Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on recognizing and preventing suicide.
Suicide-prevention expert Russell Crabtree made a somewhat startling revelation Tuesday during a daylong workshop on that subject in Mount Airy:
“We are in the suicide season right now,” Crabtree told an attentive audience at First Presbyterian Church, made up of local church leaders, counselors, nurses and persons who’ve dealt with suicide in their families.
A common misconception — including among Tuesday’s audience when pondering the question of frequency — is that the suicide rate spikes during the holidays, when loneliness or depression can be intensified in contrast to the festive side of the season. But the peak actually comes during April and May, Crabtree advised.
One reason is the longer days at this time of year and the irony of spring’s sense of rejuvenation also being a catalyst for individuals wanting to take their own lives.
“People get enough energy to kill themselves, but not enough to resolve their problems,” added Crabtree, who is associated with a Pennsylvania-based entity known as Soul Shop, an initiative of the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute.
Crabtree, who overcame his own suicidal leanings in the past and now leads suicide-prevention workshops around the country, did so in Mount Airy Tuesday through a four-part series being sponsored in area cities by CareNet Counseling in Winston-Salem. That organization has a branch on West Lebanon Street in Mount Airy.
Surry County had at least 20 deaths attributed to suicide in 2015, and another five had occurred so far this year as of last week, according to county Emergency Services Director John Shelton.
“Signs” were an integral part of Tuesday’s message to the local audience from Crabtree, who holds a master of divinity degree, in terms of both recognizing suicidal tendencies in a person and what happens afterward.
Many setbacks in life can trigger that behavior, based on the workshop discussion, but suicide results from one basic condition, he said: a loss of hope and social connections.
Suicide can be a by-product of divorce, a chronic illness, a person thinking he or she has become a burden to others for that or other reasons, losing one’s job, abuse, excessive debt (especially when one has a large insurance policy that could help the family out of a financial predicament) or the death of a loved one, including from suicide, which can prompt a family member to do the same.
“Gender or sexual identity issues are big,” Crabtree said of the many reasons behind suicide, which also include having a brush with the law.
“When people get arrested, (there’s) a high rate of suicide,” he said.
Another risk factor is a previous suicide attempt.
“It’s much more likely they’re going to be able to do it if they’ve done it once,” Crabtree said. “The biggest predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
Big issue for elderly
Suicidal tendencies among the elderly population often reflect a combination of factors.
Rates of suicide (calculated by the fatalities from that cause per 100,000 deaths) are highest among older persons by far, with those who are 45 to 64 years old leading the way, closely trailed by the 65-84 group.
“It’s not only illnesses, but it’s loss of roles,” Linda Gatchel, a licensed clinical social worker with Blue Ridge CareNet Counseling Center in Mount Airy, said of elder suicide during Crabtree’s presentation.
“As you lose your family and your peers around you, people wonder ‘why am I here?’”
More than 7,200 adults over age 65 die by suicide annually, but it is estimated that suicides among the elderly might be under-reported by as much as 40 percent.
Among other statistics presented Tuesday, based on 2013 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control:
• Men are nearly four times more likely to die from suicide than women, but women are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide than men.
• Fifty-six percent of male suicide victims in 2013 died from gunshot wounds, 24 percent by suffocation and 13 percent by poisoning.
• Forty percent of female victims died by poisoning, 30 percent from gunshot wounds and 21 percent by suffocation.
Suicidal people might not exhibit a logical thought pattern, which sometimes defies signs of trouble in terms of others being able to detect that tendency, Crabtree pointed out.
“To a person contemplating suicide, there’s a chain of thinking in their own head that makes sense to them.”
Crabtree also addressed the distance a prospective suicide victim can display toward others during their painful periods. “They’re not wholehearted, or cold-hearted, but broken-hearted,” he said of that behavior.
Being a ‘sign’
While suicidal folks can exhibit signs of trouble, they also might be looking for a sign of their own, according to the expert.
Crabtree said many people tend to live as if they are floating down a river, taking things as they come. “If a rock comes along,” and they maneuver around it, “that’s a sign they’re going to live.”
Those who are suicidal also can be influenced by signs, he said.
He cited a San Francisco landmark to make that point.
“More people have died at the Golden Gate Bridge, as a location, as anywhere in the U.S.,” Crabtree said. However, 5 percent of those who jump from it survive the attempt, which he said should serve as a pretty good sign to them that they are meant to live.
Such a sign also can come from someone who interacts with a potential suicide victim and possibly plays a life-saving role, Crabtree observed.
“You can be that sign,” he told the church representatives and others in Tuesday’s audience. “You can be that person who appears at the right moment and they’ll say, ‘I want to live.’”
One doesn’t need a degree in psychology or other professional credentials to keep a person from committing suicide.
“All it takes is a little love, a little skill and a network of support,” Crabtree said in summing up factors that literally can mean the difference between life and death.
“We cannot save everyone from anything, but we can save a lot.”
(The second part of the series will focus on specific ways to keep someone from attempting suicide.)
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.