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How you can help someone talking about suicide

Some time ago, I was meeting with a middle-aged father who tearfully related to me the circumstances of his daughter’s death. She was an accomplished, aspiring teenager who committed suicide.

In his grief, the father wondered aloud to me if there was anything he could have done to prevent his daughter’s death. Most importantly, he expressed a desire for others to be better educated about suicide and its prevention.

Suicide unfortunately is a common problem in our society. As of 2007, it was the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for the annual premature death of more than 34,000 people. For every completed suicide, it is estimated that there were 11 attempts.

Suicide prevention begins with understanding the risk factors. Those with a personal or family history of a mental-health disorder, especially depression or a substance-use disorder, may be at risk. Those with depression and either a family history of suicide or personal history of a previous suicide attempt are at greater risk.

Access to a weapon, such as a gun, or efforts to obtain one substantially increase suicide risk.

Among children and adolescents, additional risk factors include family violence, such as physical or sexual abuse, a history of disruptive behavior or exposure to suicidal behaviors among family or peers. Depression and/or substance abuse continue to be major risk factors among youths.

Not all people with suicide risk factors experience suicidal thoughts. Yet among those at risk, certain warning signs should prompt action.

Friends, family members, peers or co-workers may detect words, actions or behaviors that indicate a risk of suicide. In many instances, suicide risk involves despair – a sense of helplessness or hopelessness.

Behaviors that precede a suicide attempt can be varied. They may include social withdrawal and isolation, or they may involve agitation, extreme mood swings, vengefulness or reckless behaviors such as increasing alcohol or drug use.

People contemplating suicide may comment about a sense of burden to others, a sense of feeling trapped or a feeling of unbearable psychological pain.

Comments about a sense of hopelessness or lack of a reason to live or comments about a desire to die or to kill oneself always should be taken seriously. In such circumstances, immediate action is essential.

Many resources exist to assist those experiencing suicidal thoughts. While routine counseling with a mental-health or religious professional is appropriate for those suffering depression or suicidal thoughts, those planning suicide represent a mental-health emergency and require timely intervention.

Local and national resources for suicide prevention are available. The national suicide prevention lifeline, a 24-hour, toll-free crisis-intervention service, is available at (800) 273-8255. Those experiencing suicidal thoughts also can seek care at local hospital emergency rooms, where trained crisis-intervention counselors are on call to provide services.

If you or a family member or friend are experiencing suicidal thoughts, take action immediately and seek help.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.

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