The grisly headlines greet us daily: "Superstar Overdoses," "Executive Blows Brains Out," "Jilted Lover Leaps from Fifteenth Floor." Every year millions of people around the world decide life is no longer worth living and act accordingly. But suicide one of the world's biggest health hazards can be prevented. If each of us were more aware of certain deadly danger signals in ourselves and others, many if not most suicide attempts would never take place. Following are some questions about suicide that you may not have wanted to ask. They are questions about a subject which makes a lot of people queasy or embarrassed, but the answers are important they could mean the difference between life and death for you or someone you know and love. Why do people commit suicide? Nobody in his right mind really wants to die, but many of us would desperately like to change the way we live. As long as we believe such change is possible, we can usually endure whatever curves life throws us. Most suicidal people, on the other hand, have come to the point where they believe nothing will ever improve. They have developed a feeling of hopelessness a belief that they aren't able to control their lives or their environments in order to improve their painful lot in life. In fact, one study of suicide attempters revealed that fully 96 percent felt their problems were incapable of being resolved. Does depression cause suicide? Deep depression does precede nearly all suicide attempts. But many who suffer from depression never commit suicide. As stated above, a feeling of hopelessness is the missing link between depression and suicide. This feeling is also a common denominator in other self-destructive activities like alcoholism, drug addiction, and reckless or accident-prone behavior. Experiments with rats have demonstrated that those animals conditioned to believe struggle against pain (a repeated electric shock) is futile won't swim when placed in a container of water. They, like some people, have been taught to give up on life to lose all hope of controlling their environment. Rats are not people, and this is not exactly suicide, but it illustrates the point. What causes hopelessness? Just like the rats mentioned above, people can refuse to rise to life's challenges because they've been taught to believe their efforts will be futile. This can happen several ways. As children, maybe they suffered from a handicap which undermined all their efforts to cope. Maybe as adults they had a run of "bad luck" and it caused them to give up the struggle. Or perhaps they consciously or unconsciously believe in fate or predestination. People also feel a sense of hopelessness due to a lack of strong faith or belief in any absolute answers to life's quandaries. Today sometimes even those who profess a certain amount of religious faith are profoundly influenced by the atmosphere of unbelief that pervades most of our society. Once a person tacitly accepts an antisupernaturalistic philosophy and doubts a higher purpose, all he has left are secondary goals such as work and pleasure. And once those goals. are seriously thwarted, he has no compelling reason to hang on. But there is great meaning and purpose in what we go through day by day, and it is all part of a plan mapped out by a great Personality who set the universe in motion and placed us in this imperfect environment in order to help us learn some otherwise unlearnable lessons. For more on this subject, read our free booklets Does God Exist? and Why Were You Born? Does belief in an afterlife encourage suicide? It's true that some Moslems would like to die fighting a holy war so their place in paradise will be secure, and mystics of one stripe or another might waste away in search of Nirvana. The Japanese culture especially has accepted suicide and ritualized it to a high degree. But in most cases a strong religious belief has just the opposite effect. In Western societies the religiously based social and legal sanctions against suicide have provided a powerful suppressing effect. And Western religion has traditionally put a high premium on the value of the present life in preparing for the hereafter. But more importantly, belief in an afterlife provides hope, and hope powerfully counteracts the urge to self-destruct. Is suicide ever morally justifiable? The Bible chronicles only seven suicides, without making any accompanying statement regarding the morality of such acts. God even directly intervened to give Samson the strength to kill over 3,000 Philistines and himself, too when he pushed down the supporting pillars of a public building. But this is a unique incident in the biblical account. It followed a long problem-filled history of Samson's relationship with the Philistines and their women which led to his capture, incarceration and brutally inflicted blindness (see the entire account in Judges, chapters 13 through 16). Also, Samson's action could be viewed as an act of heroic sacrifice rather than suicide. It is significant that most suicides recorded in the Bible were carried out by spiritually bankrupt individuals like Saul and Judas. And