If Teri Fluder’s family had known then what they know now, chances are good that they could have prevented Teri’s death. But the Fluders had never known anyone who had died by suicide. They didn’t know what distress signals to watch for or what they could have done. They trusted the priest who pronounced Teri to be a typical teenager whose problems would pass with time.
Tragically, the Fluders are not alone. They, like the families of the thousands of other youths who kill themselves each year, missed the warning signals. They hadn’t been educated to watch for them.
EVEN THE EXPERTS don’t know why Teri and more than four thousand American youth take their own lives every year. What they do know is that they and you can help. For every one young person who kills him-or herself, there may be as many as four others who try and fail. This fact offers hope. Most young people who attempt suicide don’t really want to die or are prevented from succeeding.
“Stop Me, Please”
Mental health professionals claim that all people contemplating suicide give at least one warning, and 80 percent give repeated warnings. They tell their friends, sometimes even their families, that they want to die. They are asking for help.
2. Approximately 70 per cent of youth who attempt suicide do so in the home, where there is a good chance that someone will stop them.
3. In the few months before taking their own lives, seventy-five percent of the victims had seen their family doctor. Many of them were also seeing a psychiatrist.
The facts tell the story. Most young people who attempt suicide want to be seen, stopped, and saved. They want to live. It’s a myth that once someone decides to take his or her own life there is nothing anyone can do to stop him or her. The truth is that there is plenty that can be done. It’s only when you believe the myths about suicide that it is hard to act.
Exploding The Suicide Myths
Test yourself. Are the following statements true or false?
1. Joe and Jeff told a group of their friends that they were going to kill themselves by “flying off a cliff.” Because they talked about killing themselves in front of friends, they were just looking for attention and wouldn’t actually go ahead with their plan.
2. Once Ron made up his mind to kill himself and said good-bye to his friends, nothing anyone could do could stop him.
3. Jeffrey tried to kill himself by swallowing thirty-five aspirin tablets. He got sick and had a ringing in his ears for four days. After the discomfort and fright he felt, Jeffrey probably wouldn’t attempt suicide again.
4. Steve’s depression seemed to have lifted. All of his problems appeared to be behind him. He was back in school and studying hard. He was out of danger.
5. Anna, Janie’s best friend, knew Janie was depressed and thinking about suicide. But Anna also knew that talking to Janie about suicide would only give her ideas and make things worse.
6. People who kill themselves are crazy.
MYTH: When people talk about killing themselves, they‘re just looking for attention. Ignoring them is the best thing to do.
REALITY: The truth is that most people who take their own lives do talk about it. Eighty percent of adolescent suicides make open threats before they kill themselves.
Joe and Jeff, both sixteen, had been best friends since sixth grade. Back then, Joe had needed a buddy badly. His parents had argued constantly ever since he could remember and had finally separated when Joe was in fourth grade. That’s when he started talking back to his teachers and picking fights. By sixth grade he’d become a loan shark, loaning money to his classmates and doubling the debt if they didn’t pay him back the next day. Jeff looked up to Joe as a “real cool operator.” In seventh grade, Joe started drinking and smoking pot. He’d go to school stoned and would fall into bed at 6:30 every night. His mother didn’t seem to notice. One month before Joe turned thirteen, his mother remarried. Eight months later, she left the house and joined her new husband in another city, 120 miles away. Joe’s life came undone.
Joe’s father returned to raise him and his two brothers; things went from bad to worse. As far as Joe was concerned, his father cut him down every chance he got. Nothing he did or said was right. Joe hated his life at home and started spending as much time as he could with Jeff and Jeff’s family.
After their cattle ranch ran into hard times, Jeff’s family moved into town. Jeff’s mother got a job as a police dispatcher; his father sold cars. And then their life started to go wrong. Jeff’s father worked long hours and drank heavily. He had little time left for his family. Then he got involved with another woman. Jeff’s parents separated, then got back together. But things were never the same.
Jeff’s behavior at home started to change. He became withdrawn and started smoking pot and drinking. Both he and Joe were increasingly unhappy. They fought with their fathers and saw the little town where they lived as a prison where nothing would ever change.
The first time they talked about suicide, the boys fantasized about going to Pole Creek where they’d swallow some sleeping pills and lie down on the grass to die. But they weren’t really serious . . . not then.
The two friends talked about suicide again, only this time there was a new plan: They could drive off the cliff at Dead Man’s Curve. The boys still hadn’t set a date, but both agreed that killing themselves that way would probably be painless.
