It's not painless

When my 16-year-old nephew killed himself in 1995, I learned first-hand about the devastation of suicide. The title and lyrics of the "M*A*S*H" theme song are wrong; suicide is definitely not painless.

I saw pain everywhere -- in the eyes and on the faces of his classmates and friends he left behind. I saw the torture and pain that his parents and brother had to bear then (and ever since). And I felt it in my own eyes and face and in my heart.

But the pain can be prevented and young lives can be saved if all of us who love young people keep our eyes and ears open and take the danger seriously.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 to 19 and the third leading cause for ages 15 to 24. While accidents cause more deaths than suicide, experts believe that many accidents are probably suicide-related.

Females make more attempts at suicide than do males, but males are more successful at completing it. Whites have the highest suicide rate among adolescents, but the suicide rate among young black people is closing the gap.

Suicide is about ending pain; young people who end their own lives are actually seeking an end to their pain, not an end to their lives.

Because many young people live in the present, have unrealistic expectations of the future and may believe that things cannot change, they frequently do not see that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

We can help by learning to recognize risk factors and warning signs, such as negative life stress, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, inability to cope, being a gay or lesbian who is coming out and losing a relationship.

When young people move to a more serious consideration of suicide, there may be warning signs that should raise a red flag:

  • joking or talking about suicide
  • writing about suicide or death in journals or letters
  • communicating suicidal thoughts or depicting death in essays, poems or artwork
  • showing signs of depression
  • exhibiting wide mood swings or becoming touchy; becoming withdrawn or becoming a "party animal"
  • suddenly failing to complete assignments
  • being unable to concentrate or exhibiting changes in school attendance or academic performance
  • displaying sudden cheerfulness after depression
  • making statements such as, "People would be better off if I weren't around," "I might as well be dead" or "I'm not going to be here so what does it matter?"

We need to be alert for any indication that young people are feeling pain with which they may not be able to cope. We must pay attention when a young person is missing -- staying in his or her room an inordinate amount of time, missing classes or staying out of sight. The next and most important step is seeing to it that such a young person gets professional help.

And don't worry that you might be doing the wrong thing. If you are wrong, you may cause some inconvenience, but, if you are right, you may save a life.

It has been three years since my nephew took his life, and I still feel the pain. Along with his mother and father, his brother and his friends, I will grieve forever for his lost years of life.

Suicide is painful -- and it can be prevented.

Virginia Biddle, a registered nurse and M.S.N./Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, developed, along with Elaine Hrynko, R.N., a "Guide to Suicide Prevention." The two of them and Elaine Lander, R.N., conduct workshops at Penn which increase awareness about risk factors and warning signs for suicide.

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Originally published on September 3, 1998