the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt do no murder," certainly covers self-murder in principle. God gives human life, and most of us would agree it is His and His alone to take away. Is suicide an unforgiveable sin? Scripturally, an "unpardonable" or "unforgiveable" sin can be any sin that one adamantly refuses to repent of. But even though a person who kills himself has no time to repent in this life, he may be given that opportunity at a later date. For further information on this subject, read our free reprint article "Is This the Only Day of Salvation?" Also read our free booklet What Do You Mean - The Unpardonable Sin? Who Is most likely to commit suicide? Suicide strikes without prejudice, and no age group or level of society is exempt from the problem. However, certain groups are particularly susceptible. College students, for example, are a high-risk group. Under pressure to excel in the number-in-a-computer atmosphere prevalent on many large campuses, those who fall short in a tough system may develop a sense of hopelessness about life itself. Many colleges and universities, realizing the need in. this area, have set up crisis counseling to help avert such tragedies. Old people are another vulnerable group. Weary of living in constant ill-health and struggling to survive on grossly inadequate incomes, some find suicide "the easy way out." And some healthy but neglected elderly persons, lacking love and meaningful activity, opt for death rather than an empty existence. But this is a tragic and unnecessary situation. In societies where the aged are respected and looked up to where they have an active role in society suicide among them is rare. But in many Western nations where people are usually mandatorily retired at age 65, turned out to pasture with perhaps not even a decent hobby to occupy them (and family and friends either long gone or far away), they may not have much incentive to hang on. Old men in particular are statistically likely to be victims of this lonely kind of suicide. For a more detailed breakdown of suicide statistics, see the box on the next page. Why the sudden increase in youthful suicide in the past decade? Suicide expert Calvin J. Frederick believes "the most important reason... is the tendency among young people these days to 'do their own thing,' to cut themselves off from their parents and society. While this exhibits a certain amount of healthy... independence, it calls for more strength and wisdom than most young persons possess." He goes on to say that "once they cut loose, they suddenly find themselves completely alone, unable to manage their newfound freedom because they have no sense of structure or belonging. They become frustrated, tense, lonely, and anxious. They decide they can't cope, and their solution is suicide. The old stability and structure of the family unit is missing, with nothing to take its place" ("Suicide How To Keep Patients from Killing Themselves," Medical World News, July 12, 1976). Sam Heilig, psychiatric social worker and executive director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, agrees: "The divorce rate is skyrocketing, libertarianism reigns and kids no longer place any faith in the family unit. They think it's safer to live alone. But, only a family relationship complete with marriage and kids can provide people with the constant support they need, a sense of belonging.... But kids nowadays are just wandering around, aimlessly hunting for a replacement that's just not there" (Bella Stumbo, "The Lonely Young Their Isolation Can. Be Deadly," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1975). Dr. Herbert Hendin, associate clinical psychiatrist at New York City's Columbia University and author of The Age of Sensation (a summary of his six-year study of student suicide), believes that another factor in youthful suicide is that in today's troubled homes many children have learned to numb themselves to life to "grow up dead," as he puts it. Suicide is this same defense mechanism carried to its extreme. The need for stable family life is further underlined by this statement from sociologist Jeanne Binstock: "Danger once came from inadequate food supplies, disease and premature death. Today, danger comes primarily from within ourselves and from our relationships with other people. What we now must fear above all else is our exclusion from a network of human relationships that are now voluntary" ("Choosing to Die; The Decline of Aggression and the Rise of Suicide," The Futurist, April 1974, p. 69). In high-technology societies like ours, people are forsaking their former network of kinship and community for the "freedom to give up wives, husbands or other personal relationships when internal needs are no longer satisfied" (ibid.). The results are plain. It is obvious from these and other findings that one of the best ways to prevent suicide in both young and old is to maintain strong family. ties. In cases where this is not possible, some sort of surrogate family composed of carefully chosen friends can substitute, although usually not as effectively. Even a deep friendship with one other human being, however, can sometimes make the difference between hope and despair. Are people who continually threaten to kill themselves usually bluffing? No, this is a myth. Most people who attempt suicide (some studies indicate at least 80 percent) either blatantly or subtly indicate their plans well in advance. A caring friend or relative who picks up these signals may make a life-and-death difference. How can I tell if someone is suicidal? There are many clues. Although each person's modus operandi differs, here are some common signals: Neglect of work or class work Neglect of personal appearance Giving away of treasured possessions Premature settling of affairs (making out wills, updating life insurance policies, etc.) Loss of appetite may be accompanied by marked weight loss Difficulty in concentration Withdrawal from society Psychosomatic complaints Insomnia Other symptoms are repressed anger, sexual anxiety, low self-image or putting down of self in front of others, irritability, temper outbursts, hostility, hallucinations, hypersensitivity, and despondency (Life and Health magazine, June 1975). Suicidal tendencies among children are somewhat harder to detect. Depression is a possible sign and may manifest itself as hyperactivity, a failure to make friends, poor school performance or hypochondria, according to Dr. Peter Salzman, director of McLean Hospital's Children's Center in Belmont, Massachusetts (AP, Dec. II, 1976). Salzman adds that "among 10- and 11-year-olds it might show up as delinquency, vandalism, and fighting." Of course, not everybody who shows one or more of the above symptoms is ready to jump off the nearest bridge. It's hard to determine what's going on inside someone's head from viewing his outward appearance. A person may be under severe stress and still not feel hopeless about his plight. If you offer a friendly ear, though, you'll probably be able to get a feel for how serious things are and you can proceed accordingly. What can I do to help someone who is obviously suicidal? Most who attempt suicide are lonely, and what they need is not necessarily professional attention just a patient, sympathetic individual who will listen to their problems nonjudgmentally. They don't want advice or solutions at this point in their lives just a friendly ear. From this standpoint many people are ill-equipped to deal with suicide threats. When someone indicates they don't feel like living anymore, there is a tendency to dismiss their feelings and sweep such a threatening problem under the rug. Even some psychiatrists may be uncomfortable dealing with suicidal individuals. Donald Light, speaking to the American Psychiatric Association, said he believes that in many cases because a psychiatrist "doesn't understand how to deal with such a patient, he is uncomfortable with him and may unconsciously reject him." And he adds that "rejection is a trigger for suicide" (UPI, May II, 1974). Dr. Norman L. Farberow, co-director of the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, warns that "if the suicide threat is greeted by contempt or derision, the suicidal tendency increases not the other way around" ("Heed Warning Signs, Prevention Expert Says," Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, November 23, 1975). Clinical psychologist Paul Pretzel writes: "People are not driven to suicide by a caring inquiry as to whether or not they are suicidal. They may well be driven to suicide by an avoidance of the topic on the part of the listener, from whom they are wanting a concerned response" (James Castelli, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die," U.S. Catholic, January 1976, p. 36). So, to summarize: Suicide is preventable. There are many ways to help people fill their unmet needs for love and meaningful activity long before hopelessness sets in. One of the best of these is to maintain strong family ties. Our isolated young people in their subcultures and old people in their retirement ghettos need to be reinstated into the mainstream of family life. These two groups, and everybody in between, need the love and support that usually only a family can provide. And in lieu of an actual family, people who know they need others should seek out and develop at least one special friend they can confide in when the going is rough. On top of this, if each of us stays really aware of those around us alert for signs of emotional need, and ready to listen patiently when those needs are present it will go a long way toward fighting the individual hopelessness that leads to self-destruction. If you believe someone you know is suicidal, don't wait. Lend them a sympathetic ear and let them talk out their difficulties. Often just talking about one's problems can help put things in perspective. Solutions, become obvious without the need for a lot of advice-giving or preachments. If there is no way you can reach such an individual, though, don't ignore the problem. Contact your local suicide prevention organization, a doctor, a minister, or the police immediately. Suicide can be prevented if enough of us care.