Thursday, December 12, 2013
Suicide: What can we say?
On Sunday, September 8, 2013, we participated in the annual Suicide Remembrance Walk in Kansas City’s Loose Park, organized by Suicide Awareness Survivor Support of Missouri and Kansas (SASS/Mo-Kan). An article previewing the walk and interviewing Bonnie and Mickey Swade, our friends who established SASS/Mo-Kan, ran in the Kansas City Star on September 7: “What to say, and not, to those left behind by suicide”. Bonnie and Mickey became our friends because we are members of a club none of us would wish to be in: suicide survivors. Their son Brett completed suicide about a year after our son Matt did, and we were in a support group together before the Swades started their own. Matt’s suicide was on December 13, 2002, which I never thought of as being “Friday the 13th” until I realized that because of the vagaries of leap years, this year, 11 years later, is the first Friday December 13th since then. Thus, this post several months later.
The Remembrance Walk around Loose Park in Kansas City was well-attended on a hot morning, and culminated in all of us standing in a very large circle holding long-stemmed flowers as a distressingly long list of names was read. We counted 7 times when two (and in one case 3) last names were repeated; the list was not in alphabetical order, so this was not coincidence. As much pain it is to have one person you love having committed suicide, two or more is unfathomable. Finally, white doves were released, and the ceremony ended to the strains of “Somewhere over the rainbow”.
I have written about suicide before (July 29, 2009, “Prevention and the “Trap of Meaning”, in which I discussed an article that had recently appeared in JAMA by by Constantine Lyketsos and Margaret Chisholm titled “The trap of meaning: a public health tragedy” ). The thrust of that piece was that people -- families, lay persons, psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, and others -- search for “meaning”, “reasons” for suicide, and that this is, essentially, pointless at best and, devastating at worst. Suicide is the fatal result of the disease of depression, a disease which is very common and not usually fatal, but can be. It may often be precipitated by a specific event or set of events (as the final episode of chronic heart or lung disease is often preceded by a viral infection) but those are not the cause. The strongest prima facie evidence is that most people in the same circumstances (whether victims or perpetrators of bad things) do not kill themselves. But enough do to have made a long list to have read at the ceremony in Loose Park.
Like everyone else, each person who kills themselves is unique, and their histories differ. Some have made previous attempts, often many times; others gave no clue. Some have been hospitalized, often many times; others never. Some have family who were sitting on the edge, awaiting the suicidal act, trying their best to help to prevent it but helpless to really do so. The families and friends of others had no idea it might happen. While those who attempt or complete suicide are depressed, some very overtly manifest that depression and some not so much. While many people who have depression never attempt suicide, some complete suicide when things are looking, to others, good. Overall, access to effective weapons increases the probability of “success”; the “lethality” (the probability that you will die from an attempt) is about 95% from guns, and only 3% from pills. Therefore, easy access to guns is associated with a higher successful suicide rate; in young men 16-24 the success rate is nearly 10 times higher in low gun control states than in high. I doubt these young men are more depressed, but they have quick and effective methods of turning what may have been relatively transient suicidal thoughts into permanent death. Of course, not all suicides are classified as such; while it is often obvious, sometime it is not: how many one-car accidents, for example, are really suicides? And, because “unsuccessful” suicide attempts are grossly under-reported, the lack of an accurate denominator makes “success” rates very hard pin down.
On one hand, the fact that most suicide attempts are not hospitalized and given intensive treatment seems to me to be a bad idea. Since the greatest predictor of a suicide attempt is a previous suicide attempt, if there is any likelihood that a suicide can be prevented it would be best to intervene at that time and try to treat the depression. On the other hand, I am not sure that there is any good evidence that treatment is terribly effective in preventing suicide. Yes, there are many people who have attempted suicide once and never again, but this may be a result of treatment or the natural history of their disease. There are people who are under intensive treatment when they complete suicide, often when least expected. Indeed, there is evidence that treatment of depression may sometimes paradoxically increase the risk of suicide by getting a person whose depression was so severe that they were unable to act better enough that they can. And, conversely, there is no way of knowing how many times, before a suicide is completed, a planned attempt was put off by an intervention that may not have even been intended, by demonstrating love and letting the person know they were needed.
It doesn’t always work. If the person is unwilling to share their symptoms and is determined to complete suicide, there is no prevention that is effective. My son was 24, deeply loved, lived in a state with strict gun control laws and probably never held a gun before. But he was able to drive to a low gun-control state, buy a carbine and bullets, and complete his suicide. He took his time and planned it, and it is unlikely to have been preventable. But many suicide attempts are not as well planned, are more impulsive, and efforts to prevent these might be successful in many cases. In a classic 1975 article in the Western Journal of Medicine David Rosen interviewed 6 survivors of jumps from the Golden Gate bridge. The emphasis in these interviews is on transcendence and “spiritual rebirth”, but all agreed that putting a “suicide fence” in place might have deterred them and might deter others.
For all of us who wish mightily to prevent disease and death, suicide may be seen as the greatest affront because the death is seen as “unnecessary” and often involves people who were “healthy” (except for their depression), young, and had a future before them – sometimes (as I like to think of Matt’s) a truly promising future. But too often we, in our desire to prevent death and disease, choose to focus on the least effective interventions to do so. We will take unproven drugs (especially if they are “natural” or non-prescription), and clamor for our “right” to have marginally useful or even ineffective screening tests, but there is a vocal movement against immunizations, one of the few preventive interventions that are known to be effective. We decry mass murders in school after school, and bemoan the loss of our young people to both suicide and homicide, but resist regulation of the most effective instruments of death, guns. We all take our shoes off each time we fly because of one failed “shoe-bomber”, but ignore the thousands of deaths on our city streets.
I wish my son had not killed himself. I wish I knew how to have prevented it. I wish I could tell those of you who worry about a loved one how you can prevent it. I wish even more that I could tell those of you who don’t suspect it that you can be secure because in the absence of definite warning signs you can feel safe. I can’t do that. When there are warning signs, take whatever action you can, but the reality is that it may not be effective. When there are no signs, hope that it is because there is no risk.
As individuals, we hope and do what we can. As a society, we should decide on our priorities, and we should be guided by the evidence, not by our fantasies, hopes, or magical thinking.
 Lyketsos CG, Chishom MS, “The Trap of Meaning: A Public Health Tragedy”, JAMA. 2009;302(4):432-433. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1059.
 Rosen DH, “Suicide Survivors: A Follow-up Study of Persons Who Survived Jumping from the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges, West J Med. 1975 April; 122(4): 289–294. PMCID: PMC1129714