Monday, June 29, 2009

How to recognize the warning signs of suicide

By DAVE FOPAY, Staff Writer

Someone feeling pushed to the brink, perhaps thinking things are so bad they can’t get better, needs to hear that they can improve, “even if at the moment you don’t believe it,” Linda Weiss says.

Severe problems and depression that can lead people to consider ending their lives are usually accompanied by warning signs family and friends can look for, said Weiss, director of the Mattoon-based Regional Behavioral Health Network. The network operates a 24-hour crisis telephone line that’s not only for people who are thinking about suicide but also for people who are concerned that someone else might be, she explained.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Weiss said. “It may end your emotional suffering but it doesn’t end the problem. There is help out there.”

There are several warning signs professionals say might mean that someone’s thinking about suicide. Weiss said some of the major ones are hopelessness or “somebody saying, ‘Why bother?’,” any mention of suicide or that things would be better without them and significant symptoms of depression.

Anybody can “just be down” because of something such as another person’s death or loss of a job, Weiss said, but the level of depression for someone who’s suicidal isn’t “typical to a situation.” It can include loss of interest in things a person normally enjoys and especially needs attention if it lasts two weeks or more, she said.

Along with contacting a professional “if there’s any hint at all” that someone’s thinking about suicide, Weiss said those concerned should talk to the person as bluntly as they feel comfortable, and that includes asking directly about suicide.

“Asking somebody about it is not going to put the thought in their head,” Weiss said.

In recent weeks, the area has seen some dramatic or unusual suicides and attempts, including on June 8 when a rural Charleston woman jumped off a bridge onto Interstate 57 north of Mattoon but lived. Just days before, a Charleston police officer shot and killed himself at his home and about a week before that, a Mattoon man shot himself to death at a friend’s home in Bushton after a police pursuit.

More drastic acts usually indicate that “they’ve made their mind up that they do want to be dead” and they choose the method because they’re not likely to be stopped, Weiss said. Someone might also have access to a gun but not pills for an overdose, for example, she added.

Weiss also said law enforcement is one of the high-risk occupations for suicide because of the stress that comes with the job and the access to weapons. One local police officer said he “absolutely” agrees with that and his department offers programs to help deal with it.

“A lot of the time, we see the worst in people,” said Lt. Tad Freezeland of the Coles County Sheriff’s Department. “Sometimes, police officers can get dragged down by that.”

Freezeland also said he’s probably dealt with about 100 instances during his 16 years in law enforcement where someone attempted suicide. Those include times trying to talk the person out of it, he said, and that’s when he tries to mention those who care about the person and to make that person realize suicide’s not the answer.

“We’re there to help them,” he said. “We’re there to de-escalate their thoughts.”

Freezeland echoed Weiss in saying that if someone’s intent on suicide “they’re going to do it.” He also agreed that it’s best if others know and recognize the warning signs because usually by the time police arrive “it’s too late.”

The Regional Behavior Health Network crisis line is averaging about 320 calls per month this year, a few more than last year and continuing an increase the program’s seen each year since it began in 2004. Weiss said that could be because people are more aware of the service and because of “the state of affairs,” namely the poor economy.

“There are more people under stress,” she said.

The emergency room at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center deals with people who’ve tried to kill themselves but also frequently encounters people thinking about it, said Joseph Burton, the hospital’s emergency department medical director. As many as six people walk in each day with mental illness problems, most considering suicide, and it’s “getting busier,” he said.

Some can be admitted to the hospital, but for people who don’t meet the criteria for that, they mostly have to be referred to an agency and are left to make the contact themselves, he added. That’s a situation he called a “silent crisis” in mental health care.

“They need something in between going home and being admitted,” Burton said.

Contact Dave Fopay at or 238-6858.

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