On Jan. 24, 2004, IBM account manager Mike Matthew received a phone call just before a meeting. He heard a whisper, but struggled to identify the caller. Eventually, he realized it was his brother, Brian, in Minneapolis.
“He was so down, so despondent,” Matthew said.
Their father decided to help Brian, who suffered from bipolar disorder, by making the seven- to eight-hour drive from Kansas City, Mo., to Minneapolis. But he waited until Friday, when his physician friend was free to drive up with him and assist in intervening.
Tragically, they were just too late. That Friday, Brian, 37, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck in his garage, the motor still droning when his tenants discovered him.
The loss shaped Mike.
“When somebody is in a suicidal state, you do not leave them alone,” he said.
This stood among the many messages Matthew, now working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), emphasized earlier this month at a forum on suicide prevention held at the Malibu Library. The five-person forum featured others sharing searing experiences of suicide in their family.
Among the speakers was Jenny Wolpert, the mother of late Oaks Christian High School student Grayson, whose 2009 death shocked the Oaks Christian community.
Matthew gave a PowerPoint presentation with statistics about suicide and additional commentary by another guest expert named Pam Farkas, a licensed clinical social worker. A suicide in America occurs once every 14 minutes, a rate that has increased since 2000, Matthew said. In fact, the number of suicides was roughly double the number of murders over that same period.
Matthew and AFSP argue that suicides are somewhat of a hidden epidemic, in comparison to specific diseases.
From 1981 to 2009, Matthew said, the number of Americans who took their own lives—901,180—was almost twice that of those who died of AIDS and HIV—463,942. However, in 2012, the National Institutes of Health spent about 62 times more on HIV and AIDS research than research on the causes of suicide and how to prevent it.
The tragedy, Matthew argued, is that suicides are preventable. He called for people to begin talking about the issue, just as people have learned to discuss the once-taboo subject of AIDS.
Many suicidal people are by no means hell-bent on dying, as they want to live, Matthew said. However, they find no other way to relieve their pain.
When a person does decide to end his/her life, he stressed that it stems from an underlying psychiatric disorder, not a traumatic event that triggers the suicide. While people commit suicide for a variety of reasons, the most common cause statistically is people who suffer from clinical depression.
“The number one cause of suicide is untreated or inappropriately treated depression,” Farkas said. She urged people to take depression as seriously as any other physical impairment or sickness. “Depression is a medical illness. Your brain has a disease, it’s malfunctioning,” she said.
Other psychiatric conditions that contribute to suicide include bipolar disorder, drug or alcohol abuse and dependence, as well as schizophrenia. It is estimated that as many as three to 20 percent of people who suffer from bipolar disorder, such as Matthew’s brother Brian, attempt suicide.
Even for those who survive a suicide attempt and no longer seem suicidal, depression is often a recurring condition and the risks posed by its return ever present.
“It’s not over. You have to be vigilant,” Matthew said.
Matthew also dispelled a few myths about suicide at the forum.
While many may believe the number of suicides skyrockets during the holiday season, suicides mostly occur in April, Matthew said. An interesting trend was that while three times as many women attempted suicide as did men, more men die from suicide than women. Farkas attributed this statistic to men resorting to more lethal methods.
The issue of suicide was brought into relief locally last October, when two young Agoura residents were suspected of taking their lives in Malibu. College student Joshua Feinberg, an Agoura High graduate, jumped off Rindge Dam in October 2011. About a week later, Dan Behar, a 17-year-old Agoura High senior, drove his car off Piuma Road near Cold Canyon Road and crashed, apparently intentionally.
“We have always been driven by our loss and our passion to prevent suicide,” Matthew wrote in an email. “The recent deaths have been heartbreaking to all of us and driven us to work even harder with more diligence.”
More information may be viewed at afsp.org. A suicide prevention hotline 800.273.8255 (TALK) is available 24/7 in English and Spanish.