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March, 2016

To Be or Not To Be

by Larry

As William Shakespeare wrote and Camus, Dostoyevsky, and so many others have also written or asked themselves, that really is the question. Way too many of us, possibly more than are killed in wars, murders, and natural disasters, have chosen to end it all. In this country, almost 43,000 people kill themselves annually. Neither temporary nor chronic mental illness is a cause for shame. Abraham Lincoln, Margot Kidder, Leo Tolstoy, Judy Collins, Ludwig van Beethoven, Sylvia Plath, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Vincent van Gogh, Vivien Leigh, John Nash (subject of "A Beautiful Mind"), Isaac Newton, and Billy Joel, to name a few, all considered suicide and/or had severe bouts with emotional instability.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention logo (

Huge numbers of us decide as well to self-destructive via less obvious means, like my friend, Jimmy, who burned up in a lonely room where a spark set off the fumes from his homemade drug lab, or others who have picked highly dangerous hobbies, eaten way too much or too little, driven their cars wildly, selected partners who are abusive and given to out of control rages, deliberately confronted police with firearms ("suicide by cop"), selected terrorism as a way of having "meaningful lives," overdosed, etc.

How many have given serious thought to suicide or have tried it? It is not only those with severe depression. The stats are inaccurate, for people seldom file official reports, but estimates are that for every successful suicide there are 25 attempts and that many more still have developed suicide plans. Surveys of college students suggest that at one time or another at least half have thought of suicide, while 15-20% have seriously contemplated doing themselves in.

Among returning vets, frequently suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, the percentages are shockingly higher. Though vets make up less than 10% of the general population, about 20% of this nation's actual suicides are committed by veterans.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. overall. It is not, though, a problem unique to this country. Annually around the globe scores of millions of people attempt suicide. Many of these succeed.

For new mothers and people aged 25-34, suicide is the second most common cause of death, after accidents. A goodly number of the deadly mishaps are also due to self-destructive behaviors. For people throughout the 10-54 years of age spectrum in the U.S., suicide as a cause of death ranks second, third, or fourth.

Typically each of those who "off themselves" also affects thereby a wide circle of friends and relations who grieve for the loss and wonder if they might have done something to prevent this outcome.

Besides the incalculable emotional price, there is a high economic cost to society from people taking their own lives, averaging about $1,000,000 each, due to lost wages, unused training and education, reduction in the tax base, added financial burdens for others, etc.

So, granted that there is a problem, what, if he or she wishes to, can a single individual do to help? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get personal and frank with a person whom you know is depressed. Find out how much pain the individual feels he or she is in and if there are thoughts about suicide. Get help immediately if warranted, and be prepared to risk being wrong, abusing a confidence, or losing a friendship to assure the hurting man or woman gets assistance right away. The priority is preventing a tragic death. Chances are the person will be appreciative later even if there is a brief rift.

  2. Help with a suicide hot-line or facilitate or participate in a support group for new moms or folks dealing with depression, drugs, or alcohol or with self-help groups for the loved ones of people in difficulties.

  3. Get aid yourself if you are severely depressed. Suicidal feelings can appear overwhelming and unending, yet they pass, and people with such symptoms can and do go on to lead productive, rich, and joyous lives.

  4. Volunteer or work to assist others in ways to get and keep them engaged, for instance, as a coach, teacher, caring grandparent, youth group leader, nature guide, dance instructor, a photography, chess, math, or reading mentor, gardening advisor, exercise trainer, etc.

  5. Help spread the word. At least 90% of suicidal behavior is based on a temporary or treatable condition. Friendly and professional interventions can and do break the downward cycle so that sufferers can move on, feel good again, and contribute their full shares to making this a better world for everyone.

For more information:

Suicide Prevention: How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal. Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson in; last updated in February, 2016.

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