- Written by Barry Sparks Barry Sparks
Many people would say Randy Saunders never had a chance.
He was born in a poverty-stricken area of Trenton, New Jersey. He describes his parents and relatives as “alcoholics and criminals.” His father spent time in and out of prison while his mother hung out in bars.
Saunders, his three brothers, and a sister had to fend for themselves.
“I had to steal food from the grocery store so we could eat,” he says. “To complicate matters, my siblings and I were verbally, sexually, and physically abused.”
In his early teens, Saunders’ mother moved to Hamburg, Pennsylvania, with her boyfriend, leaving him and his brother with relatives in Trenton. They ended up taking to the streets, drinking and taking drugs.
At age 16, Saunders quit school to join the military to escape his environment. Shortly afterward, he got married and was assigned overseas. At age 19, he was admitted to a naval hospital for alcohol detoxification.
When he was discharged in 1974, he discovered his wife had been unfaithful to him. His first suicide attempt followed.
“I felt betrayed,” he says. “My life was crap. It was filled with too much alcohol and drugs.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide most often occurs when stressors and health issues converge to create an experience of hopelessness and despair.
Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, and it’s often undiagnosed or untreated. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase the risk for suicide.
In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide. White males accounted for nearly 70% of the suicide deaths.
For years, Saunders led what he termed an “OK” life. But he never conquered his battle with alcoholism.
He invested in a number of real estate properties, but because of his drinking, he says he ignored the properties and had to file for bankruptcy in 2002. His second suicide attempt followed.
In 2009, he attempted suicide again.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression and other mental disorders, recognize the warning signs for suicide, and intervene before the person can complete the process of self-destruction.
If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs for suicide, don’t be afraid to ask if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide.
In some cases, the person just needs to know that someone cares. If asked, they may talk about their feelings. Encouraging them to seek professional help is important.
If someone you know is talking about committing suicide, take the following steps:
• Do not leave the person alone. If possible, ask for help from friends or other family members.
• Ask the person to give you any weapons he or she might have. Take away sharp objects or anything else the person could use to hurt themselves.
• Try to keep the person as calm as possible.
• Call 911 or take the person to an emergency department.
Saunders was diagnosed with a mental illness after his third suicide attempt. He stopped drinking, started to see a psychiatrist, and got involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Things were going along well until he got into trouble with the law in 2013.
“My life changed on Dec. 12, 2013,” he says. “That’s when I graduated from the Dauphin County Veterans’ Treatment Court, and I started to take responsibility for my actions.”
The Veterans’ Treatment Court is a specialized criminal court for veterans with substance dependency and/or mental illness who have been charged with criminal offenses. The court substitutes a treatment program for traditional court processing.
After graduating from veterans’ treatment court, Saunders became a peer support specialist, helping other veterans. As an AFSP board member, he participates in a number of community activities and educational events.
“Advocating for suicide prevention and increasing awareness of mental illness are two things that help keep me alive,” he says.
One of the lessons Saunders has learned over the years is that it’s important to ask for help, whether you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or struggling with a mental illness.
As a kid, he says he was afraid to ask for help. When he was in the military, he didn’t want anyone to think he had a problem.
“A lot of people won’t ask for help,” he says. “That’s why we need to look for signs. Suicide is preventable. If someone had asked me as a kid how I was feeling, I might have talked about my problems. But, I didn’t have anyone who cared.”
“Asking for help is hard, but it’s important,” he continues. “You have to be willing to accept you have a problem, and you can’t fix it.”
It’s been a long, rocky road for Saunders, but he’s optimistic about the future.
“I’m on a new journey — one of hope and happiness — and I have a strong desire to stay alive,” he says.
For more information, visit the AFSP at https://afsp.org or call (888) 333-AFSP.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.