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7 Myths About Suicide

The recent tragedy of Robin Williams's suicide—and the ensuing media storm—raised awareness of suicide as a mental health issue, but also generated a lot of misinformation. This week, the Savvy Psychologist cleans up after the headlines.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 29, 2014
Episode #034

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Myth #4: Individuals Who Commit Suicide Must Have Wanted to Die

Fact: Individuals who commit suicide wanted to end their pain, which is not the same thing as wanting to die. Anecdotal interviews with surviving jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge find that many changed their minds in midair. The most-quoted is a survivor named Ken Baldwin, who recalls that, at the moment he jumped from the bridge in 1985, he "instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”   

Again, if you’re someone who’s been left behind, framing it this way—wanting to end their pain—may not make things better, but may make their actions more understandable.

Myth #5: If You Try to Protect Someone by Taking Away His Method, He’ll Just Find Another Way to Kill Himself

Fact: Prevention works. Speaking of the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic orange span is the #1 suicide location in the Western hemisphere. This June, a decision was (finally!) made to build a 20-foot-wide steel net to deter jumpers, of whom there were 46 last year alone.

Doubters might say that future jumpers will just go elsewhere. Not so: a 2013 meta-analysis analyzed data from 22 previous studies to see what happens when protective structures like safety nets or fences are built on bridges, viaducts, and cliffs. The result? While there was an increase of suicides at nearby structures without nets, the overall suicide numbers dropped by almost a third.

So that’s prevention. But what about those who attempt, but are stopped? Won’t they just try again later? Surprisingly, no. A classic 1978 study tracked 515 people, from 1937 to 1971, who were saved before they jumped from—again—the Golden Gate Bridge, and found that 90% were alive, or had died from natural causes, even decades later.

And while you might not be able to build a bridge-sized net on your own, one thing you can do to prevent suicide among those you love is to keep guns out of your home. A 2004 study found that men with guns in the home are more than 10 times as likely to die from suicide than men without guns in the home. And a classic 1986 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that for every time a gun in the home kills an intruder in self-defense, 37 people with guns in the home commit suicide.

Myth #6: People Don’t Copycat--They’ll Kill Themselves Regardless of the Media 

Fact: Copycatting is a real thing. Dozens of studies have shown that pervasive coverage or reporting specific details, both of which unfortunately occurred after Robin Williams’s death, can pave the way for copycats. Knowing exactly how the hanging was set up, the dosage of medication used, or the brand of razor drops a ready-made plan in the lap of someone on the edge. Responsible journalists should tell the story without the explicit details.

However, speaking personally, I do think it’s important to report a death as a suicide—as opposed to concealing the cause—so clusters can be identified and stopped. For example, over a six-month period in 2009, four separate teenagers from a high school in my community killed themselves in the same way. If these deaths had been deemed accidental, it still would have been tragic, but a pattern wouldn’t have been identified--and the need for community education and prevention measures would have been missed.

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