Straight Talk Advice

Nov 16, 2011

Learning warning signs of suicide saves lives

DEAR STRAIGHT TALK: Regarding last week’s column about the boy who committed suicide, a friend of mine also did lots of increasingly negative drinking, smoking weed and partying. None of it seemed too out of the ordinary until she attempted suicide. I wish I had realized the extent of her pain. What should I have looked for? — Sarah, Redding, Calif.

DEAR SARAH: How lucky that your friend’s attempt failed. Substance use is a red flag that a person is self-medicating an unresolved trauma. If they don’t have help facing that trauma — which requires getting clean first — they become increasingly at risk for suicide. Sadly, many consider young people getting stoned and drunk par for the adolescent course. It’s not. Some experimentation is hard to avoid in today’s milieu, but if use continues beyond 1-3 times, it’s no longer experimentation and parents need to jump in. (For substances stronger than pot and booze, the hammer needs to come down IMMEDIATELY.) Outpatient rehab, as a counseling choice, is what many, many young people need. Others, like your friend and Forest (from last week’s column), probably needed in-patient rehab because their problems were advanced. Early intervention saves lives — and money.

Suicide is the “silent epidemic.” Every day, 99 Americans take their life — 1.7 times the deaths by homicide. Suicide is the third-leading killer for teens ages 15-19, and the second-leading killer in our colleges. Most suicides show warning signs. Sadly, people don’t know the signs, fear making a “big deal out of nothing,” or think that telling on someone, or discussing suicide with them, is what will cause it. No myth could be more wrong.

Readers: Please learn what to look for. If you see signs, trust yourself! Tell a counselor, teacher or parent immediately.

• deepening depression
• social withdrawal
• statements about feeling worthless or hopeless
• changes in sleeping, eating
• excessive partying or drug use
• out-of-character or risky behavior
• talking, writing, drawing about death or suicide
• dropping loved activities
• unexpectedly contacting friends or relatives
• giving away possessions
• saying goodbye
• having a suicide plan

• bipolar, major depression, mental disorders
• eating disorders
• alcohol or drug dependence
• trauma or loss (breakup, divorce, death, personal failure or emergency)
• sexual-orientation issues
• perfectionist personalities
• history of cutting themselves
• issues of neglect, abuse, bullying
• access to firearms
• family history of suicide
• previous suicide attempts

Ask the question. A deadly misperception is that talking about suicide will “plant the seed.” It won’t. Be gentle, yet direct: “I’m worried. I’m seeing A, B and C (name the warning signs and risk factors). “Are you considering suicide?”

After you’ve asked: Carefully observe body language. If it contradicts their words, point that out and keep probing.

• If they admit to suicidal feelings, take them seriously. Denying their feelings makes things worse. Be caring and listen, but don’t “play” therapist.

• Ask about a suicide plan: “Have you thought about how you would do it?” If they reveal a plan, DO NOT keep their secret! Tell a caring adult ASAP.

• If they backtrack with, “But I’m fine, I would never do that,” or text you, “I’m better now,” DO NOT BELIEVE IT. Tell an adult!

• If someone is actually attempting suicide, stay with them! You are their lifeline. Immediately call 911 or 1-800-SUICIDE.

Editor’s Note: This holiday season, check in deeply with the people in your extended family. Give special listening to anyone who appears withdrawn or lost, has been overseas in war, through a breakup, divorce, financial meltdown, or is stressed out by college or high school. The treasure we all seek is for someone to “know” us and “get” us. —Lauren

  1. By Teddi, age , from Sacramento, CA on 01/07/2012

    Thank you for being so insightful!! I forget the season is hard for some people and appreciate the reminder.

    Reply to this comment

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