One Monday morning, Jeff and Joe skipped school. They got drunk, talked, and drove around town. Maybe this was the day to try out Dead Man’s Curve, they thought. Close to dinnertime, they picked up a friend and drove her around. Jeff told her they were going to fly through the air off a cliff. He also said they would come back alive. The friend didn’t believe him. On their way to the high school, Joe stepped on the accelerator, hit ninety, lost control of the car, hit a fence, and spun off the road into the ditch. No one was hurt.
Later at the town library, standing around with a group of kids, Joe turned to Jeff and said, “Let’s go kill ourselves.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said. “Let’s go.”
The others laughed.
“We’re serious,” Joe said. “We’re going to fly off the cliff,” he said as he and Jeff got into Joe’s car. One of the boys who had heard all of this tried to push his way into the car.
“Stop it,” Joe said. “We don’t want to be responsible for your death.”
“Screw you,” the boy said. He still didn’t believe they were serious.
Jeff and Joe got out of the car one more time. They shook hands all around.
“I’ll bring flowers to your grave,” one of the girls said, laughing.
Joe took off a cap he was wearing and gave it to another girl. “You’ll never see me again. Keep it for memories.”
Still, no one thought they were serious.
“You don’t believe us,” Joe said, “but we’re going to do it. You can read about it in the paper tomorrow.”
WHEN HE REGAINED consciousness, Joe saw paramedics kneeling over him. “What happened to my friend?” he asked. “What happened to Jeff?”
Three days later, Jeff was buried. The grave was marked by a simple stone that read:
Loved Son and Brother
Jeffrey Scott Allen Westerberg
July 7, 1964-November 17, 1980
Joe and Jeff repeatedly told their friends about their plan. Unfortunately, no one believed them.
MYTH: Once a person has decided to kill him-or-herself, no one can stop him or her.
REALITY: For almost all those who attempt suicide, suicide is a cry for help, not a wish to die. Even the most hopelessly suicidal person has mixed feelings about death, moving back and forth between wanting to die and wanting to live. With help, even that person can be stopped and pushed toward life.
Like 90 per cent of young suicide attempters, Ron Neal was probably hoping that his friends would rescue him at the last minute. Otherwise, his parents ask, why did he leave every door in the house unlocked? Why had the automatic garage-door opener been unlatched, so that the door could be opened by hand from the outside? And why was the door between the garage door and the house kept open by a dog cage with a barking dog inside?
Unfortunately for Ron, his friends arrived too late. As they drove up the driveway, they saw the garage lights on and heard a car running. They rushed to the garage where they found Ron’s limp body slumped behind the wheel. He was already dead.
In Francine Klagsbrun’s book Too Young to Die, the author wrote about a young woman who spent weeks planning her suicide. She jumped from her seventh-floor apartment window, but a tree broke her fall. She survived. Later, she talked about her feelings as she jumped. “As I began to fall, I wanted more than anything to be able to turn back, grab hold of the window ledge, and pull myself up.”
Tim was fifteen when he decided that life just wasn’t worth the hassle. He’d gotten into a fight at school earlier in the day. The night before, he and his girl friend had had a big argument. His friends were mad at him, too, and he didn’t know why.
“I was just really mixed up . . . I was making the people around me miserable, too, so I thought the best thing for me to do was kill myself.”
Tim had made a noose and put it in his bedroom. He thought it looked really cool. No one thought that he was serious about using it.
Tim was saved by his older brother, who came home unexpectedly in the middle of the day, broke into the house through the back window, and cut his brother down. When the paramedics arrived, Tim was unconscious.
“I guess I’m pretty damn lucky,” he says now. “Being in the hospital kind of cleared my head. Before, I’d walk around either so stoned or so confused that I didn’t know what I was doing a lot of the time. It made me learn to take things much easier.”
On the second anniversary of Tim’s suicide attempt, his friends gave him a party.
“I’m glad my brother came home early that afternoon.”
MYTH: Once a person tries to kill him-or herself and fails, the pain and shame will keep him or her from trying again.
REALITY: Of every one youth who takes his own life, four have made one or more previous attempts.
Jeffrey had thought about suicide every day for six months. He hated who he was — “just ordinary.” He didn’t get the praise he needed from his parents and felt that they paid more attention to his brothers and sisters.
The first time he attempted suicide, Jeffrey waited until his family had left for the day. Then he swallowed thirty-five aspirin tablets, one by one. He drank a beer and lay down to die. Then he started to get really sick. His ears rang for four days. He told some friends about what he’d done. They didn’t seem to believe him.
