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Psychache

Every 17 Minutes, Someone in This Country Commits Suicide. But Opinions on Why there's an Epidemic of Self-Inflicted Death--and how to stop it--Often Conflict.

June 03, 2001|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of The Times' Book Review

"Man is the only animal who has to be encouraged to live." Friedrich Nietzsche

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1. WHO KILLED HILDA?

Sometimes when I'm in a dark mood, I wonder: If I were to kill myself, would I fall into the flames of hell? Or should someone else burn for this crime against life: the friends who failed me, the society that offered no solace, the God who erred in designing my brain, or DNA?

Like hundreds of thousands of people who have confronted suicide, I wrestle with damnation. But only to avoid a question that is at once more haunting, more difficult and more practical: What could have been done? In my case, what could have been done to stop my friend Hilda Sheryll Barrett as she, at age 36, walked into the garage and sat on an old sofa with a gun in her hands?

We were close--Hilda, her husband, Jim, my wife and I. Jim was at work when Hilda raised the only unlocked gun in their home and pulled the trigger. He found her that night. My wife went over to help clean up. There was a memorial and a yard sale, and for months I believed that her death was none of my business, that I had no right to judge so personal an act. I mourned her and respected her choice without realizing that in the world of suicide, the mere use of a word such as "choice" sets off fierce debate. In the 15 years since Hilda killed herself, I've become a student of the subject. I've learned that someone in the United States kills him- or herself every 17 minutes, for a total of 85 a day, almost 31,000 a year. I've learned that you who are reading this story are more likely to kill yourself than be killed by someone else, that the suicide rate for young people has tripled in the past four decades, that the relentless suicide toll of young men alone dwarfs the number of deaths from the Vietnam War and AIDS combined. I've also discovered an invisible city of doctors, scientists, researchers and families who've lost someone to suicide, all obsessed with why people kill themselves and what can be done to stop them. They believe they have answers and that their answers can save lives. But distinguished opinions about suicide rarely converge, and recommended interventions often conflict--stemming, as they do, from opposing views of human nature.

Take Hilda. Did she die because her brain malfunctioned, twisting some internal knob that dimmed her will to live? Or did her actions that spring day have more to do with a dark turn in her life?

I've never seriously considered killing myself. Yet when the details of Hilda's story finally came to light, they jolted me with such force that people who don't know me--who don't understand the complex subject at hand--might well have wondered whether I, too, would become suicidal.

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2. THE DEAN OF SELF-INFLICTED DEATH

Suicidology, the study of suicide, began 43 years ago in the land of sunshine and second chances. Edwin Shneidman, who coined the term, is 83 now. He remains the dean of the discipline, as committed as ever to saving lives, though his approach is being overwhelmed by newer, if less personal, ways of looking at suicide.

When he greeted me at the door of his small West Los Angeles home early last year, Hilda had been dead for more than a decade, and I had stopped pretending that her death was none of my business. Round-faced and bald but for a hint of curly hair at his collar, Shneidman has a confident and gentle demeanor. His mind is quick and playful. He is an easy man to like and to trust.

His wife, Jeanne, was at the market when I arrived. He and I sat on the patio with cookies and coffee. As a Mozart piano concerto played in the background, I asked him how he could live his whole life with questions of suicide so close at hand. His answer was his story.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he had grown up in Lincoln Heights, earned a master's in psychology from UCLA, served as a classification officer for the Army during World War II and received his doctorate from USC. By 1949 he was a 31-year-old clinical psychologist, on staff at the VA Hospital in Brentwood.

One day the director of the hospital approached him. He needed two letters written. Two patients had killed themselves, and he wanted to extend his sympathy to their wives. Shneidman didn't know James Caldwell and Timothy Jones, yet he knew they deserved more than a form letter. He took the next morning off. A light rain was falling as he turned east on Wilshire Boulevard, heading downtown to the coroner's office. The end of the 1940s might as well have been the start of the dark ages when it came to the study of suicide.

The records were kept in a basement beneath a parking garage. Shneidman still remembers the smell of oil and gasoline. And the dust. It was everywhere.

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