Sunday, July 7, 2013

“It’s a tragedy. There’s nothing anyone could have done.”

“It’s a tragedy,” said the veteran therapist at our HMO, shaking her head. “This is the age when mental illness appears, especially in young men. There’s nothing anyone could have done.”

I am outraged at this attitude. Here is a public health problem no one wants to talk about. Are we to simply shrug our shoulders and accept as inevitable that thousands of young people will take their lives every year in the U.S.? What, then, is the point of the mental health professions, the value of their treatments? What is the meaning of suicide prevention or intervention?

I’m sure it is tough for professionals when their patients die by suicide. They, too, must feel some form of the guilt and remorse that they tell us not to feel; they, too, must feel helpless. But the tragedy is not just that young people decide to end their lives. The tragedy is that researchers’ understanding of this phenomenon is so limited, the science of psychiatry still so primitive,  services and treatments so inadequate to the task. The tragedy is that some mental health professionals seem to have given up on young people in crisis because they are hard to reach and professionals have a poor track record of helping them. 

I have much to learn about suicidology, mental illness, and programs that have been tried with troubled youth. But I assume there are many points along a young person’s path to taking their life when someone—or more likely, many someones--could have done something. After all, when we look back in hindsight, we can see all kinds of signs and turning points; there is no one “if only,” just as there is no simple explanation of “why.” There are too many opportunities missed for intervention, too many chances of falling through the cracks when the stakes are so high. 

Maybe it can’t be helped that many young people will hide the extent of their problems, refuse treatment, and resist the authority of doctors or parents, given that they are desperately trying to be independent. But it must be helped when laws persist in treating 18-year-olds as adults in spite of mounting evidence of the brain’s immaturity until well into the 20s. And it must be helped when mental health professionals believe there is nothing they can do to stop the scourge of youth suicide.

This is the big picture I hope to look into down the road, once I am able to take in things larger than my own family’s suffering. I’d like to hear from anyone who knows about youth suicide prevention/intervention policies and programs that seem promising.


  1. Dear Susan, Reading this again many months later, I know you have learned of models for intervention (your resources list is a gift to anyone on this path or walking beside someone on this path). I'm wondering what you now know and feel about the state of suicide prevention. What could we be doing?

  2. I know this post is years old, but I want to add my experience with getting my son help. Eight days before my son shot himself, he was on a 48 hour hold at a hospital because he had tried to kill himself and was found before it was too late. My son did not want help and even though his dad and I told the doctor his history and that he was a danger to himself and others, the doctor discharged him. She did not care. She actually said that he would have to be saying he would kill himself as soon as he left to be held against his will. He was dead eight days later. It is not right that a concerned family have someone held when it is obvious they are not thinking clearly. I'd love to see these laws change.