Overcoming suicide

I have been worried about my friend, Derek. A few months ago his wife, Shirley died. It was a viral infection and she was gone in a couple of days.

Derek and Shirley, who used to live in Vancouver, were neighbours when we lived in London in the early 1970s. Our kids played with their kids. Since then, they had moved to a little village in Wiltshire where we would call on them occasionally at their beautifully converted schoolhouse.

I wrote to Derek from Toronto, but he did not respond. So I phoned.

We had a long talk, some of it about Shirley. Now I call regularly and although he is sometimes upset, he seems to like it and we have some laughs. I am telling you this because, as I have come to realize, Derek, who is 67 and who only retired last year, is, statistically speaking in the greatest at-risk group for committing suicide.

With so much attention paid to teenage suicide – and quite rightly so – most of us do not realize that older men are the individuals most likely to take their own lives.

It is a worldwide phenomenon, and men past 60, for instance, are four to six times as likely to take their lives as women in the same age gro.

Why so vulnerable?
Why, I asked Dr. Paul Links, who occupies the Arthur Sommer Rotenberg chair in suicide studies at the University of Toronto. “The issue is loss,” he replied. “Loss of health, of social status, of relationships, of financial independence.”

Do we have any right to interfere? At a time when doctor-assisted suicide is all the talk, isn’t it a person’s own business if they want to take their life?

The truth is, said the doctor, that older people do not usually take their lives because they are facing insurmountable problems.

“Probably 80 per cent are suffering from clinical depression.” What makes that so tragic is that, “today depression is very treatable.” Even cancer patients facing a dire future can learn to cope, said Dr. Links.

In addition, he added, “suicide of the elderly still has a tremendous impact on families, leaving them burdened with guilt.”

What are the danger signs to watch for? “Disruption of eating patterns,” said the doctor. “Over-eating or eating less than usual. Not sleeping as well, becoming withdrawn or irritable.” Any talk of hopelessness or wanting to take their lives is a signal to be taken seriously. We need to remember too that, while some people may be more prone to suicidal thoughts, probably no one is immune.

What to do? Your unhappy friend or loved one should be urged to see their family doctor, said Dr. Links. Alternatively, the telephone numbers of distress centres are generally listed on the front page of your phone book.

But there’s the rub. Men are not nearly as good as women at asking for help – even if they have a family doctor.

Men, said Gerry Harrington, executive director of the Suicide Information and Education Centre, in Calgary, “don’t form close relationships the way women do. And most older men will resist if you invite them to join a group.

“The best answer,” he said, “is friendship – keeping the person from being isolated.”

So while doctors and distress centres have a part to play, what it comes down to is you and me – friends who need to go out of our way to lend an ear and listen for danger signs.

Talking to Derek on a regular basis has made me think, not only about his future, but how I would face the same situation.

Soon after Shirley died, at the urging of friends, he took up golf. He tells me he has dropped it now – no hand-eye coordination, bad weather always interfering, it just was not his game. Dr. Links, in fact, says it is not a good idea to make any big changes in your life at a time of grief or crisis – familiar routines are very important.

Social activity a cure?
A recent Harvard study, surprisingly, shows that quite modest social activity – playing cards, eating out, going to the movies – is enough to extend our lives by two-and-a-half years compared with more reclusive people – and presumably keep depression at bay.

When it comes to being a social introvert, I plead guilty. I would rather wrestle bears than join an organization.

When I look at what keeps me lively and involved in retirement, I have to look at small things. At the gossip and jokes I exchange with the guys in the pool changing room every day; at the weekly lunches I have with a friend to talk about our stock market adventures (and misadventures) on the Internet; at the companionship of our dog who, when we’re out walking, makes me friends whether I want them or not.

At the end of every telephone conversation now, Derek says he hopes I will come and see him. I might just do that.