Six weeks later, Jeffrey decided to try again. He drank Jack Daniels until he got up the courage to use the handgun he had put on top of his bedroom dresser. But he was too drunk to get up. Instead, he passed out.
Luckily, Jeffrey didn’t get a chance to try a third time. Before that could happen, a friend read a journal he was keeping for one of his classes. It was filled with thoughts of death. The friend told the school social worker, who met first with Jeffrey, then with his parents. Jeffrey was rushed to a psychiatrist, who insisted he be hospitalized immediately. Jeffrey spent the next four months in the hospital, where he gained a new lease on life. If his friend hadn’t stepped in, chances are that Jeffrey wouldn’t be around today. His advice to other suicidal teens: “Don’t do it.”
MYTH: When a suicidal person’s depression appears to have lifted and he is acting so much better and happier, he’s out of danger.
REALITY: Depression can be most dangerous just when it appears to be lifting. When a person is severely depressed, s/he may want to die but may lack the energy and power to carry out a plan. But when she/he feels a bit better, it’s easier to carry through with a suicide.
The psychiatrist who saw Steve wrote a letter to the marine recruiting office saying that he was severely depressed. He had stopped eating. He couldn’t sleep. And he had threatened to cut off his big toe.
After Steve got out of entering the marines, the depression seemed to lift. He started classes at a junior college, got a part-time job, and made plans to take out a girl he liked. Three months later, he was dead. He shot himself in the head with a .22 caliber gun.
WHEN a fifteen-year-old suburban Chicago boy killed himself, his family was shocked. “Things seemed to be going so much better for him. He appeared to have adjusted to our move to a new school district. And he had made plans to go fishing.”
MYTH: Talking to a troubled person about suicide will just give him/her ideas.
REALITY: Another common mistake. You don‘t give a suicidal person ideas about suicide. The ideas are already there. Talking about them honestly and openly will help, not hurt. Most troubled people really want to talk about what’s bothering them. It’s a relief to get their pain out into the open, as long as they know their feelings will be taken seriously and with understanding. One of the biggest mistakes people make when talking to a troubled young person is to deny the problems or to tell him or her that the problems aren‘t really serious and will pass.
MYTH: People who kill themselves are crazy.
REALITY: Most suicidal people are not insane. Although many of those who try to kill themselves feel depressed, lonely, and hopeless, they are not mentally ill. This fact offers great hope. With the right treatment, someone who is depressed has an 80 to 90 percent chance for a full recovery.
Now that you understand the many myths surrounding suicide, how can you catch a friend before s/he attempts suicide? What signs can you look for?
SOS: Suicide Warning Signals
Cathy was the older of two children. She was a homecoming queen, cheerleader, and popular B student who had been accepted at college. After an argument with her longtime boyfriend, she went into her bathroom and hanged herself.
Cathy’s family and friends were stunned. Nobody had had any idea that there had been something wrong. Cathy had had everything going for her. She’d been the perfect teenager. Or so everyone had thought.
Looking back, Cathy’s family was able to see some of the problems that may have led to her suicide. But the signs of her unhappiness were unclear at the time and went unnoticed. Only after her death were the distress signals more apparent. Only then did Cathy’s family and friends realize that she had felt tremendous pressure to be “perfect” and that she almost never had talked to anyone about her own feelings and problems.
Does that mean that you can never tell whether a friend is suicidal? Absolutely not. There are warning signals—some clearer than others—that indicate something is wrong. What’s important is that you understand these warning signals and use them as a barometer for trouble.
Six General Warning Signals
The following six warning signals reflect that there is trouble. While they don’t mean that someone you know is on the verge of suicide, they do indicate that something is wrong.
1. Acting Out: Aggressive, Hostile Behavior
If you or your friends have problems, what do you do to blow off steam? Drink? Use drugs? Drive like maniacs? A lot of young people who feel angry and unhappy do those things. Some go a step further and get into fights, shoplift, or even run away from home. Acting out—behavior that thumbs its nose at rules and authority—often means that something is wrong.
2. Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Almost half of the youth who commit suicide are drunk or high shortly before their deaths. If you or your friends drink or use drugs, think about the times someone overdid it. Maybe s/he was trying to drown some sorrow, bad grades, breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or hard times at home.
If you and your friends don’t use drugs or alcohol, you probably know people who do. Are they just out for a good time, or are they covering up for their insecurities or problems? Drugs and alcohol often make a depressed person even more depressed. And they cause people to act without thinking clearly.
