Get Educated on Suicide Prevention and Current Trends
Written by Wayne Rosenfield, PhD | Argosy University, Sarasota Professor
I was at work in a hospital emergency department in Connecticut, when the news on television was that Robin Williams was dead. I call him Robin, because his sensitive character portrayals made him seem so familiar; a friend to whom I could easily relate. More details entered the discussion in the coming days. I don’t recall how or when I became aware that Robin had died intentionally. I felt loss and I felt sad for myself. Very quickly, though, I realized the depth of despair and hopelessness that Robin must have experienced. Some of the other professional emergency staff mentioned Robin to me, if just to join me in our shared grief. They seemed to hope that the emergency psychologist would be able to make sense out of the mix of feelings. “If we could have gotten him in here,” I would say, “maybe we would have saved him.” “Yeah,” they would say with a distant gaze, before returning to the people currently in our care.
Suicide is a multiple tragedy. The survivors suffer, just as many of us felt the loss of Robin. The first time I attended a funeral for a suicide, a speaker ostensibly standing to deliver her brother’s eulogy, asked us to please not be angry with him. As one of the survivors I had a mix of feelings, but I certainly was not angry. I was aware that the person who completes a suicide has experienced unbearable emotions, and utter hopelessness. According to the latest statistics published by the American Association on Suicidology, more than 120 Americans reach this point and complete a suicide every day. Many suicides can be prevented if the signs are recognized and if we are able to intervene.
The good news is that mental health interventions can be very effective in preventing suicide. We would want to convey the message that suicide is a permanent solution for what may be only temporary problems. Also helpful is the knowledge that talking about suicide with someone at risk, and even asking that person directly about his or her intentions, are not themselves causes of suicide. We need to shine a bright light on suicide, and convey the information that people care, and that the professionals can help. The first part of this bright light is a willingness to talk to people about whom we are concerned. Nothing is gained and there is much to lose by ignoring talk of suicide.
Most often, a professional assessment finds the suicide risk to be low and the risk factors to be manageable. One teenager whose friend became worried about her and told the adults, engaged quite easily with me – in the emergency department in the middle of the night – and was finally laughing about how much she had overreacted to a social sleight. She went home with her Mom. Yet on another occasion, I left a patient’s bedside thinking, “Whew! That was a close one.”
Occasional suicidal thinking is not necessarily an emergency. But neither should it be ignored. Many mental health professionals have formal training in suicide risk assessment. And there are crisis lines where a trained person is available to talk to a distressed person, and to make an initial assessment.
There are people who want to help.
Let’s not have the tragedy of suicide any more.
Dr. Wayne Rosenfield worked for many years in Connecticut to develop and implement inpatient treatment programs for persons with chronic and debilitating mental disorders. His interest in addressing the most intense problems led him to disaster mental health deployments with the Red Cross following the 2001 terrorist attacks, and then to crisis work in hospital emergency departments. He was again with the Red Cross in Newtown the day after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Engaged with Connecticut’s response to Sandy Hook he was part of a statewide initiative to treat trauma in children. Having relocated to Florida, he is part of a research team examining a novel treatment for combat PTSD, and he performs psychological assessments for a group practice. He is a frequent speaker in the US and internationally on the subject of rare diseases. He is a professor in the Argosy University School Psychology program in Sarasota. His highly rated book, Great Necessities, is available on Amazon.com.