The Lure of Suicide: A Crisis Intervention
Suicide facts and statistics
In the United States, someone takes their own life every 17 minutes. There are approximately 750,000 suicide attempts each year, and it is estimated that more than five million living Americans have attempted suicide. I have personally known five people who took their own life. I am also friends with three others who attempted suicide on at least one occasion. Two of the people who killed themselves were close friends--one ended his life two blocks from my home. Each of them acted suddenly and the warning signals were not sufficiently apparent for friends and loved ones to notice and heed them. I didn't notice their pain in time to help them, and I am uncertain that I would have been able to help them if I had. None of that matters now. They are gone.
Suicide Statistics and Warning Signs
In the United States, 1.3% of all deaths are from suicide—it is the 11th leading cause of death in America. More than ½ of all suicides in America are accomplished with the use of a handgun. Hanging, suffocation and poisons account for another 40%. (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention.) Many of us have been taught to look for indications of suicidal thoughts when someone is depressed or in crisis. The warning signs include: feeling trapped, helpless or that there is no hope; exhibiting changes in behaviors including eating and sleeping habits; acting recklessly or impulsively; withdrawing from family and friends or giving away possessions; losing interest in activities; talking or writing about death or creating a will. There are suicide hotlines and many books, documents or online articles with suggestions for helping someone who feels suicidal—but what will we really do when we are with someone who wants to kill himself? How will we respond if someone we know wishes to end it all?
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A look at suicide
When I was a college student, I worked as a janitor at the local F.W. Woolworth’s (for anyone too young to remember Woolworth’s, imagine Walgreen’s with a coffee shop). My final duty each day was to clean the coffee shop, and while mopping floors and taking trash to the dumpster I became friends with the young man who washed dishes. His name was Craig and he was an intelligent, sensitive fellow a few years younger than me. He washed dishes to pay his bills but hoped to become a musician. He wrote poems and song lyrics on his work breaks, and I enjoyed talking with him about life and art as we went about our duties. We sat outside and talked after work once or twice and he told me about a young lady he was involved with. He was very much in love and hoped to marry her. Craig wrote poems about her, and one afternoon he introduced me to a beautiful young woman named Jennifer. I was immediately struck by the contrasts in their personalities—Jennifer seemed too materialistic and worldly for my soft-spoken friend. I was also concerned because Craig appeared far more attracted to Jennifer than she was to him. My first impressions were validated by Jennifer’s subsequent visits to Woolworth’s, and I suspected their relationship would not last.
Over time Craig’s behaviors subtly changed. His poetry and song lyrics became darker in theme, and soon he stopped writing on his work breaks, choosing instead to sit outside on the steps and smoke cigarettes. He talked about Jennifer less frequently, and the sparkle in his eyes was no longer evident when he did mention her. I worried for my young friend. Whenever he wished to talk I listened, but he reached a point where he no longer sought a listening ear to pour out his troubles.
One evening as I attended to mopping the floors, I noticed Craig wasn’t in the kitchen washing dishes. I looked about the store for him but he wasn’t there. I eventually peeked out the back door and saw Craig sitting on the back steps. I knew something was wrong because he was allowed to go home as soon as he finished washing dishes—there was no reason to prolong the half-hour of work he had left. I stepped outside and involuntarily gasped in fear—in his hand was a butcher knife the kitchen staff used while cooking.
I knew nothing about suicide prevention, but felt I had to help him. I slowly approached and sat down. Craig was jumpy and extremely angry. I asked him to talk to me and he said, “I wasn’t drunk or anything. Scott was drinking, not me.” I had no idea what he was referring to and didn’t know who Scott was, but I assured him I didn’t think drinking was ever a problem for him. He mentioned again that Scott drank. I nodded. I asked if he wanted to go inside and sit in one of the coffee shop booths to talk, but he shook his head. He said he wasn’t going back inside—he intended to kill himself. He tightly gripped the butcher knife and I feared he meant to cut his wrist with it. I never tried to take the knife from him. The knife was his power and he needed it.
My heart raced as I sat and listened to this troubled young man. The Woolworth’s Manager was upstairs completing his end-of-day reports, and all the other employees had left for the day. Craig and I were alone. I was terrified of what might happen next, but realized I had to stay with him and maintain my self-control. A wrong action on my part could be disastrous. I knew Craig was serious but reasoned that he wouldn’t announce it if he really intended to kill himself. There was a tiny part of him that wanted to live, and I tried to find and connect with it before it was too late. I encouraged him to keep talking and eventually realized his sorrows concerned Jennifer. He never directly said she left him, but it became apparent from his comments that he felt abandoned by this woman he idolized so much.
Eventually he stopped talking and sat in
silence. He seemed more resigned than
angry, but I wasn’t sure if that was an improvement. He abruptly stood and informed me it was time
to go, and started walking north down the alley.
I asked him to come back, but when he didn’t respond I got up and
followed. When I caught up with him I gently
wrapped my arms around him. I didn’t
take the knife away, but instead guided him back toward the store. When we returned to the door he sat down on
the steps and began to sob. I put an arm
around him and told him I cared that he lived.
Craig cried for a long while as we sat on the steps together. When he couldn’t cry any longer, I told him I
was going to take the butcher knife back inside. He didn’t hand it to me, but he didn’t stop
me from taking it, either. I didn't want to leave Craig alone even for a few seconds, so I reached inside to set the knife on a counter without actually going in. When I opened the door I saw the Store Manager, who had been searching for us when he
came to lock up and noticed our work hadn’t been finished. I told him Craig needed a doctor. The Manager said he would drive Craig to the
hospital, and I nodded approval.
The Manager told Craig he was going to take him to get help, and in panic he said he needed to finish the dishes first. I offered to take care of the dishes for him, and he put his head on my shoulder. I patted his back in response. As the Store Manager led Craig to his car, I said I would finish cleaning up and would stay in the store until he returned to lock up. When they drove off, however, my legs became rubbery and my stomach was queasy. I sat alone in the coffee shop booth and shook in fear from the challenge I just faced.
Suicide awareness can make a difference
Several years later, Craig found me working on-campus and we spoke for a few minutes. He looked tan and fit, and I guessed that his life had improved. He said he hoped he would see me again someday and wanted to thank me for my help that evening. He confided that no one had ever listened to him the way I had, and my intervention was timely—five minutes later and I would have been too late. Craig said he still felt “that way” sometimes but was doing well, overall. I shook his hand and told him I was glad for him.
He returned a few weeks later and introduced me to his fiancé. She lacked Jennifer’s physical beauty, but their affection and caring for each other was evident. He had found the love he wished for as a teenager. I was happy to see him talking about music and playing in local venues, and I accepted his invitation to watch his band play later in the week. That weekend I saw his band perform and reflected on what a waste it would have been if he wasn’t alive to play his songs. I was no hero or expert on suicide prevention--all I did that evening years earlier was listen and give him a hug, but I was proud of myself.
I believe that suicide is preventable and suicide prevention methods are effective. Suicide intervention is a key factor—it is extremely important to recognize the warning signs and support anyone considering suicide in getting the help they need. If someone you know is thinking of killing himself, call 9-1-1 or a suicide hotline, or take him to a hospital emergency room. Actively assist in getting the person the medical attention they require. Proper care and treatment can help many people with suicidal thoughts return to living a fully functioning life.
And if someone contemplating suicide wants to talk to you—please listen.
September 10, 2010 was World Suicide Prevention Day.
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