Franklin James Cook

Man’s Suicide Offers Example of Intervention Dilemma

In Intervention, Prevention on December 18, 2008 at 8:29 am

ORIGINAL REPORT — In her report in the immediate aftermath of a young man’s suicide the day after Thanksgiving, staff writer Katie Fretland of the Omaha World-Herald gives a revealing glimpse into the dilemma of preventing suicide, beginning with this observation:

Any suicide is a complex, mysterious act, and the only person who could really explain it is gone. Experts caution that there often are multiple reasons when people take their own lives.

People who have encountered a suicide victim beforehand, when they “look back,” often suppose that they should have known, that something could have been done to prevent it, and in this case, the young man exhibited warning signs–considered after the fact–that cumulatively point to a clear risk of suicide:

It was cold, about 26 degrees, but Stevie Hicks wasn’t wearing a coat when he stepped onto the highway overpass near downtown Omaha … Hicks took his football trophies off shelves and packed them away … He turned large poster photographs of himself in his football uniform to face the wall … He’d left his grandparents’ home several times the night before his death, returning in the morning talking to himself and threatening suicide … In the days before he died, Hicks called friends and family and told them he loved them.

In fact, police did respond to the grandparents’ home, after a call from his grandmother, at 7:35 a.m., and after they arrived, she asked them, “Please take him,” according to the World-Herald’s report.

Police interviewed Hicks, asking if he planned to hurt himself or others. “No,” he replied. After about a half hour, the officers left.

At 8:34 a.m., motorists began to report that a man had landed on Interstate 480 north of Dodge Street. “I just saw somebody jump off a bridge,” one 911 caller said. At 9:14 a.m., Hicks was pronounced dead at the University of Nebraska Medical Center of head injuries suffered in the 57-foot fall.

Again, sadly but not uncommonly, an apparently contradictory statement  (I’m not going to kill myself) in the face of possibly stark evidence of suicide risk (the grandmother’s report about his talk of suicide and his erratic behavior) is not followed by an adequate enough evaluation to resolve the contradiction, but rather someone (in this case, the police) makes a judgment based on limited information.

The police on the scene were likely following their policies and implementing their training to the best of their ability–and they know more about the context of their decision than can be discovered by a reporter or revealed in a newspaper story–but in all likelihood, if someone adequately trained in suicide assessment and intervention had conducted an additional interview with Stevie, the conclusions about his contradictory statement–and therefore the outcome that morning–might have been very different.

Everyone who knew Stevie (including the police) likely shares the sentiment of his great-uncle, Dan Goodwin Sr.:

“I wish I had a chance to talk to him. We all think about what we could have done. Any time someone takes their own life, they’ve got to be in a lot of pain,” Goodwin said.

Shaking his head, he looked away quietly. “So young. So young.”

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  1. Sadly even experts have extreme difficulty predicting who will suicide so it is important that those closest and who have known the sufferer for years also have some knowledge. Everyone involved often blame themselves for “not seeing the signs” but unfortunately we often don’t know what the signs are until after the event so that is why “mental health first aid” should become as commonplace as ordinary first aid courses. Such courses are not expensive and there are very good programs already available, as I have done one here in Australia.

  2. I agree. One such suicide first aid course, offered by LivingWorks trainers in many countries, is ASIST, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.

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