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Suicide Prevention: Reflections on Student Suicide

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It seems as if there has been a spate of suicides involving young people. A Columbia University newspaper cited recent suicides at Cornell, MIT, NYU and Columbia. There was also a recent suicide by a Yale undergraduate, who jumped off the Empire State Building, and of course the suicide of a high school student in Massachusetts, who hanged herself after she had been bullied for months.

Despite all of these high-profile suicides, many of which have made front-page news and been reported on cable news networks, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's web site indicates that suicides among youth have been "steadily decreasing" since the mid-1990s. Yet suicide remains the third highest cause of death among 15-24 year olds.

What leads one to take his or her life?

The late Dr. Edwin Shneidman, one of the country's deans of suicidology, theorized in The Suicidal Mind that every person who commits suicide "has been the victim of a vandalized childhood, in which the preadolescent child has been psychologically mugged or sacked, and has had psychological needs, important to that child, trampled on and frustrated by malicious, preoccupied or obtuse adults."

One of those thwarted needs, according to Shneidman, can be the need to achieve. It may be no surprise then that many of the recent reported suicides have been of youth at top-tier colleges, where achievement is paramount to the students.

Shneidman also pointed out that "people are very consistent with themselves"; he added that the "repetition of a tendency to capitulate, to flee, to blot it out, to escape is perhaps the most telling clue to an ultimate suicide."

That is not to say that all people who flee activities are likely to commit suicide. As Shneidman wrote, what may be more important are the "details and nuances of how jobs were quit, how spouses were divorced, and how psychological pain was managed."

The good news is that people can change. Indeed, Shneidman stated that "the capacity for change is our great hallmark as human beings."

Another bit of good news is that most suicidal people, according to Shneidman, are "ambivalent" about taking their lives; that is the great paradox of suicide. As Shneidman indicated in his book, roughly 90 percent of suicidal people leave verbal or behavioral clues so that others can save them. Clues can include statements or acts that have a finality to them such as saying, "I won't see you again," making out a will or putting all accounts in order.

From my own experience, I can say that at least two people may have picked up on clues that I was suicidal back in 1997. A hotel clerk did not give me a room at five in the morning, no doubt because he sensed correctly that there was something desperate about my request. My father refused to go down to dinner one night when he intuited that if I was left alone in our hotel room I might jump out of a window.

If a person you care for gives off an air of desperation, you should stay with that person until he or she is safe. It may be helpful to take that person to a therapist, psychiatric ward or emergency room until the desperation dissipates.

Of course, a high percentage of suicidal people do not have a loved one to monitor them. Many have had a ruptured relationship with a spouse.

Fortunately, my wife, Barbara, is a constant source of support, love and inspiration to me. In the words of Randy Newman, she "gives me reason to live."

She also helps me to see, as Shneidman wrote, that there is a bigger picture out there. Suicidal people can be saved if they realize that there are alternatives to their constrained view, if they can be swayed from a dichotomous all-or-nothing paradigm.

Sometimes, they can even be saved out of guilt. I remember when my mother told me that if I took my life, that would kill my father, which in turn would kill her. Every suicide has repercussions in a family, repercussions that can last for generations. It is important for the suicidal person to recognize that too.

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