Recognizing suicide warning signs
Suicide first became a major concern for Rev. Chuck Tews nearly 20 years ago.
“There were a rash of suicides in our area,” Tews recalled.
As senior pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Waupaca, Tews was counseling families after loved ones had killed themselves.
“I was helping people realize that after the pain, there’s life, that there’s love of God and that healing can take place,” Tews said. “What I was really trying to do was to be there, to listen. People in grief need to vent their anger, their anger at God and their anger at themselves because of guilt.”
Tews is a founding member of Waupaca County’s Suicide Prevention Coalition.
He is working with others throughout the county to provide counseling to the survivors suicide victims leave behind. He is also working to help families recognize the warning signs of suicide.
“Trying to start the process of healing is difficult,” Tews said. “Prevention is the place to start.”
A 58-year-old Amherst man spoke to the County Post about his own attempted suicide after reading the first article in this series.
To protect his identity, the Post is not disclosing his name.
Approximately 15 years ago, the man attached a dryer hose to the exhaust pipe of his vehicle, placed the hose through the rear hatch and sealed the hatch with duct tape.
“I always heard that carbon monoxide is painless, but I remember saying to myself, ‘This hurts,'” the man said.
He vaguely remembers driving to the home of his ex-wife.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital in Appleton,” he said.
After being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, he was transferred to the mental ward of another hospital for three weeks.
Prior to his attempted suicide, the man said he experienced a constant stream of negative feelings and felt his life was hopeless.
Raised as a foster child, the man felt alienated from his family. His son was chronically ill and in the hospital. He and his wife divorced. He lost his job.
He recalls moving into an isolated cabin, drawing the shades and withdrawing from other people.
“People don’t understand what it’s like to wish for death, to experience the same darkness in the middle of the day that you do in the middle of the night,” he said.
He noted he had been in counseling prior to his attempted suicide but feels the time spent did little to help.
“You don’t really accomplish anything with a person who’s that far gone in an hour once per week,” the man said.
He said prior to his attempted suicide he lost weight, lost sleep and lost control of his emotions.
“My emotions were like a huge beach ball rolled up in my stomach,” he said. “I was screaming for help until I was hoarse, but nobody was listening.”
When asked how families should respond if they suspect someone may attempt suicide, the man said, “Get them to a hospital.”
Asking the question
Sue Woodliff, a nurse with the Waupaca School District and a member of the Suicide Prevention Coalition, said families and friends should recognize the warning signs of suicide.
She said one warning sign is when they start giving away things that have personal value to them.
“They are putting their affairs in order,” she said.
“They will also stop taking delight in the things that they used to love,” said Linda Behm, the county’s public health nurse manager.
“Look at people’s affect. Do they always seem sad? Are they talking about how there’s no hope in their life?” Woodliff said.
People who are considering suicide often take steps toward the goal of killing themselves by stockpiling medications, in order to overdose, or purchasing a gun.
If a friend or family member seems to be contemplating suicide, Tews says the best response is to ask them directly, “Are you thinking about taking your life?”
Question, Persuade, Respond is a method health care professionals, ministers and counselors use to help an individual prevent suicide. The same techniques can be used by those who want to save a loved one’s life.
“Sit down and question them,” Tews said.
To encourage someone to speak honestly about their suicidal feelings, the friend or relative needs to listen, rather than give advice. Good listening skills require giving the person one’s full attention, not interrupting them and not rushing to judgment or condemnation.
Before a person can be persuaded to seek help, they need to admit openly to someone they trust that they are considering suicide.
“Don’t promise that you won’t tell anyone,” Behm said, noting the goal is to persuade the potential suicide victim to seek help.
“Get them to talk to a counselor or their pastor. If you think suicide is imminent, call 911,” Tews said.
“You need to stay with them until they have obtained the help they need,” Woodliff said.
If suicide is not imminent but the person needs counseling, Behm recommended calling the crisis hotline at 800-719-4418 or the suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255 for help.
This is the second in a series on suicide.