3. Passive Behavior
Have you ever felt that you just can’t get moving, that it’s too hard to do anything, and that there’s not much worth doing, anyway? That’s passive behavior, and many depressed/suicidal young people feel that way most of the time. “It’s like being wrapped in Saran Wrap, trying to get through but never making it past the plastic,” said one suicide attempter. Kate, another attempter, described her passivity as feeling nothing, having to burn herself with an iron just to know that she was alive. Passive young people are afraid to let their anger and frustrations show. If they did, they might get carried away: All the rage they’ve been keeping inside might fester and explode.
4. Changes in Eating Habits
Mary grew up feeling that she wasn’t as good as everyone else around her. She set very high standards for herself and never thought she measured up. Her home life didn’t do much to make her feel any better. Her parents always seemed on the verge of divorce. By the end of eighth grade, her parents separated, and Mary, a chunky 135 pounds, almost stopped eating. “It seemed like everybody hated me, and it was kind of like my way of getting my parents back together and getting back at people who make fun of me and to scare them.” She lost 47 pounds over the next year, shrinking down to a mere 88 pounds.
While most suicidal teens don’t become anorexic like Mary, they may change their eating habits dramatically. Healthy eaters may start nibbling at their food or not eating at all, while picky eaters may start eating as if there’s no tomorrow.
5. Changes in Sleeping Habits
As you remember, in the months before nineteen-year-old Teri Fluder killed herself, she stopped sleeping. The books that used to calm her down and eventually put her to sleep didn’t help anymore. Because of her lack of sleep, Teri was tired all the time and started showing up late to her part-time job. She eventually lost that job and a second one because of tardiness.
On the other hand, someone who may have slept normally or too little may start sleeping too much. After Mark shot himself to death, his parents tried to uncover what unrecognized signals he might have given. Mark’s father remembered: “During the last week he seemed to be sleeping more. He’d go to bed early and then he’d get up late and go off to school, so that we never really had a chance to talk to him.”
6. Fear of Separation
Do you remember how you felt the first day in kindergarten or your first night away from home? Leaving your parents and home can be difficult. But for someone who is troubled, such separation can be traumatic. If a friend suddenly seems uncomfortable about sleeping over or having his/her parents go away, it may mean trouble is brewing.
Specific Suicide Warning Signals
The first group of six warning signals set the stage for trouble. The next six indicate a loss of control and balance. The troubled young person can no longer hide the pain.
1. Abrupt Changes in Personality
You remember that Teri Fluder had always been quiet and shy. She had trouble making friends and, from the time she was a toddler, seemed content to play by herself. When she turned sixteen, her personality changed abruptly. She started hanging out with a wilder group of kids, whose main goal in life was to have a good time. The phone rang all the time. Teri always had something to do and friends to be with. Once a good student, she now stopped studying. Teri’s parents weren’t happy about the drop in grades but felt that she’d finally come out of her shell. Less than two years later, she was dead.
Sudden changes in personality can be a sign that a friend, son or daughter has become preoccupied with suicide. The problem is that most youth aren’t settled about themselves and their place in the world, and changes in personality occur often, even in those who are not depressed. The key is whether the changes are different from the usual pattern.
Amy had been an outgoing, happy fifteen-year-old who had many friends and participated in a lot of school activities. Suddenly, she started spending more and more time by herself. She stopped all of her outside activities, choosing instead to sit alone in her room for hours at a time. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists.
8. Sudden Mood Swings
Who hasn’t had days when they feel great one minute and down the next? Moodiness is part of being a human. But if these sudden mood swings continue for long periods, they’re not normal.
Melissa was somber and withdrawn. She stopped spending time with her friends, choosing instead to spend all of her free time alone in her bedroom with the door locked. Then, one evening, she got dressed and went to a friend’s party. She danced, sang, and talked a blue streak. She was the “life of the party.” But the next day, just as suddenly as her mood had seemed to improve, she was back in the dumps, refusing once again even to talk to her friends.
9. Risky Behavior
Ted flirted with death several times before actually killing himself with carbon-monoxide poisoning in his parents’ garage. One of his friends remembers the afternoon after an ROTC parade when Ted got behind the wheel of his car and started driving like a maniac. He pulled out right in front of a huge truck, scaring his friend half to death. When Ted got back to school and parked his car, he turned to his rattled friend and said, “Somebody could really die in a car.” His risky behavior could have alerted his friend that Ted was ready to take big chances with his life and those of others. But it’s easy to overlook such boasting and talking big, because such behavior is part of trying on adolescence.
