Know suicide’s warning signs

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Ann Haas
Ann Haas

In the recent rash of well-publicized LGBT teen suicides, bullying was identified as the cause. But experts note there are a variety of issues and circumstances that can lead to depression and possibly suicidal behavior among LGBT people. Things like being outed and family issues relating to coming out, an HIV-positive diagnosis, a DWI charge, being caught cruising in a park or some other humiliating experience, losing a job or other money problems.

And while the number of suicides among young people has been in the national spotlight lately, almost twice as many suicides occur in the 45-to-54 age group, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The highest suicide rate in the country is among elderly white males.

Many who commit or attempt suicide have a psychiatric illness that can be diagnosed and treated. Often there are warning signs that family and friends can spot.
“Any child subjected to persistent bullying is at risk for depression,” said AFSP Director of Prevention Projects Ann Haas.

The signs of depression include loss of interest in usual activities and changes in weight, appetite or sleep patterns.

She said when someone is talking about suicide or suggesting a desire for death, it should be treated as an emergency situation. Young people, she said, often express that in poetry and it should be taken seriously. Other signs of a decision to commit suicide are someone getting their affairs in order, giving away possessions and saying goodbye to friends and family.

“Someone who is outgoing who begins to be withdrawn — that can be a tip off that something’s going on,” Haas said.

If a teen’s academic performance begins to slack off, that often suggests depression, she said.

Look for any marked behavioral changes that last a couple of weeks, Haas said.

“When people who are quiet become gregarious, it could be a sign of bipolar illness,” she said.

In younger people, that’s often overlooked as a good sign that someone is coming out of a shell. But if that gregariousness is accompanied by lack of sleep and excessive energy, developing into manic behavior, it is a sign of bipolar disorder, which can lead to suicide if it is left untreated.

Haas said it’s difficult talking about mental health issues in the LGBT community because for so many years gay people were branded as mentally ill.

Local professional counselor Candy Marcum of Stonewall Behavioral Health said that warning signs are not always apparent.

And while friends and family should know warning signs, she said, “If we’re assigning blame, it belongs on the person who did it.”

“Almost everyone has thought about it,” Marcum said. But not everyone looks for ways to do it.

Some save pills or get a gun. Others are on the Internet looking at sites that graphically describe ways to commit suicide.

Marcum said to look for signs of hopelessness and helplessness. Commonly heard phrases that indicate self-loathing include talk of “no way out,” “I don’t know how I’ll ever get out of this,” “I’m worthless” or “You’d be better off without me.”

She said it was better to talk to a loved one showing troubled behavior than to ignore it and hope things will get better.

“Seeing you like this worries me,” she said is a way to approach someone you are concerned about. “Go talk to someone.”

Because the depression or erratic behavior suddenly stops, don’t assume everything is suddenly OK. That person may seem calm; friends think the person is better. And then they commit suicide. “When you make the decision, you’re very calm,” Marcum said.

Offer to make an appointment for the person and go with him for a first visit. Marcum suggested speaking to the counselor on the phone ahead of time to make sure they are comfortable and experienced with LGBT-related issues.

Marcum said that counselors in the LGBT community have no agenda other than to help someone heal. She said that some people are afraid that her goal is to help someone come out.

“We just want you to be OK,” she said. “We want you to get to the end of the book. We’re curious how the story will turn out and not interested in writing anyone’s story.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 12, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens