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I was once asked to participate in investigating the suicide of an old man (in his eighties), in the terminal stages of cancer, who took the tubes and needles out of himself, somehow got the bedrail down, summoned the strength to lift the heavy window in his hospital room, and threw himself out the window to his death. I puzzled over him (as I do over all suicides). What was his great hurry? If he had done nothing, he would have been dead in a few days. He was a veteran of World War II and there was a full record on him. The relatively few "social" (occupational, marital, educational, military) facts were especially illuminating. This was a man married several times. sparsely educated, a rather itinerant fellow who was never fired by a boss or divorced by a spouse. Rather, it was he who quit the job before he was fired. His wives did not walk out on him; he left them. Before a possible court martial, he got himself transferred. His life seemed like a series of precipitous departures. Death by cancer was not going to get him; he would die in his own way, when he decided. In 20/20 retrospect, his suicide seemed totally predictable from an extrapolation of his character.
To repeat: People are very consistent with themselves. But I hasten to add that no possible future suicide is set in stone, and the capacity for change is our great hallmark as human beings. It is probably next to impossible to behave "out of character," but what is possible, and happens all the time, is for changes in character-growth and maturity-to occur, and for transiently overwhelming psychache to be resisted and survived.
Some of our most beloved novels weave suicide into their plots. I am thinking of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, Lagerqvist's The Dwarf, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, to name a handful. What is interesting about them (aside from their gorgeous writing) is the consistency of the chief characters, and our acceptance of their deaths as almost-fitting endings to their lives. The suicidal outcome is not a De Maupassant-like surprise, but rather an understandable outcome within the confines of that character, a lamentable but psychological "necessity," given the unhappy circumstances and unhappy deficiencies of that person. Can anybody commit suicide? Not likely. But if you are an Anna or an Emma or an Edna, then you must be very careful how you turn life's pages and into what corners you paint yourself.
There are also certain questions we might pose to help get a person out of a constricted suicidal state: Where do you hurt? What is going on? What is it that you feel you have to solve or get out of? Do you have any formed plans to do anything harmful to yourself, and what might those plans be? What would it take to keep you alive? Have you ever before been in a situation in any way similar to this, and what did you do and how was it resolved?
You should be thinking how to help
the suicidal person generate alternatives to suicide, first by rethinking (and
restating) the problem, and then by looking at possible other courses of action.
New conceptualizations may not totally solve the problem the way it was formulated,
but they can offer a solution the person can live with. And that is the primary
goal of working with a suicidal person.
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