Monday, May 18, 2009

Edwin Schneidman, Pioneer in Suicide Prevention

All Things Considered had a nice obituary of Edwin Schneidman, a legendary researcher of suicide prevention. 

Along with publishing several books, Schneidman founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and the American Association of Suicidology

As the obit points out, Schneidman believed suicidal tendencies could often begin to be untangled by asking two simple questions: "Where do you hurt?" and "How may I help you?" 

Schneidman lived to 91. In this audio piece, he shares a quote in which he describes showing up to the ER at the age of 90, disappointed to still be alive. Realize he hadn't died, he sobbed, because he was ready for death. 

He also often wrote about enriching life by contemplating death and dying and was a proponent of open dialogue on both topics, arguing that people should be unafraid of death. 


Gail Rae said...

Interesting! One of my sisters works in a Barnes & Noble store. She specializes in the "kids" department, which includes teen literature ("Young Adult" or "Juvenile"). Thus, I'm always on the lookout for book recommendations for her, mostly because I continue to LOVE "YA" literature. One of my all time favorite authors wrote (almost) exclusively for the YA market; Robert Cormier.
Anyway, less than a week ago I noticed a YA book not yet in paperback, which means it's relatively new: "Th1rteen R3asons Why". It is about a young man who receives a package of cassette tapes from a girl who loved him. The tapes explain why she committed suicide, and take him on a physical journey through his town and a mental journey through her personal and social agonies. I haven't yet read the book but I scanned enough of it to get a sense that my sister should be familiar with it, not, mind you, so much for her teenage customers but for their parents, who might flinch if they've heard a bare description of the book and flinch when their teenager reaches for it in the store.
Thing is, I told her, I remember, as a teenager, fantasizing suicide at least once a day as a dramatic way to psychically handle the tumultuous inner and outer life of the teenage years. I remember intense discussions among friends about suicide. I remember how common it was to think about suicide. I also remember understanding that adults seemed far removed from this emotional reality (although I'm sure each one went through it as teenagers). I told my sister about the book so that she would be prepared to support a teenager's choice against reluctant, uninformed parents. When I talked to her about the book a few days ago, she related a conversation she had with her 16 year old son while they were watching a show which featured the subject of suicide. She told me he burst into a long diatribe about the way the show as handling the subject, saying, essentially, what I'd said, that he and his social group talk about and consider suicide "all the time", it's no big deal. My sister and I speculated that a lot of the popularity of suicide thought and talk when one is a teenager nowadays in a culture in which one does not become an adult until 18-21 has a lot to do with teenagers not having an outlet (as did, say, cultures in which someone becomes a man or a woman at the age of 13 and is expected to participate fully in the social life of the community from that point on) for the extraordinary development energy produced by growth and hormonal development from puberty through age 18-21.
Teenagers are prone to catastrophic thinking for many reasons, not the least of which has to do with learning how to handle life in an adult manner. Really good YA authors know the value of fictionalizing these struggles AND dramatizing all sides of this emotional coin.
Wishing one was dead when one is 90, of course, likely is a bit different than wishing the same when one is a teenager. Still, I find it intensely interesting that someone who was a pioneer in suicide prevention was also familiar with suicidal thoughts.
Good post. Good links.

Jessica Knapp said...

Very interesting comment. I'll have to check out that book you mention, Gail.
I think you might be on to something there. You remind me of an occasion when a friend of mine was pulled aside by our English teacher to talk about her "dark" poetry because the teacher was concerned about her well-being. And the friend thought everything was no big deal. She just wrote the stuff she was thinking about one night. Maybe there is a way in which teens and young adults think about dark matters, and potentially even suicide, more often and sometimes even more casually. (Not that I'm saying suicidal thoughts should ever not be taken seriously.)
And I don't know that I necessarily interpreted Schneidman's wishes at the end of his life as suicidal. I think he was just ready to go. When I listened to the radio piece anyway, I heard it as, he was tired, in pain, life had been good, but he was ready to accept death, and he was starting to get disappointed that death wasn't coming.
On a slightly different note, one of my favorite things about Schneidman's work was how simple he found it could be to help someone who was feeling desperate and hopeless if you just knew the right questions to ask. I think it's inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I came into contact with the man and his work many years ago and was moved by his capacity and his insight.

Living in the Arctic where we have a suicide rate many many times that of anywhere else in North America it provided me with an enormous wealth of perspective and I thank that man for remaining so steadfast in this field and pushing, as he did to reach all of us.

If you have material on suicide prevention, intervention or post vention I would be ever so grateful if you could pass it on to me at

oracle said...

I met this person and became familiar with his work many years ago and his knowledge and insight had a profound impact on my understanding which I have gone on to share.

I am so thankful this many persisted in this field to think through so much and assist so many.

We have a long way to go though; if you have any pertinent information on prevention, intervention, postvention, suicide survivors and grief and bereavement, could you pass it along to me thanks at