10. Decreased Interest in School and Poor Grades
Because school is a major part of many young people’s lives, it is also one of the best measures of your and someone’s mental health. If a young person’s grades fall dramatically, the chances are good that something is wrong.
Dale was an excellent student. Studying came easily for him. He got A’s all through junior high school. But when he started high school, he seemed to lose interest in his schoolwork. He’d drift off or read a book instead. His grades fell to mostly D’s. Dale made his first suicide attempt toward the end of his freshman year.
11. Inability to Concentrate
When a friend can’t concentrate long enough to read a short magazine article or review homework for a test, it is most likely because s/he is absorbed in her/his own inner turmoil.
Sid had been an outstanding student all through high school. Suddenly, his grades started to fall. He couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish reading a paragraph. Luckily, his parents noticed the problem early on and got Sid professional help.
12. Loss or Lack of Friends
Many young people who end up suicidal never had friends to lose. Justin was one of those kids. He never fit in very well. He was very critical of kids his own age and often cut them down. He would rather read science fiction or listen to Beethoven than do the “common” things everybody else was doing. Justin hanged himself on Valentine’s Day, maybe because, as his mother explained, he felt that everyone else in the world was in love or had somebody except him.
Several studies have found that many youth who took their own lives didn’t have or didn’t feel that they had a close friend. There wasn’t one special person to whom they could turn and who accepted them and their feelings.
If someone you know seems unhappy, be a good friend. Don’t argue about why s/he should be happy, and don’t tell him/her things like, “You can’t possibly feel as bad as you say.” Listen and go for help if you think your friend might be suicidal. Tell an adult, preferably a teacher, counselor, or psychologist. (More about this in Chapter 7.)
Final Distress Signals: Impending Doom
13. Loss of an Important Person or Thing
For a young person who is already troubled and unable to hide the pain, death, divorce, or breakup with a boyfriend or girl friend can be the last straw.
Natalie had always thought about suicide. Her mother was mentally ill and her father was a strict disciplinarian who had trouble showing love and support. But Natalie had joined a street gang and found, at least temporarily, a substitute family. School wasn’t going well, but Natalie had a boyfriend. That was all that mattered. When he broke up with her, her world collapsed. She made her first suicide attempt soon after the breakup.
Charles was the younger of two children. “He was the happiest little boy you ever saw,” his mother said. He loved music and could play the cello before he could read. When Charles was eight, his father had a serious heart attack. And that’s when Charles stopped being happy. Though his father eventually recovered, Charles blamed himself for his father’s illness. As he grew older, he became withdrawn and more and more depressed. He died by strangulation in his family’s shower.
Jeffrey was a very active kid. But suddenly everything got to be too much for him. He quit his part-time job at a pizza place. He stopped doing his homework. And he dropped a new girl friend because she’d only be “another burden.” Life appeared hopeless, and Jeffrey decided he was more trouble than he was worth.
Nothing makes a hopeless young person happy—not food, friends, activities, or accomplishments. “I might as well be dead,” wrote one teen in a suicide note.
15. Obsession with Death
Vivienne Loomis had been obsessed with death long before she walked into her mother’s studio, tied a rope around her neck, and hanged herself. Life had come to contain too much pain. For Vivienne, death meant an end to that pain. She wrote about death constantly: “Death is going to be a beautiful thing.” And she talked about death with a friend. “I knew from what she told me that she was very, very serious about suicide . . . Sometimes she’d tell me that she’d tried to strangle herself.” Vivienne rehearsed her suicide many times. She worked to overcome her fear of it by experimenting with fainting and strangulation. By the time she actually hanged herself, death had lost its horror.
16. Making a Will/Giving Away Possessions
Before Mary attempted suicide for the third time, she gave pictures of herself to friends so that they would have something to remember her by.
Before Jeff tried to kill himself, he wrote a “will,” leaving his record collection to a friend and his sports equipment to his younger brother.
Young people who are getting ready to die often give away some of their possessions to a sibling or a friend. They are, in a sense, executing their own wills. Making a will is perhaps the most serious sign of a potential suicide.
What Can You Do?
Youth who are thinking seriously about suicide will need professional help to work out their problems. But, as a friend, parent, or teacher, you can:
1. Recognize the warning signals
2. Trust your own judgment and take action if you suspect real danger (never leave a suicidal person alone)
3. Listen intelligently
4. Be supportive
5. Urge professional help
6. Tell a parent, teacher, or counselor
NEVER KEEP SOMEONE’S SUICIDAL FEELINGS A SECRET.
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