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Trying to Make Sense of Suicide

by Dawn Finch, University Health Service
posted November 11, 1998

"Every death means grief and loss, but suicide is always tragic," says CARE Services Manager Patrick Conlin, reflecting on the recent suicides on campus. "Feelings of guilt and blame abound, and the 'what if' questions haunt family, friends and colleagues long after the person is gone."

There's no one pattern to suicide, he explains. Sometimes people are shocked because they saw no signs of despair, or because they never dreamed that a gifted and accomplished person could carry out such a drastic measure. Or maybe the warning signs are there and people try everything they can to help. In these situations, the feelings of fear and powerlessness are enormous.

"One thing we know about suicide is that it cuts across all lines of society," says Conlin. "And it's more common than you might think."

According to statistics from the National Institutes of Mental Health, suicide is more common than homicide, accounting for about 11 deaths per 100,000 people each year, with a higher rate among teens and young adults, and among the elderly.

Conlin names depression and alcohol and/or drug abuse as leading causes of suicide, along with family history of suicide or major stress, such as separation or divorce. Other factors can also contribute -- access to firearms, for instance, or chronic pain that doesn't lessen with treatment.

"Some suicides," he states, "simply cannot be prevented. Some people are so impaired, or so firmly convinced that things will not get better, they will kill themselves despite any or all intervention. But in many cases, the individual is ambivalent about dying, and will respond to help."

The fact that depressive disorders are associated with many suicides gives rise to the urgency for treatment. In the recent depression screening on campus, in which 109 individuals were evaluated -- about a third of whom were faculty or staff -- 68 were assessed as being at risk for major depressive or manic-depressive disorders, and referred for treatment. "While the vast majority of people with depression do not commit suicide," says Conlin, "depressive symptoms are among the clues that can help identify someone at risk."

Conlin notes that the coming weeks, with the holidays rolling around, comprise the high-risk season for depression and suicide. "If you know someone who seems depressed and is not getting help, consult a professional either at University Health Services or in the community. Depressive disorders are highly treatable. And while it's impossible to prevent every suicide, treatment remains our best hope."

Next week: The specific signs and symptoms of suicide and how to respond.


At University Health Services:

CARE Services. Assistance and counseling for faculty and staff. Call 643-7754.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS): Counseling and psychiatric care for students. Call 642-9494

Assisting the Emotionally Distressed Student: A Guide for Staff and Faculty. Contains a section on the suicidal student. Call 642-9494.

Grief and Loss Workshop: Feb. 18 and 25. Call 643-7754.

Sudden Death. Brown Bag Presentation: Tentative Feb 11. Call 643-7754.

In the community:

Suicide Prevention and Crisis Intervention of Alameda County. Oakland/Berkeley. Call 849-2212.


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