key to preventing suicide
By Kirk Noonan (May
In 1990, high school
senior Eric Renegar drove to his father’s grave and attempted
to end his life by shooting himself in the face with a .30-caliber
rifle. He severely wounded himself, but did not die. Today,
Renegar uses the scars on his face to combat suicide and educate
society about the problem that in 1999 the U.S. Surgeon Generaldeclared
a national epidemic. In doing so, Renegar has made it his mission
to change the way many people think of suicide and help people
better understand those who are suicidal.
“We have to
create a society that is not immune to the word suicide,”
says Renegar, 30, executive director of AboutFace Assemblies,
an educational assistance program based in Tennessee that helps
educators and caregivers address issues such as suicide. “The
society I am talking about needs to be confident and open to
the word so it can be addressed and people will be prepared
and trained to deal with the issue when it is recognized.”
Toward that end,
Renegar preaches suicide education, awareness and intervention.
He believes those three concepts will stem the tide of suicide,
which claims more than 80,000 lives in America each year.
According to Renegar,
when the public is educated about suicide, caregivers such as
parents, teachers, church youth leaders, coaches and police
officers will know how to intervene when the topic is broached
through verbal and non-verbal signs by teens and other young
people. Making the public aware of suicide, he says, can help
erase the stigma and myths associated with it and at the same
time expose the truth and reveal options.
Each year nearly
5,000 people between the ages of 15-24 commit suicide. That’s
approximately 14 suicides in this age group every day. According
to government statistics, more people between the ages of 13
and 24 will die this year from suicide than from cancer, heart
disease, AIDS, birth defects, strokes, pneumonia, influenza
and chronic lung disease combined. Each year more than 500,000
young people attempt suicide. For many the problem can be traced
back to depression.
Ted* tried to commit
suicide after a family member had him taken to a hospital for
evaluation and treatment. Being at the hospital, he says, saved
I felt hopeless, lonely and I couldn’t stand other people’s
company,” says Ted, now 50, noting that today he is not
suicidal because of medication and counseling he receives. “I
thought death would be better than living.”
Today, Ted tells
others who are struggling with depression that it is involuntary
and not something they brought on themselves. “God could
heal me miraculously,” he says, “but He chose to
bring my healing through my doctors and medicine and that is
OK with me.”
Though much depression
is an involuntary and treatable illness, experts say that many
who have it do not seek professional help because of the stigma
that accompanies it. Others do not seek help because they believe
they can overcome it through sheer willpower. Education and
awareness are crucial.
most people who suffer from depression do not seek treatment,”
says Kathryn Wurtz, a psychologist and director of the child
and adolescent department at EMERGE Ministries in Akron, Ohio.
“One source reports that only 15 percent of adolescent
suicide victims were in treatment at the time of their death.
“It is vitally
important for people to realize that depression and other mental
illness are real medical diseases that require professional
attention,” she says. “Often medication is needed
as well as counseling.”
According to the
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, signs
that a young person might be suicidal include withdrawal from
family and friends, rebellious behavior, drug and alcohol use,
marked personality change, poor grades, loss of interest in
pleasurable activities, themes of death in writings or artwork,
the giving away of prized possessions, talk of death and complaints
of physical symptoms. Couple those signs with depression, a
history of previous suicide attempts, access to firearms, alcohol
or drugs, and the results could be deadly.
The National Mental
Health Association recommends talking with suicidal people as
a primary means of averting a suicide attempt. When dealing
with a young person who is contemplating suicide, the following
points are important:
• Offer help
and listen. Don’t lecture. Encourage the teen to talk
• Trust your
instincts. If it seems the situation is serious, break a confidence
if it is necessary to save a life.
• Pay attention
when someone talks about suicide. Ask direct questions and don’t
be afraid of frank discussions.
• Seek professional
help. It is essential to seek advice from a professional who
has experience helping depressed teens.
Pastors and Christian
counselors also emphasize the importance of remembering friends
and family members in prayer and passing along Scriptures of
encouragement when a person appears to be battling depression
and having thoughts of suicide.
Ruth Kaunley, a counselor
at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., says many people
choose to be ill-informed when it comes to the topic of suicide
because they think they will do more harm than good by addressing
the topic with a suicidal person.
“Just the opposite
is true,” she says. “Most people give hints hoping
that someone will give them a reason to live. The more it is
talked about the better chance a suicidal person has of living
rather than dying.”
Renegar says the
most effective way to determine if someone is suicidal is to
simply ask them if they are having thoughts of suicide and then
ask more specific questions about their plans for suicide if
they admit to such feelings. “You have to be clear and
direct,” he says. “Answers to questions such as
how, when and where they will commit suicide will expose their
intent. If they can answer those questions it shows they have
actually thought enough about suicide that they are at a greater
risk and may need professional assistance.”
These days Renegar
can be found working as a youth counselor, speaking at his suicide
prevention assemblies (www.aboutfaceassemblies.com) or helping
his wife, Robin, raise their 4-year-old son, Lewis. Renegar
says he tells people the truth when he is asked about his scars.
“At one time
in my life I wanted to die, and now I am so happy that I am
alive,” he says. “I was fortunate that I lived.
The fact about people who attempt suicide is some live and some
die. I almost died, but I am so happy I lived.”
*Name has been changed.