My friend, let’s call him Tom, was charismatic. In his Texas drawl, he’d describe his latest adventure as a pilot or offer secrets to grilling the best steak ever, which—he would explain—only a Texan like himself really knew. Six months ago, on a Sunday morning, this vibrant, funny, kind-hearted man ended his life with a single bullet. Just 31 years old, he left behind a toddler and his former wife, along with many family members and friends who felt stunned, grief-stricken, angry, guilty, and bewildered. Me among them.
By chance, my next project was editing Harvard Medical School’s Special Health Report, “Understanding Depression.”
One of my tasks was to update the section on suicide. In the aftermath of Tom’s death, one fact struck me in particular: Many suicides (estimates range from 30% to 80%) are impulsive, with just minutes or an hour elapsing between the time a person decides upon suicide and when he or she commits the act. Yet the stressful events that lead to suicidal thoughts are often temporary, such as losing a job or having a romantic relationship end.
An article in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that at least nine out of 10 people who survive a suicide attempt do not commit suicide at a later date. This fact holds true even for those whose resolve was so deep that they chose seemingly surefire methods, such as leaping in front of a train or a bullet to the head. The take-home message: All is not lost. What you’re feeling now won’t always hold this much sway over your life. You can feel better again, and treatment can help.
At first, the information I learned from the New England Journal just made me sadder. It underscored how senseless Tom’s death was. I would think, “If only he’d held on…” But soon I saw that it could offer great comfort to people considering suicide. So, too, can the data on the effectiveness of depression treatments.
As the “Understanding Depression” report points out, seven out of 10 people who stick with treatment for depression get enough relief that they no longer consider themselves depressed. For many others, treatment reduces symptoms enough that their quality of life is vastly improved.
If you think you might hurt yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or a local hot line and speak with a crisis counselor. Or talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. The same advice holds true if you think a loved one is in danger of becoming self-destructive. It may also be helpful to familiarize yourself with some of the things that can increase an individual’s risk of committing suicide.