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Spotting the Warning Signs

by Virginia Gilbert

Michelle, a California-based dancer and poet, will never forget the last time she saw her older brother Will, a talented artist who was also a paranoid schizophrenic. She asked him if he was planning to go to a special meditation service the following week. Michelle remembers that Will laughed and shook his head as if to say, "I've got bigger plans."

He did. Several days later, Will carefully arranged his paintings around his house, shut his dog in the kitchen, and left a "poetic" farewell note. Then he crawled into bed, took an overdose of drugs, and fastened a plastic bag over his head.

After she learned of Will's suicide, Michelle tormented herself for what she describes as "ignoring the signals, mistaking the faraway look in his eye for serenity." If she had just prodded him about his plans, she wondered, could she have stopped the person she considered her soul mate from killing himself?

Who's At Risk?

"Nobody knows how to predict suicide—[not] even the professionals. No one has a crystal ball," says Kenneth Conner, Psy.D., a psychologist at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in Rochester, NY. It's unrealistic for suicide survivors like Michelle to punish themselves for being unable to save a loved one. But because of this uncertainty, it's crucial to pay attention to a friend or relative's cries for help. According to Conner, the following factors can increase a person's risk for suicide:

  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse
  • Conflict with parents
  • Conflict with romantic partners
  • Gun ownership or access to a gun
  • Male gender

In July 1999, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher declared suicide a national health threat and reported that men are four times more likely to die from this act than women—although women are more apt to attempt suicide. Conner believes this phenomenon may be because men are generally more aggressive than women and suicide is an aggressive behavior. Also, men typically have greater access to guns—the most popular choice of suicidal young males and, unfortunately, the most effective. Finally, Conner says that women are better able to discuss their problems. Since many men won't talk about their pain, they act on it.

In addition, Conner maintains there is "good evidence that suicide clusters in families." This may be due to an inherited biological disposition and the tendency to imitate a destructive behavior that's modeled. For these reasons, Conner recommends counseling for those who have lost relatives to suicide.


What to Do if You're Considering Suicide

"The most important thing is to tell someone," says Conner. "The big issue in suicide is that people don't reach out for help." Conner urges anyone who is contemplating hurting himself or herself to talk directly to someone who cares—a clergyman, parent, good friend, or therapist—and get treatment, especially for depression or substance abuse.

The stigma associated with depressive and mental illnesses may make some people reluctant to confess their troubling thoughts. In that case, confiding in a stranger may be easier.

"Phone books are great with listing hotlines," says Conner, "If a person's in trouble, they can open page one of the phone book and find hotline numbers. Or they can call 911 and they'll be patched through to a hotline."

Additional hotlines and resources are listed below:<?p>

Crisis Intervention Hotline:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
888-333-AFSP or (212) 363-3500
This Web site contains useful information about suicide and suicide prevention.

American Association of Suicidology
(202) 237-2280
This Web site offers information about suicide as well as help to those currently in
crisis. It includes a national directory of hotlines and a link to a Kids Help Phone Site.
This comprehensive Web site lists hotlines by state.

L.A.-based writer Virginia Gilbert also wrote about caffeine for


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