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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

There will never be another you

Why some are pre-disposed to suicide and how to prevent it

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | December 9, 2005

“I thought I would write to share my story. See, about four years ago, I walked in on my older sister right after she slit her wrists.

She died at the age of 17.

For anyone out there considering suicide, remember this: You don't get a second chance at life. Suicide is FINAL. There are plenty of people who care about you, and you will be killing them by killing yourself.”

—Esperanza, 16, Teencentral.net


Every 17 minutes, someone commits suicide in America.

Nearly everyone considers suicide at some point during their life. Most people decide to live because their crisis is temporary and death is not.

Most suicidal people desperately want to live too. But they can't make their pain go away, can't see things getting better and worst of all can't get anyone's attention.

Every year, 32,000 Americans kill themselves. In the average American classroom, three teens have attempted suicide. It's the third leading cause of death among young people and the eleventh leading cause of death among everyone.

Yet suicide is preventable; it is estimated that every person who commits suicide has made 25 previous attempts.

“I had a classmate, a good friend. We were on the high school quiz team. I'm still in denial over the suicide. I was never that close to him. There is the thought that maybe if I could've befriended him more and been around, then maybe I could've changed his mind.”

—DeeJay, 18, Teencentral.net

Nationwide men kill themselves four times more than women, but females attempt suicide three times more than males, according to the American Association of Suicidology, a national clearinghouse for information on suicide. Guns are the most common form of suicide, followed by hanging and poisoning.

Suicide rates are lower among married people and higher among divorced, separated and widowed people. The suicide rate among those 65 and older is higher than any other age group.

From January through October 2005, there were 41 suicides in Lehigh County, according to Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim. There were 59 suicides in 2004 and 55 in 2003.

Some suicides are well-planned; the person thinks it through ahead of time, sometimes giving away treasured possessions, leaving behind notes or gathering loved ones to say good-bye.

“It's hard for people to ask for help, especially when they're down,” says Belle Marks, associate director of Allentown's Bureau of Health. “People keep their game face. As a fellow-human-being, it's very important to reach out, especially when you think something is off, and just ask someone, ‘Are you okay?’”

But some suicides are rash and impulsive; those, say experts, might be the most preventable. Unfortunately, these deaths may occur under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and with an easy means nearby, such as a firearm, on the spur of the moment.

“It's a split-second decision,” says Grim. “We have to train families and society as a whole to watch for red flags.”

Everyone feels depressed at some point in their lives. All human beings suffer problems, pain and rejection. Indeed, suffering may be the one thing that everyone on Earth shares, regardless of race, class or borders.

But what makes some cross the line while others do not. There are no easy answers. What is certain is that suicidal people feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

“If you are considering suicide, PLEASE think about all the people you will hurt by your actions. There are people who love you. Sure, you might not believe it, but they do, and if you really thought about how your death would tear up so many people, I don't think you'd have the heart to end your own life.”

—Munchkin, 15, Teencentral.net

“They see no future,” says Dr. Peter Langman, director of psychology at Kidspeace, a children's hospital in Orefield. “They don't think things can turn around. They don't think life can get better.”

People who are suicidal hurt so much they see no other path for ending their pain. Indeed, it is the only situation in which death is the solution.

“It can be devastating for those who are left behind,” says Langman. “Did you do enough? Could you have prevented it? There's so much guilt. It can break a family apart. They can blame each other. They can blame themselves.”

Men, especially, are less likely to get help than females, whether it's calling a hotline, talking to a friend or undergoing therapy.

“Despite a lot of effort to eliminate the stigma, it's still there,” says Langman. “This makes it uncomfortable for people to seek professional help, which can be a real barrier. The male thinking goes: John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart didn't go to therapy-they were tough-it's a sign of weakness to seek help. Men think depression and anxiety are not macho. They see them as signs of weakness.”

In reality, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have nothing to do with weakness, laziness or a lack of will. They are medical conditions that affect the brain's biochemistry, and cannot just be wished away, says Langman.

“The media portrays people with mental illnesses as psychopaths and murderers and criminals,” says Jody Benner, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses, a Bethlehem-based non-profit organization that offers free support groups. “People may worry, ‘Will my friends still be my friends if they know I have a mental illness?’”

Still, mental health professionals concede there has been progress.

“In the past, you'd be called crazy. Today it's not as unacceptable to be seeing a mental health professional or taking antidepressants,” says Bruce Curry, director of access and support services at Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network. “It's not something you have to hide anymore.”

“Last night I cried cause I realized I have one way out of life, suicide, but I've thought about it many times and frankly it isn't a way out. Yeah, I have people who love me and care about me—that's why I can't commit suicide—but I think about it all the time.”

—Babycakes, 15, Teencentral.net

Every day, 11 young people die from suicide; the rate has increased 200 percent since the 1950s, though it has declined by 25.6 percent in the last decade.

“We expect our adolescents to do well. Our hopes for them are so high,” says Marks. “Many kids feel they can't meet those expectations.”

Teencentral.net, a Website that receives two million hits a month, is maintained by Kidspeace and allows teens to vent all the usual growing pains of adolescence-acne, relationships, peer pressure—plus serious admissions such as suicidal thoughts. Trained professionals respond online.

“There is a sense today of childhood ending earlier,” says Langman. “Kids are growing up sexually faster, and rejection of any kind is devastating, particularly with boyfriend and girlfriend issues, in the teen years.”

Other factors contributing to today's teenage despair, Langman says, include divorce, the increased availability of drugs and distressing events at earlier ages.

“Divorce doesn't cause suicide, but broken homes and blended families can be stressors on kids,” says Langman. “Home used to be a sanctuary. It may not be anymore.”

Today's 24/7 news access can make the world seem like a more dangerous and scary place than it is.

“When it's in your living room 24 hours a day, it can make you feel like you can't get away from it,” says Curry. “An armed robbery or prison break in the Midwest seems like it's happening right in your backyard—like it's your family in immediate danger.”

Violent riots in other countries, war on the other side of the world, always a fire burning somewhere. These vivid, in-your-face images make us feel vulnerable and helpless, particularly when we're young and looking for security.

“Kids today are not insulated from terrorism, Sept. 11, Columbine,” Langman says. “They're exposed to upsetting events when they're younger and younger.”

And the technology that supposedly makes our lives easier also makes it faster-and lulls us into a sense that everything should be easy and fast.

“If our computer takes ten minutes to boot up, we think that's slow and we rage about it,” Curry says. “Ten minutes!”

But real life isn't easy. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck began his bestselling book, The Road Less Traveled, with the immortal truth: “Life is difficult.”

“People need to slow down,” says Grim. “When they're stuck in traffic, they need to relax and stop yelling at people. They need to cope. They need to lean on friends and family. They need connection, not distance. They need help. They need listening.”

“Don't do it. If you kill yourself, the world will be at a loss. There will never be another you in this world with the same personality or the same smile. Please don't do it! The world will be at a great loss indeed!”

—Nikki247, 13, Teencentral.net