staring at our phones.

Then there's the fact that guns are so readily available in America, and that they're used in suicide more than they're used for murder.

Yet it's still hard to explain why some 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2016. Many of those deaths no doubt came as a surprise to those who lost ones they loved. The CDC said some 54 percent of those who died did not have a known mental health condition.

In many cases, probably, those people lived with an outsided public joy that masked their inner pain.

In other words, they lived like Anthony Bourdain.

No one taught Americans more about the world in recent years than Bourdain did. His CNN series "Parts Unknown" took viewers to the hidden wonders of the world: the best greasy spoon in a crowded, narrow street in Yangon, Burma; the teeming street markets of Lagos, Nigeria; the country within a city that is Koreatown in Los Angeles. And in each episode, Bourdain brimmed with a curiosity and swagger that left many viewers thinking: I want to go there – with that guy.

And then he took his own life in a hotel room in France last week.

Other suicides are more like that of fashion designer Kate Spade. Millions bought her flashy, fanciful handbags, never knowing that her work belied her life. She designed in bright colors and lived in the darkness. She suffered with depression and anxiety and then committed suicide last Tuesday.

Bourdain's death, and Spade's, matter not just because they were beloved public figures. They matter because suicide begets suicide.

Just look at what happened after Robin Williams, another beloved celebrity, died in 2014. The nationwide suicide rate increased nearly 10 percent in the four months after Williams' death, researchers from Columbia University found in a study published earlier this year. That translates to 1,841 additional lives lost due to a phenomenon that has existed for hundreds of years: suicide contagion, or what researchers call "the Werther effect."

The German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a novel called "The Sorrows of Young Werther," in which the lonely protagonist takes his own life. Soon after the novel's publication in 1774, an unusual number of young men across Europe did the same.

Now the danger is that all the recent news about suicide will spur more people to take their own lives – which is why, now more than at most times, it's important to pay special attention to loved ones who may suddenly seem angry or distant or silent.

Depression, of course, is depressingly common, but the CDC researchers who did the study stressed that it's by no means the only thing that can trigger suicide. Life-shaking events, such as a breakup or a job loss, can do it, too.

That being the case, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC said last week that we all can play a role in suicide prevention.

"We’d like people to recognize some of these circumstances and factors that led up to suicide in a number of cases and help people, you know, reach out, support those around you, look for those warning signs in people you love and care for and, you know, help with earlier support," she told reporters.

Support is all around, both for people who feel like they are losing hope and for those who think a loved one is in danger.

The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Erie County can be reached at 716-834-3131, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

If you want to help someone you love, the lifeline offers a wealth of information on its website. Meantime, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website offers a list of suicide warning signs, and The New York Times published an excellent how-to guide for coping with loved ones suffering from depression.

Of course, going deep with a troubled family member or friend is not easy. Turning way may seem easier.

But if you reach out, if you listen, if you take the chance of breaking down that wall that separates you from someone who seems increasingly moody or withdrawn or lost in an addiction, you may do something heroic.

You may just save a life.

Happening today

President Trump, in Singapore for his summit with Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, meets with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong...The Supreme Court is expected to issue opinions...Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses a training conference for immigration court judges...The American Civil Liberties Union begins its annual conference, featuring remarks by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Good reads

Much has been written about suicide in recent days, but for a fine first-person story about how someone saved himself, read Zach Beauchamp's essay in Vox ... The New York Times delves into Canada's efforts to win over President Trump – and how they failed ... The Washington Post tells us that amid Trump's sudden trade war, Canada is rallying around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ... Foreign Policy offers a nuanced preview of Trump's summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ... And in the Atlantic, Henry Kissinger tells us that artificial intelligence could spell the end of the enlightenment.

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