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Understanding and preventing suicide

September 08, 2014

SPRINGFIELD – Did you know that, in the United States, more people die by suicide each year than by homicide?

The statistics tell the tragic story. The American Association of Suicidology (AAS), sponsors of National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 8-14, notes that one suicide occurs on average every 13 minutes in the United States. Each year approximately 38,000 Americans kill themselves. And suicide is the cause of more deaths than homicides in the nation.

The recent suicide death of beloved comedian Robin Williams has brought much attention to suicide and depression.

“His tragic suicide is a reminder that even someone as successful, famous and rich as Robin Williams can be so depressed and desperate that they can take their own life,” said Dr. Benjamin Liptzin, chair, Department of Psychiatry, Baystate Health.

Dr. Liptzin said media coverage of celebrity deaths by suicide are often glamorized and sometimes produce imitators.

“It’s crucial that any involvement of drugs, alcohol or mental health problems be acknowledged when talking about these incidents,” said Dr. Liptzin. “When someone attempts suicide, it’s usually because they’re desperate for a way to end their painful situation, not because they truly want to kill themselves.”

The good news is that depression can be treated, and when suicidal intent or risk is detected early, lives can be saved. A few examples of risk factors include mental illness, substance abuse, previous suicide attempts, hopelessness, access to lethal means, recent loss of loved ones, unemployment and vulnerability to self-harm.

Dr. Liptzin said signs and symptoms of depression and possible risk for suicide include a sad mood, crying, loss of interest in things once enjoyed, decreased energy, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and concentrating, and comments such as ‘life isn’t worth living.’

Also, the National Institute of Mental Health warns that people who threaten, talk or write about death, dying and suicide, or who seek access to a means to hurt or kill themselves, are exhibiting suicidal behaviors and are at risk of suicide.

If you have a loved one exhibiting such behaviors or thoughts, you should ask them what you can do to help. You can point out your observation that they seem sad and can encourage them to get help initially through their primary care doctor, who can assess the situation and prescribe medications or make a referral to a mental health professional.

“Today most people with depression respond positively to treatment, which is usually a combination of psychotherapy and medications. In more severe cases, electroconvulsive therapy is an option,” said Dr. Liptzin.

In the adolescent and young adult population, suicide is a significant public health problem. Dr. Barry Sarvet, vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Baystate Health, and chief, Child Psychiatry, noted that it is important for parents and caring adults to learn how to recognize depression in teenagers.

“In teenagers, depression is often complicated by disciplinary problems, school underachievement, interpersonal conflict, and drug and alcohol problems. It takes a great deal of understanding and compassion to notice the depressed person in the middle of all of this, who may be at serious risk for suicide,” said Dr. Sarvet, who also serves as president of the Board of Directors of the Western Massachusetts Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He noted that although it is hard for many to take the first step, depression is a very treatable condition, and the vast majority of patients recover very well with proper treatment.

It’s estimated that more than five million people in the United States have been directly affected by a suicide.

“The suicide death of a loved one has a significant impact on survivors. Many times they are left feeling guilty and wondering what they could have done differently and questioning how they could have missed the signs,” said Dr. Liptzin.

He said those looking for support in coping with a suicide loss can visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website at www.afsp for a list of nearby support groups.

If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Psychiatric Crisis Team at 413-733-6661 for Springfield residents or to learn where to call outside the Springfield area. You can also talk with your primary care physician for a referral to a mental health professional or visit your local emergency room.

For more information on Baystate Health, visit www.baystatehealth.org.