Suicide: Asking 'The Question'


The brilliant Robin Williams last week joined the long roster of Americans who have tragically ended their lives by committing suicide.

The most recent published data from the American Association of Suicidology indicate that in 2011 there were 39,518 completed suicides. That’s 108 per day, or one every 13 minutes. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall; the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds.

Suicide remains very difficult to predict. However, there are certain warning signs of particular concern. These include depression, withdrawal, experiencing violence/victimization, feeling hopeless/helpless, a previous suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, and talking about being suicidal either implicitly or explicitly.

I have have found that a previous suicide attempt, how the person responds to “The Question” (discussed below) and feelings of hopelessness or helplessness are especially important.

What can be done?

First, we can provide suicide prevention and education programs to broadly teach warning signs, intervention strategies, and resources.

It is important to reach out to someone if you are concerned they may be suicidal. Do not be afraid to ask “The Question” i.e. “Have you been feeling so badly lately that you’ve thought about harming yourself?” or words to that effect. While suicide can be unpredictable, a person feeling depressed or suicidal will often appreciate you giving them permission to talk about their pain. “The Question” may be just the lifeline that they need.

If you believe that someone you know may be suicidal, it is important to encourage them to seek treatment. It is also important to monitor them and consult with a mental health professional.

Many people who are suicidal initially resist treatment. But — with continued encouragement and support, many will eventually see a therapist. So, do not give up if the person you are concerned about is initially reluctant to go for help.

With prevention, a willingness to reach out and treatment, I believe we can reduce the suicide rate and create a world where people will choose to live, rather than die.

If you are suicidal or concerned about someone else being suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

• John S. Westefeld is a Professor in the Counseling Psychology Program, College of Education, University of Iowa. Comments: john-westefeld@uiowa.edu.

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