When Depression Turns Deadly: Understanding Suicide
Robin Williams, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh—these are all famous individuals who died by their own hand. Why do people commit suicide?
I’ll never forget the call. Immediately I broke into tears, stricken with grief and guilt. Was it my fault? Could I have done more? I’d only met the woman briefly, recognized her severe depression and had assessed her for suicidal thinking. I discussed her case with our resident psychiatrist, and she was admitted to the inpatient hospital. Yet somehow she was not put under a 24-hour watch as she should have been, and the worst happened—she found a way.
That was almost 20 years ago, yet I will never forget the devastation that her death caused for so many people, most of all her husband and young children.
In the wake of a suicide, the most common question is always why? Even when a note is left, questions linger in the minds of survivors: Why didn’t we see it coming? Could we have prevented it? As common as suicide is—nearly 400,000 people attempt it every year in the U.S. alone—many still don’t really understand this serious problem. Consider the following myths addressed in “Some Facts About Suicide” (E.S. Shneidman and N.L. Farberow, 1961):
Myth No. 1: People who talk about it don’t do it.
Fact: Out of every 10 persons who commit suicide, eight have given clues and warnings regarding their intentions.
Myth No. 2: Suicidal people want to die.
Fact: As confusing as this may seem, there is a distinction between wanting to die and not wanting to live anymore. People who attempt suicide, in fact, may be undecided about dying. “If some in-between state existed, some other alternative to death, I suspect many suicidal people would take it” (Alex Lickerman M.D., “6 Reasons Why People Commit Suicide”).
Myth No. 3: Improvement following a suicidal threat means the risk is over.
Fact: Most suicides occur within three months after a person’s mood improves, when a person actually has energy to act on his suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Myth No. 4: Suicide usually only affects the poor and the nonwhite.
Fact: More Caucasians attempt suicide than other races, and suicide rates are higher in wealthy countries as opposed to underdeveloped nations.
Myth No. 5: Suicidal people are mentally ill.
Fact: While two out of three people who commit suicide are depressed and unhappy, that does not mean they are mentally ill. Alcohol also plays a role in one third of suicides.
Myth No. 6: Women commit suicide more than men, and teens are most at risk.
Fact: While it is true that more women attempt suicide than men, men are more successful at it. Also, though teens are a high-risk age group, it is the elderly who are most likely to take their own lives, especially white men over the age of 85 (Lynne Peeples, “15 Myths and Facts About Suicide and Depression”).
As common as suicide is—nearly 400,000 people attempt it every year in the U.S. alone—many still don’t really understand this serious problem.Causes and signs
The question still remains, however: Why do people even attempt suicide?
Depression is the most common motive. A chronic state of depressed thinking actually warps or distorts a person’s reality, causing him or her to believe that the situation is hopeless and that others would be better off without him or her. Delusional thinking is also influenced by the use of alcohol, drugs or psychosis.
Sometimes suicidal gestures are an extreme cry for help. Other times they are a form of manipulation or coercion, which is often the case when personality disorders coexist. Some people choose death over the option of extreme suffering from a debilitating disease from which they see no hope of recovering.
Warning signs that someone you know may be considering suicide include:
- Written or verbal threats to harm self.
- Obsession with death and dying.
- Depression, with strong feelings of hopelessness/uselessness.
- Giving away valued possessions.
- Sudden peace after significant stress (indication that a decision has been made and a plan is in place).
- Extreme anger and erratic, reckless behavior.
What to do
What can you do if you fear that someone you love may be considering suicide? Since the majority of those who attempt suicide give clues or hints as to their plans, it is important to watch and understand the potential signs.
Here are some tips on what to do if you perceive someone may be thinking about suicide:
- Don’t be afraid to ask. If you have suspicions that someone may be suicidal, don’t ignore it. Talk to the person. Spend extra time with him or her. Try to get the person to open up about his or her thoughts. While doing so, do not be corrective and make the person feel worse about himself or herself—be positive and encouraging. Often those who are suicidal feel like they are worthless and that no one cares. Someone showing loving care and concern is exactly what they need.
- Urge the person to get help. If he or she opens up about having suicidal thoughts, gently but persistently encourage him or her to seek professional help.
- Maintain constant contact with that person (call, visit, email, text).
- Tell others. Suicidal thinking should not be kept secret. A person who is suicidal needs others to intervene swiftly and competently.
- Share your own story. If you have ever contemplated suicide, even fleetingly, or felt such pain (emotional or physical) that you felt living was a terrible burden, your experience can be a tremendous source of hope and encouragement for others.
- Pray. Galatians 6:2 tells us to bear each other’s burdens. Your prayers, offered up to God, are heard (James 5:16).
If you are contemplating suicide, please get help! Suicide hotlines are available around the clock, with professionals waiting to talk to you. You can even do so anonymously. No matter how bad life seems right now, there are solutions to your problems—you just need to reach out.
Focus on the good news
Though we may feel limited in what we can do to prevent suicide right now, a time of hope is coming, a time we can all look forward to with great eagerness. This can be the most encouraging hope you can share with someone. Life, Hope & Truth is dedicated to sharing the good news of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. This message brings hope and healing now and in the future (Isaiah 61:1).
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
For more insights into depression and suicide, read: