Suicide rates increasing - Church members not immune

There are slightly more than 30,000 suicides each year in the United States, the eighth leading cause of death, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Spring and Mondays consistently rank highest in the number of suicides. Two of the strongest indicators to predict suicide are feelings of hopelessness and being socially isolated.

The LDS Church's booklet, "Identification and Prevention of Suicide," notes that each year, a certain number of Church members take their own lives."Many of these deaths could be prevented by a better understanding of the problems of suicide," according to the booklet. "Church leaders can learn to be sensitive to suicidal clues, and once these clues are recognized, can take preventive action.

See related subject in "Mormon Forum" on page 15

"Church leaders should know the basic principles of the gospel and should apply them to help people in trouble."

Larry D. Crenshaw, manager of administration and special services at LDS Social Services, told the Church News while "living the gospel can help prevent certain problems, Church members are not immune to living in the world, and feeling the pressures of the world. However, when problems do occur, the gospel provides a blueprint for recovering from life's difficulties."

According to a pamphlet, "Teen Suicide - Let's Talk About the Facts," published by the American Psychiatry Association, suicide continues to increase each year. "It is the third leading cause of death among teenagers and the second leading cause among college students. . . .

"Depression, both biological and situational, is at the root of the problem. While treatable, people may fail to recognize the symptoms of depression in themselves and others."

Statistics show that in Utah in 1991, the last year that figures are available, there were 286 suicides. While Utah's rate of suicide is higher than the U. S. average, it is the second lowest among the Mountain States. The Utah rate is 16.2 per 10,000 population.

In a recent Utah Governor's Conference on Families in Salt Lake City, a workshop was given on prevention of suicide among teenagers. Much of what was said is applicable to adults as well. At the multi-denominational gathering, a workshop was presented by Dr. John Malouf, assistant unit manager and coordinator of Children's Services at Valley Mental Health and adjunct professor at University of Utah, and the Rev. David J. Butler, minister of the Jordan United Methodist Church, who has presented workshops on a national basis on suicide and self-abuse.

Following are some of their observations, as well as information provided by LDS Social Services:

There are so many types of behaviors in adolescence that the term "suicidal" means almost nothing. Regardless of this, it is important for others to take all suicide threats seriously.

It is important that lay people, including Church leaders, do not assume the role of therapist. However, leaders, family members and friends can provide important, essential support. Often, they are the ones who deal with the situation on a first-hand basis and are in a position to recognize danger signals.

If a person threatens suicide, find out more about the situation. If the person has harmed himself or taken pills, immediately call for emergency paramedics. If a person is near that stage, call for a professional to intervene. A therapist will seek to learn if any specific plans have been made, and how lethal those plans might be. A therapist will also want to know if the person is being impulsive, or whether thoughts of suicide and depression have become a continuing pattern of behavior. (See article "How to get help.")

One way to significantly reduce the chance of impulsive suicide is to take all the guns and other lethal instruments out of the house. And family members need to know that some prescribed anti-depressants can be extremely lethal.

In a crisis situation, one of the most effective tools for a lay person is bargaining for time. Bargain with the person to delay his or her intent for a period of time. Set an appointment to meet again at the end of that time. This helps anchor the person to reality. It also allows time for a therapist to help.

People who are very depressed live in a dark world that follows a spiral downward. They see few options. Friends and spiritual leaders may not be able to break this spiral without professional help. However, they can contribute a great deal through caring and talking.

The way Church leaders or family members react to a threat can add to or decrease the problem. To be effective, reactions should be low key. On one hand, the feelings of the person are very real and should be acknowledged and validated. But suicide is not the way to deal with those feelings. Certain people will threaten suicide for attention, and often will escalate their threats to continue receiving attention. These people typically "wear out" their friends, may be neglected between threats and, at such times, carry out a threat.

A religious setting can provide both special challenges and supports. Religious leaders may see clues others may not see. It is also important for leaders to spend as much time with the troubled youth as with other youth. It is possible that the youth most at risk are those with no one to talk to. Be aware that a religious setting can enhance feelings of guilt. Avoid giving pat answers in these situations. Pat answers can increase the feelings of depression.

According Dr. Malouf, the Rev. Butler and other therapists, the most at-risk teenagers are:

Those who live in a family where a family member or someone very close to the family has already died, especially by suicide.

Males, who are generally more at-risk than females. Females attempt dramatically more often but almost four times as many males die from suicide as females.

Those who have gender identity problems and have had a personal crisis. The largest single group of teen suicides, about one-third of the total, are from this group.

Families with a history of prevalent mental illness.

Youth who frequently get into trouble for doing things impulsively.

People who are involved with substance abuse. Often, substance abuse will lower natural inhibitions.

Those who feel hopelessness on a continuing basis.

Those who feel a sense of ever-narrowing isolation from other people.

The "perfect" child with extraordinarily high expectations in a rigid environment: when expectations are not met or when this child has some failure.

"Most people who commit suicide have given verbal warnings by such comments as "People would be better off without me," "I don't want to be a burden," I'm going to end it all," or "I can't stand it any longer," according to the Church's booklet on suicide.

A person who is seriously thinking of suicide is undergoing a crisis in which he is not his normal self. This crisis is frequently accompanied by insomnia, poor appetite, and weight loss.

Times of particular importance are the periods from three to six months after a death, divorce, or other significant loss in a person's life. Many suicides occur during the time of apparent improvement after a loss, when the individual has overcome the initial shock and has sufficient energy and emotional control to put his thoughts of suicide into action.

Stress from the loss of work, income or financial resources and the resulting loss of self-esteem can also be serious factors leading to suicide.

Planning for death or absence, through such acts as making a will, discussing insurance policies, putting one's affairs in final order, and similar activities should be considered a danger signal when done in conjunction with other symptoms and clues.

If a spouse, parents, relatives and friends are concerned and willing to listen and help, and if the family has a history of solidarity, the chances of averting self-destructive behavior are greater. However, even when families provide much loving care and support, the suicidally depressed individual may not perceive such support as caring.

A person who has made previous suicide attempts, whether genuine or repeated manipulative attempts, should be considered a high suicide risk.


Where to get help

Most telephone directories have multiple sources of help for suicide prevention. These include:

The Community Services pages under `Suicide prevention," teen hotlines, crises lines.

County mental health agencies.

Hospital emergency rooms.

Social services and mental health organizations listed in the Yellow pages.

LDS Social Services.

Police departments.

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