Please – Look Out For Each Other


Warning: This post might be a bit of a downer, but consider it a Public Service Announcement from your friendly neighborhood psychologist.

Today is the day in Introductory Psychology that I talk about mood disorders, schizophrenia, and suicide. (Three separate topics that can share common elements). The last item on the list holds special significance to me. I’ve lost students before to suicide, and can tell you that it shakes you to the core.

The first time was a few years ago – a summer intern of mine left for Fourth of July holiday and never came back. I got a call from her home institution with the news. Thankfully someone had remembered her mentioning she was doing an internship with me – otherwise I might not have ever heard anything. She had a history of depression, but was on the path to recovery. Sadly that’s the most dangerous time for people – no one gets better in a  linear fashion – every recovery has good days and bad days. If the person has suicidal thoughts on one of those bad days, and now has the energy to actually act on them (as opposed to when they were in their deepest depressed state), it can lead to tragedy.

Suicide is one of the most vexing of problems for my profession to handle. On one hand, some believe it is a legitimate option for the truly depressed or disturbed (A former professor of mine once said “I believe that people have the right to commit suicide… just not while they’re seeing me for treatment!”). Others believe it to be morally wrong to allow to happen. I don’t know where I stand on the personal right issue – but I do know where I stand on the prevention issue: If you have any fear that someone you know and love (or even just like) is thinking of suicide, you need to talk to them about it.

(The myth that talking about suicide will only “put the idea in their head” is exactly that – a myth. Talking about suicide saves lives).

The hard part to grasp is that the warning signs are hard to spot, even for trained individuals. My former student had no warning signs I could see (although I felt guilty that I didn’t try to find them), and appeared to be a motivated young woman working her way through college. She talked about her family and friends, and was upbeat in every interaction I had with her. So while you should be aware of any warning signs, you also shouldn’t hold yourself responsible for not seeing them – they’re easy to hide and often an individual is motivated to hide them.

A year later, after my intern passed away, I was teaching a course at Columbia. One Sunday night, around midnight, an email hit my inbox from our administration: A student in my class had committed suicide by jumping from the top of her dorm building. In the Ivy League, this isn’t (sadly) an uncommon occurrence. Students get stressed out, depressed, isolated, and desperate to make the pain end. I had the sad duty of informing my class, which I did the next day. I took a few minutes after lecture to inform them and let them know of services they had available to deal with the loss of a classmate. She hadn’t been in class for a few weeks (an illness had taken her away from her studies, which also likely contributed to her stress), however I could see a few visibly shaken students among the group of 90+.

This suicide was likely different in 1 way from the first: Premeditation. It would be interesting if it weren’t so sad – the plain fact is that many suicidal thoughts come and go rather quickly. While some may be depressed for a long time, have dramatic shifts of personality, make plans, and the thoughts of ending it are frequent for them, others have the opposite. They’re generally happy people who get stressed and in a “perfect storm” scenario, they have just the right level of stress, frustration, depression, and ability: So when the suicidal thought happens, they act on it impulsively. Stories of people who have had suicide attempts fail are easy to find – a common theme is that when the attempt fails (the pills don’t work, the rope breaks, the gun misfires, etc..), generally people stop and go back to their lives. They don’t look for another option immediately. While some might be argue that those people were just looking for attention, it’s unlikely that’s the case. What seems to happen is that if an act to end one’s life with deadly force fails, the idea is temporarily (or permanently) abandoned. This opens up the scariest of possibilities: Suicide is not always a planned action that serves to end suffering. It can be a temporary impulse that strikes at the opportune time to create destruction.

The deaths of both of my students hit me hard, in different ways, and it’s a pain I hope no one reading this ever has to share. To that end, I ask that you consider the following suggestions:

  1. If you know someone who shows even the smallest warning signs (like these) then please talk to them, or help them get the help they need. It’s not overreacting if it saves a life, and even if the person wasn’t serious, they now know you care and may seek you out in the future.
  2. Recognize that in some cases, those who seem to be “out of the woods” (i.e. recovering from depression or psychological illness) are most vulnerable. Don’t let your guard down just because they’ve been in therapy for a few months and seem better.
  3. Provided that you’re doing #1 & #2, release yourself from guilt if you miss something and tragedy strikes. Due to the unfortunate stigma was have toward mental health illness in the world, those who are suicidal often hide it as best as they can. No one is a mind reader.
  4. Remember those who have been lost, to death in any way, and respect their memory by finding the energy to help others.

Rest in peace, my former students.

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