Suicide: Understanding and Preventing It

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Understanding and Preventing It

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The call came one night in late October of 2011. My wife handed me the receiver, and the voice on the other end identified himself as a deputy of the San Miguel County, Colorado, sheriff’s department.

He was calling to let me know they had found the pickup truck belonging to my younger brother Keith out on Uncompahgre Plateau—a lonely, remote, windswept upland in southwestern Colorado. At least now there would be a measure of closure. But those of us in the family were left to ponder why he made such a devastating choice. We were aware of the loneliness, the fears and, more than anything else, the depression that had tormented him since adolescence. But suicide?

He called me a few days before his disappearance to tell me he had made his decision. He was not going to end up, as he put it, “a lonely, scared, sick old man,” but would, he said, end it all at a time of his choosing, and in a way and place where we would never find his remains.

I guess I never really believed he would do it, although he had talked about it often during the times he felt down—the times he felt his life was spinning out of control. Looking back now, I wish I had understood suicide better and what drives a person to take his own life.

In the following months I studied the subject of suicide, and I want to share with you what I’ve learned. You might know of someone—a family member, friend or acquaintance—who’s on the verge of doing the unthinkable. It’s my hope that what I learned will help prevent this tragedy from happening to someone you know.

Suicide: a growing scourge

Tragically suicide is on the increase across the United States, claiming more than 42,000 lives in 2014 and making it a greater killer than motor vehicle accidents or homicides. Figures from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reveal that every 15 minutes suicide claims another life. It’s the fourth leading cause of death for adults ages 18 to 65.

Particularly devastating to those 18 to 24, it is their third leading cause of death, and the second highest for college students. Since 1990, more young people have died of suicide than from AIDS, cancer, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects and heart disease combined.

Suicide among children is increasing at an alarming rate. The National Mental Health Association reports that suicide is the sixth leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 15. Between 1980 and 1996 the suicide rate among children 10 to 14 increased by more than 100 percent.

A 2004 survey of high school students showed that more than 24 percent had seriously considered suicide in the past year—up from 20 percent in 1997, according to a New York University study.

Suicide is a national tragedy, and it’s getting worse. It’s increasingly essential that we become informed on the causes and how to find help. Someday you may be in a position to help prevent a suicide. This knowledge may make the difference.

Depression: the big killer

While the pressures of modern life have accelerated its frequency, suicide also took its toll in ancient times. The overwhelming urge to take one’s own life has addicted people of every nation, culture, religion and governmental system through the ages.

As Kay Redfield Jamison puts it in her heralded study on suicide, Night Falls Fast: “No one knows who was the first to slash his throat with a piece of flint, take a handful of poison berries, or intentionally drop his spear to the ground in battle. Nor do we know who first jumped impulsively, or after thought, from a great cliff, walked without food into an ice storm, or stepped into the sea with no intention of coming back.”

However, while suicide can be the end result of financial reverse, romantic failure or the discovery of terminal illness, the majority of suicide deaths trace back to one major reason: deep, debilitating depression. By “depression” we mean serious, long-lasting despondency and feelings of hopelessness, not mere discouragement, sorrow or having the “blues” (although lengthy discouragement can sometimes deteriorate into serious depression).

Estimates are that one in ten Americans suffers from chronic depression. The rate is higher among women, and while men’s depression rate had been thought to be less than half that of women, new estimates put it higher. The worst forms of clinical depression consume their victims, making them unable to face each new day.

Attitudes about depression keep many who suffer from ever seeking help. National Mental Health Association figures show that more than half of Americans think depression is a personal weakness, a sign of failure. Despite years of TV bombardment about depression remedies, four out of five suffering from depression do not seek treatment. The primary reason? They are too embarrassed to seek help.

Concerns about masculinity and self-image keep most severely depressed men from seeking help. In his 2003 national bestseller I Don’t Want to Talk About It, psychotherapist Terrance Real talks about what he terms “the cultural cover-up about depression in men”:

“One of the ironies about male depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above . . . We tend not to recognize depression in men because the disorder itself is seen to be unmanly.

“Depression carries, to many, a double stain—the stigma of mental illness and the stigma of ‘feminine’ emotionality’” (p. 22). This stigma is especially prevalent among African-American men with severe depression. Tragically, only 8 percent ever seek help.

Depression claims victims from every social strata, every IQ and every religion. Fame and fortune are no antidotes for the urge to kill oneself, and famous suicides make a very long list. The sad fact is, many of society’s more gifted artists, writers, scientists, athletes, politicians and businessmen have taken their own lives. Severe depression has pushed many others to the brink of suicide, although they backed away before going over the edge.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of the most famous and powerful national leaders of the 20th century, suffered from depression. His fits of depression could last for weeks, and to combat them he drove himself with his work, often denying his body needed rest and relaxation.

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