No easy way to spot suicide warning signs


THAT'S MEN:Learning how to deal with distress is crucial, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

WE HAVE all been puzzled, and some of us tormented, by the suicides of people who had shown no sign that they were about to take their own lives.

Families, health professionals, colleagues and others have felt guilty because they did not see the warning signs.

It is possible, however, that in a great many cases nobody picked up the warning signs because the person who died by suicide had no intention of taking his or her own life until a very, very short time before the event itself.

This possibility is based on research by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.

They conducted their study among 15-34 year olds who had made what they classified as nearly lethal suicide attempts. What I found astonishing was that almost a quarter of those who made nearly lethal attempts said they decided to kill themselves less than five minutes before the attempt. More than two-thirds made the decision an hour or less before the attempt. Only one in eight, 13 per cent, had made the decision a day or more beforehand.

What this seems to mean is that many people attempt suicide in response to a temporary crisis. Indeed, another US study of completed suicides found that one-third of people under 17 who killed themselves had experienced an argument or a bad exam grade on the day of their death.

And studies of people who almost died in suicide attempts have found that decades later 90 per cent were still alive.

This seems to mean that the impulse to take one’s own life can sometimes be very short term and will not be repeated if the person is prevented from carrying out the act.

Bear in mind, though, that because these suicides are not preceded by long-term depression, those around them will simply not have known what was about to happen because, often, the person carrying out the act did not know, until less than an hour earlier, what was about to happen.

I mentioned guns. In the US the suicide rate in those states that have a high percentage of gun ownership is double that in those which have a relatively low percentage of households with guns.

As a summary from the Harvard Injury Control Research Centre puts it, “Imagine a 16-year-old boy who storms out of the living room after a furious argument with his mother. If he reaches into the hall closet, takes out a loaded gun, and pulls a trigger, a life is lost. But if there is no gun, in the 15 minutes it takes to burst enough pills from their blister packs and start feeling their effect, he may change his mind . . . ”

We don’t have that ready availability of guns in Ireland, but the fact remains that this research suggests the decision to die can be sudden and perhaps taken without the full appreciation that this act is, actually, permanent.

I wonder, therefore, if people who take their own lives by driving their cars into walls very late at night (and I am not suggesting that most single driver deaths are suicides) have literally made the decision minutes or seconds before carrying out the act?

I suggest that we need to give young people – and especially young men – an emotional education in how to handle distress. I say “especially young men” because men are more likely than women to use lethal methods.

What this also suggests to me is that it isn’t enough to say, “Talk to someone about your problems”, because the interval between decision and act can be so short there is no space for talking. What may be more important is to ensure that young people get an education in dealing with distress in non-lethal ways.

The ways and means of providing such an education should be considered seriously. It is a matter of life and death.

See you want to know more about the research.

Padraig O’Morain ( is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is free by email.