Pull loved ones back from the edge: Signs to look for and steps to take
The suicide death of actor and comedian Robin Williams on Aug. 11 rocked most everyone's world, even though the multitude knew him only as an entertainer on the screen.
What this tragedy has done is bring the topic of suicide and America's problem with depression back to the forefront of discussions.
Prescott resident John Schuderer knows the heartbreak of suicide. His son, Noel, took his life on May 3, 2001, when they were living in Phoenix. He was 27 years old.
Schuderer himself is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed substance abuse counselor, but because Noel had been overseas for most of the two years before his death, his father was unable to the signs that Noel was contemplating suicide.
"Sometimes I just have a good cry," Schuderer said of his loss. "Noel's death created a tremendous hole in my life." He remembers the anger, the grief, the depression and the confusion that overwhelmed him.
Noel grew up in Phoenix and was an "I want to see the world" type of person, Schuderer said. "Which he did."
He traveled he Middle East and wound up in Thailand, where he found a job to earn enough money to go to the next place.
In Thailand, Noel met a girl while indulging in one of his loves, scuba diving. The two went on to Taiwan, where Noel taught English to grade-school children.
As Schuderer looks back, he recalls three events in Noel's life that may have been a turning point for him. He lost his grandfather and then his grandmother, and his girlfriend became pregnant and had a miscarriage.
"These were pretty significant losses," Schuderer said.
Noel suffered another blow when a Taiwanese doctor diagnosed him with Bechette's disorder, which is similar to lupus.
"Noel was very in tune with his body," his father said. "He always loved rock-climbing, hiking, bicycling, running and scuba diving. He was very athletic."
Bechette's is a crippling disease that can end in death, Schuderer said. "I don't think Noel wanted to end up in a wheelchair."
In the April before his death, he returned home after two years. He wanted to visit his friends, and he stayed with Schuderer and his wife.
"We had some good times together, sharing photos and stories," Schuderer said. However, "after his death, we found out he had been giving a lot of his possessions to friends," Schuderer explained. Noel gave his father his favorite 35 mm camera "because it was "too heavy to carry around," he'd claimed. That seemed a plausible reason to Schderer at the time.
On the night before Noel died, Schuderer was working on his computer in his den, and noticed that Noel had gone into the bathroom. In the meantime, Schuderer shut down his computer and tapped on the bathroom door and said, "Good night, Noel. I love you."
Noel said, "I love you, too."
A son's final words
"Those were his last words to me," Schuderer said. The next night, Schuderer got home late from work. It was dark and he noticed the light on in Noel's bedroom. He opened the door to the bedroom and found Noel dead.
Schuderer first thought that Noel had overdosed. "At the time, I didn't think it was a suicide," he said. His son had no history of substance abuse.
But the coroner's report indicated Noel's death was a suicide, and a toxicologist reviewed the report and came to the same conclusion. Noel had taken a lethal dose of an over-the-counter allergy medication. "He took too much of it," Schuderer said. "As much as was in his system, it wasn't an accident."
"I didn't see this coming," Schuderer said. "Hindsight is 20-20."
The warning signs
Schuderer and Mitchell Gelber, a licensed psychologist in Prescott, both offer warning signs to be aware of that might prevent suicide.
Gelber said elderly suicide is not uncommon and is becoming more acceptable among elderly folks who suffer from terminal illness, loneliness, isolation and dementia, for example. "Folks are choosing to die rather than waiting to die," he said.
Another reason for suicide is post-partum depression after a woman gives birth to a child, Gelber said.
The middle class has its reasons for suicide: reaching middle age, economic conditions, going through transitions such as losing a job, and not being able to cope and learning of a terminal illness. Mental illness is another factor in the equation, as is any kind of substance abuse, which can cause severe depression, Gelber said
Gelber listed red flags that may indicate someone is thinking of self-harm or suicide:
Suddenly giving away important possessions;
Increased depression, with symptoms of poor hygiene, for example;
Schuderer also gives suicide prevention presentations and he offers these signs that people should watch for:
Talking or writing about death;
Feelings of rage, anger or revenge;
Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking;
Feeling trapped, like there is no way out;
Increasing drug or alcohol use;
Withdrawing from friends, family or society;
Experiencing anxiety or agitation, inability to sleep or sleeping all the time;
Dramatic changes in mood;
Feeling no reason to live or no sense of purpose in life;
A sudden movement from a depressed mood to one of happiness can indicate that a person has made the decision to end his life.
Both Gelber and Schuderer emphasize that when danger signals show themselves, the situation needs immediate attention.
"I'd rather be wrong and have somebody get angry with me than not take the initiative to help them and possibly saving their life," Gelber said. "People must reach out to those who have experience and expertise in working with people who are depressed and considering self-harm or ending their lives."
"When warning signs are observed by you," Schuderer said, "don't be afraid to ask, 'Are you having thoughts of suicide?' or 'Are you thinking about killing yourself?'"
But, he said, "Before asking those questions, simply try to have a conversation about what you've noticed and express your concern. Suicidal people are often relieved that someone has noticed and is willing to talk about it. If the person indicates that suicide is imminent, and the person is alone, seek help from others immediately. Be open, be honest and sympathetic. Be as helpful as you can be. You're not responsible for the other person, but gently encourage them to get help. Again, if suicide is imminent, call 911."
A father copes
When Noel died, Schuderer resolved how he would deal with his loss.
"I remember promising myself that I would experience any emotion that came up - to experience it all," he said. "That's what it takes to heal. Over time, you learn to deal with it, to live with it. But, every once in a while it comes up and grabs you - hearing a song, looking at photographs, a memory or a new suicide. Let the feelings be there," he said, rather than burying them. "Talk to others about it. Get some hugs."
Twice a year, Schuderer makes special visits to the Grand Canyon in memory of Noel. He goes on his son's birthday and his death day. He has photos of them standing together at the canyon's Horseshoe Mesa.
Trips to the canyon kindle memories of happier times with his son.