By Skip Simpson

More people need to understand that conquering our fear of mental illness can save lives. The word "suicide" conjures up feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, not just in those caught in its grasp, but also those who are haunted by its aftermath. The prevailing wisdom has been that there is nothing we can do when someone tries to take their life. The truth is there is a lot we can do. We can conquer our prejudice and our fear by discussing the problem openly and educating ourselves about the facts.

For instance, when asked who is most likely to kill themselves, many people would guess wrong. Teen suicide is the third major cause of death among people aged 15-19. But surprisingly, teenagers are not the largest group at risk. Most people are shocked to learn that older men - especially those with chronic health problems - are the most likely to end their lives. While men over 50 make up just 10% of the population, they account for one-third of all suicides. Alcoholism is also a factor. Practically one in five alcoholics commits suicide.

Facts such as these show us that sometimes those most at risk are right in front of us. Three out of four suicides give some warning to a friend or family member. If someone shows at least five of the following symptoms on a daily basis, it's time to get involved:

  • depressed mood
  • change in appetite or weight
  • change in sleeping patterns
  • speaking and/or moving with unusual speed or slowness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
  • decrease in sexual drive
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach or guilt
  • diminished ability to think or concentrate, slowed thinking or indecisiveness
  • thoughts of death, suicide, or wishes to be dead

Encourage them to see a doctor or mental health professional immediately. Stay in touch during and after their treatment. Encourage them to continue seeking help, and take their medication. Be alert to possible side effects.

The medical community must also be open to change. New research is on suicide and depression comes out daily. Psychiatrists and therapists should challenge themselves to keep up with the latest developments.

Many primary care physicians have no idea they play a critical role. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is encouraging them to become as skilled at recognizing the signs of depression as they are at recognizing physical illness, and for a critical reason: many suicidal people visit their doctors within weeks of their death, and use prescription pills to kill themselves.

We all must realize that our own attitudes can be dangerous. We know it's incorrect to speak badly about someone with cancer or AIDS, yet a lack of compassion toward the mentally ill is commonplace. It's so easy to typify them as "crazy," "weird," "moody" or "dramatic."

Many family members are mistake the signs of depression as a natural part of growing old. They wouldn't deny a beloved parent hearing aids, glasses or heart medicine, but the thought of having them checked or treated for depression terrifies them.

Some people fear getting help for mentally ill friends or relatives, because then everyone "will know" they are sick. Chances are people "know" already, and getting adequate treatment will actually allow the family more privacy.

Few things are more draining than the emotional dance of death that swirls around someone who wants to end their own life. The dark tide sweeps them up, and threatens to carry their loves ones along too. But many survivors have found hope, and are dedicated to helping others live better lives. If we educate our neighbors and ourselves, we can help them put their pain in the past.