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Dallas Morning News
By Tracy Everbach / Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News
Experts say awareness limited because deaths still surrounded by stigma
During Suzanne Sugalski’s last telephone call to her daughter LeeAnn, the college student assured her mother, “I’m OK.”
About two hours later, friends found the 21-year-old dead in her University of Texas at Austin dorm room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Ms. Sugalski later discovered that LeeAnn had bought a pistol the day before she killed herself and had practiced shooting it at a gun range.
“If people shared some stories with me before this happened, I might have seen the signs,” said Ms. Sugalski, who speaks to groups about her daughter’s suicide eight years ago.
Suicide is the ninth-leading cause of death in the United States and the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, statistics show.
Since the 1950s, the suicide rate among young people has increased more than 200 percent, according to the American Association of Suicidology.
Within the last two months, two students at Lakeview Centennial High School have killed themselves, one by shooting himself in a school restroom. A Richardson teenager also committed suicide.
Nationwide, suicides outnumber homicides. In 1995, the latest year for which national statistics are available, the nation saw 11/2 times more suicides than homicides.
Many people aren’t aware that so many people kill themselves, because suicide is surrounded by stigma and often not discussed.
In Dallas County last year, 225 people killed themselves – 186 men or boys and 39 women or girls, according to the Dallas County medical examiner’s office. The victims most often used guns.
Medical experts and social services officials agree that suicide stems from deep, internal pain. The person views suicide as the only way to end it.
Dr. Kenneth Altshuler, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said most people who attempt suicide suffer from major depression, a mental illness.
“It’s a discrete, describable psychiatric illness,” he said. “The future doesn’t look good, and you don’t feel good about yourself and the present doesn’t look good either.”
He said warped thinking is a symptom of the illness. The person does not respond to reasoning.
“The mind doesn’t bend,” he explained. “Many times people aren’ t aware they are distorting things. That’s why treatment is so important.”
Some signs of major depression include “an enduring, uncomfortable depressed mood that lasts for a couple of weeks at least, difficulties in concentration and sleeping, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, reclusiveness and problems with self-esteem,” Dr. Altshuler said.
Young people and their families report influences that can lead to suicide, including academic pressure, the breakdown of the family, an increasing divorce rate, a huge increase in alcohol and drug use among youths and easy access to firearms.
Ms. Sugalski said her daughter had some symptoms of major depression but hid them well.
As a teenager, LeeAnn was a star athlete, playing volleyball at Richardson’s Berkner High School, her mother said. When she started college at UT, she joined a sorority and studied business.
During 1988, her junior year in college, the young woman “started struggling and stressing,” Ms. Sugalski recalled.
Her mother said she believes a major factor was LeeAnn’s birth father’s decision to drop out of her life after being involved for several years. Ms. Sugalski and LeeAnn’s father had divorced when LeeAnn was 5, and Ms. Sugalski remarried five years later.
Her father’s abandonment was devastating to LeeAnn, her mother said.
“I wanted her to get counseling, and she didn’t want it,” she said.
In October 1988, LeeAnn made a “feeble attempt at suicide” by taking pills,
Ms. Sugalski said.
She was hospitalized for two weeks and her condition was diagnosed as depression. But she also was embarrassed and didn’t want to tell her friends.
LeeAnn saw a therapist and a psychiatrist in the Dallas area and began taking the antidepressant drug Prozac.
Apparently, it didn’t help her.
When she returned to school for the spring semester, she told her mother she was upset about a paper she was writing for a class. She couldn’t concentrate on it, her mother said.
“I think when the drug didn’t work, she thought it was a hopeless situation,” Ms. Sugalski said. “She thought, `Oh my God, here’s the wonder drug, and it doesn’t work.’ ”
LeeAnn had many friends and was dating another student at the time of her suicide, her mother said.
She repeatedly told her mom she was fine. Ms. Sugalski sensed something was wrong, but her daughter’s therapist told her he didn’t believe that she was suicidal. Ms. Sugalski said she’s still upset about that diagnosis.
The night LeeAnn died, her mother called her because LeeAnn hadn’ t made her usual Sunday telephone call to her parents.
“She was sleeping at 8 p.m.,” Ms. Sugalski said. “I was very upset. I asked her, `Have you thought about suicide again?’ and she said, `I thought about it.’ ”
Ms. Sugalski pleaded with her daughter to call her Dallas therapist, and the young woman agreed. When she called back later, she told her mother that her therapist had referred her to a doctor in Austin. She said she was fine.
“She sounded calmer,” Ms. Sugalski said. “I mistook it for she was OK.”
At 2:10 a.m., Ms. Sugalski and her husband got another call. This time it was the police, telling them LeeAnn had been shot.
Ms. Sugalski said she thinks that if her daughter hadn’t been able to buy a handgun so easily, she wouldn’t have killed herself that day in April 1989. She is a firm supporter of gun control.
“Suicidal thinking can come and go very quickly,” said Debbie Meripolski, executive director of the Suicide and Crisis Center in Dallas.
“The depression or unhappiness is there all the time, but the desire to commit suicide comes and goes.”
Alcohol and drug abuse can be fatal when mixed with depression, Dr. Altshuler said.
“If you add in alcohol and impulsivity, you have a pretty good brew for suicide,” he said.
Other illnesses, mental and physical, can trigger suicidal feelings, Dr. Altshuler added.
Elderly people are the most likely to commit suicide. The suicide rate for people over 80 is almost twice that of the general population, according to the American Association of Retired Persons.
If someone appears at risk for suicide, no matter what his or her age, the best response is to talk and listen to him or her, Ms. Meripolski said.
“People in crisis have a critical need to talk,” she said. “Try to listen in a nonjudgmental way. . . . Rationalization is not going to work.”
Ask the person outright whether he or she is considering suicide, Ms. Meripolski said. Then get help from a doctor or other professional.
Dr. Altshuler said that if the person “is not responding with reasonable confrontation, your best bet is to get the person into treatment.”
There are several types of antidepressants, and different ones may work for different people, he said. The medicines may help a suicidal person feel more hopeful.
“One of our problems is you can’t get someone into treatment if they don’t feel they need it or want it,” Dr. Altshuler said. “That’ s one of the reasons we hope the stigma on mental illness will be raised.
“Because you’re depressed doesn’t mean you’re not a good or able person. It’s a matter of having an illness.”
Ms. Sugalski said she has come to terms with her daughter’s death through therapy and the support of friends and relatives. But she weeps sometimes when she talks about LeeAnn.
“For 21 years, I was lucky to have her,” she said. “She was a wonderful child.
“People think they can’t mention LeeAnn because it will make me sad. But I don’t want people to forget her.”