Jamison: greater public
awareness of suicide needed
Redfield Jamison said she hadn't been planning to write a book
on suicide, but when she was on a promotional tour for a book
she'd written about manic depression, someone approached her at
nearly every reading with a photo of a relative who had committed
a lot of new information out about suicide, but the breach between
what we know and what we do is lethal," the Johns Hopkins
University professor of psychiatry told a crowd of about 400 in
a March 25 talk sponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book
and the Mental Health Association.
suicide prevention program
University created a suicide prevention program in 1996,
the first of its kind on a college campus. The Harrison
Bowne "Tersh" Smith Jr. Memorial Suicide Prevention
Program is supported in part by a gift from U.Va. alumnus
Lyell Clay. His pledge to U.Va.'s counseling center to fund
suicide prevention was for a deeply personal reason -- in
memory of his lifelong friend and 1949 University graduate
Harrison B. "Tersh" Smith Jr. who committed suicide
in 1957, just three years after receiving an additional
degree from the McIntire School of Commerce.
U.Va. program stresses three basic components to prevention
-- education, assessment and research. Under the education
component, members of the academic community -- professors,
deans, resident assistants and students themselves, are
told about the resources at the student health center, and
are taught how to recognize signs of suicidal behavior.
signs could include, but are not limited to depression,
alcohol use, death or divorce in a family, a drive for perfection,
social isolation, changes in emotions and eating habits.
These "symptoms" can occur singularly or in combination.
If they are recognized, a student is encouraged to seek
assessment component quizzes students in detail to determine
their level of distress before either medication or counseling
is prescribed, while the research examines the characteristics
that might lead to suicide.
for help --
The Harrison Bowne "Tersh" Smith Jr. Memorial
Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS),
243-5150 or 924-5556
Faculty and Employee Assistance Program, 243-2643, or the
24-hour service, 1-800-847-9355
University Hospital emergency room, 924-2231
Open House Hotline, 295-TALK (8255)
Region 10 Community Services Board 24-hour crisis services,
is the second major cause of death of 15- to 19-year-olds and
college students in this country, killing more people in that
age group than cancer, heart disease, AIDS and strokes combined,
One in 10 college students and one in five high school students
state that they seriously considered committing suicide in the
previous year, and one in 10 high school students had attempted
it, said Jamison, who has written three books on manic-depressive
illness and one on suicide.
most important factor in suicide cases is pyschopathology -- depression,
manic-depression, schizophrenia, anti-social personality disorder,
anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse are involved in 90 percent of
suicides, she said.
are effective ways to treat psychiatric illnesses associated with
suicide ... but people at high risk often remain dangerously underdiagnosed,"
she said, adding that there's a great need for more public awareness
of how prevalent a killer suicide is.
schools, churches and especially university administrators need
to learn more and to do more to educate others," she said.
"We need a society that doesn't tolerate the intolerable,
as this society does."
who wrote in An Unquiet Mind about her own struggle with manic-depression,
read the prologue to her recent book, Night Falls Fast: Understanding
Suicide. There, she described making an elaborate pact with a
friend who was also manic-depressive that each would offer counsel
and comfort if one became suicidal. The person in danger would
check into a hospital if the other thought it was necessary. Neither
would own a gun.
years after they'd made the pact, her friend shot himself. He
hadn't called her.
said during the question-and-answer session that she had felt
suicidal numerous times herself and had attempted suicide once
by overdosing on lithium. When she woke up and found she was alive,
she realized that if she didn't take her lithium regularly she
haven't missed a day since then," she said, adding that many
manic-depressives resist taking lithium for several reasons.
have researched lithium, I know how it works biochemically, yet
I have stopped taking it at times," she said. "Lithium
causes acne, weight gain and trembling, and it has a stigma attached
50 percent of manic-depressives become euphoric when they're manic;
it's a highly addictive state that "leaves cocaine in the
dust," she said. "People love mania in the early stages,
but then become psychotic in the later ones."
a question about how to spot manic-depression before it becomes
serious, Jamison said, "some kids look fine and suddenly
get sick. For others, it starts with social withdrawal, mild depression,
mood swings, violence and great irritability."
added that parents should be on the lookout if there's a family
history of psychiatric illness.
case of suicide isn't preventable, given that many people are
volatile and do it on impulse, but, from a public health perspective,
most can be prevented, she said.
a child commits suicide, there's a lot of guilt, [and] a lot of
crisis counselors are brought into the school, but they don't
create a prevention program or, what actually works better, a
depression awareness program," she said.
about manic depression is widely available in schools, but the
quality of the materials varies, she said.
"We need an excellent CD-ROM about mental illness that has
information presented for children in different grade levels,"
she said. "It could be included in orientation packets at
whether involuntary commitment should be made easier, Jamison
responded with a definitive "yes."
has been misused, but our laws have gone so far in the other direction
that it's very hard to commit someone," she said. "We
need to educate judges, because a manic person can look calm and
rational when he's sitting in front of a judge."
response to a question about how to help someone who is resistant
to get treatment, Jamison cited the intervention model used for
alcoholics, where a group that includes family members, co-workers
and friends sit down with the person and tell him they're concerned
"But sometimes the level of denial can be so profound that
you have to protect yourself and get on with your own life,"
Jamison also read the epilogue from her book, in which she notes
that she has taped over her desk the closing line from "Disenchantments,"
a poem by Douglas Dunn: "Look to the living, love them, and