Can You Stop a Person Determined to Commit Suicide? Afterthoughts on Watching “Goodbye Solo”

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1a/Blowing_Rock-27527-2.jpg/512px-Blowing_Rock-27527-2.jpg

Can you save someone who is suicidal? What would you do? If you are like most folks, you’d try to talk him out of it, remind him of what he has to live for, and stay close by to make sure he doesn’t act. You might urge him to get therapy or medication, call 911 or send for an ambulance.

When the patient tells a therapist about his suicidal thoughts, some counselors will ask “Why haven’t you committed suicide?” This is not an attempt to encourage it. Rather, depressed patients will often answer the question by stating what connects them to life. They might refer to religious beliefs, children or family, the hope of a better future, or whatever presently keeps them hanging on. And now the therapist has a sense of whether there is imminent danger and what he has to work with that can keep the patient alive.

Counselors routinely ask new patients about depression and the details of any plan they have to harm themselves. They want to know about a history of such attempts and the person’s tendency to be impulsive. Their concern is heightened if their client is more than usually comfortable with physical pain, a characteristic that can make “the act” easier. They seek information about the individual’s network of friends and family, hoping that he has a web of supportive people.

The healer tries to determine whether the patient believes that he doesn’t count in the world (or worse) that he is a burden on others. Therapists must evaluate the possibility of alcohol or drug use which can create the disinhibition to make the suicide attempt. They ask whether he is suffering from a loss which, if grieved, might provide relief in time.

But sometimes, even an excellent therapist can only do so much. Sometimes medication can do only so much. Sometimes electro-shock therapy fails. And then there are those who will try none of these remedies or, having tried them, stop trying. Which brings us back to the question posed in the title of this essay: can you permanently prevent the suicide of a person committed to it, especially someone whose life is largely behind him?

This query is brought to mind by watching a 2008 American movie of understated eloquence called Goodbye Solo, directed by Ramin Bahrani, and starring Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West. You might recognize Red West, a boyhood friend of Elvis who worked as his body-guard and as a stunt man before he became a character actor.

Seventy-two-years-old at the time the film was released, West has the visage of a man who has lived through everything, paid for each act of recklessness with a line on his face, and suffered more heartache than any 10 of us. He plays a character called William. Solo is his African émigré cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The proposition William offers the cabbie is simple: agree to take him to the top of Blowing Rock mountain in several days for $1000. He never states why, but the cabbie and the audience know it is to jump off and kill himself.

cigarettes aren't doing the job, so Red West decides to end his life on his own schedule in 'Goodbye Solo' (that's the taxi driver on the couch)

They are strangers, but Solo comes from a place where human relationships count for a lot. Moreover, he is an optimistic man, set on improving life for himself and his family. He hopes to become a flight attendant. Solo believes that he can alter his circumstances and that life will take-off for him, not come to the crashing end that William, twice solo’s age, envisions for himself. The cab driver does his best to connect with this old man; to engage him socially, to make friends, to have good times, to bring him into his own modest home; to inject William with some of his optimism about life.

We never find out much about William’s background, although he appears to have no significant social contact and no work to fill his time or give it meaning. There are hints of what life has done to him, or what he has done to himself, but Solo cannot discover much more than William wants him to know. It becomes clear that William’s suicidal intention has been well thought-out; that his plan is not impulsive.

William is not unappreciative of Solo’s efforts, not so fully out of touch with life that he has stopped caring about what happens to certain others. Nor does he dismiss the beauty of nature, if one can conclude that fact by his choice of Blowing Rock as the place of his demise: the last thing he will see (if he follows through with his plan) is the staggering magnificence of the vista beyond the mountain (see the top photo). After all, he could instead blow his brains out in his motel room.

In effect, Goodbye Solo puts a question to us: what is one to do when a long life — a rough life — has simply become too much? When one is care-worn, broken-down, and deadened, but not yet dead? When the beauty of nature and a child’s smile no longer compensate? When the kindness of strangers — their caring and concern — either isn’t enough or is too frightening because it portends only more vulnerability and loss if one allows them in?

Data from the American Association of Suicidology suggest that these are not idle concerns. Although the elderly made up only 12.5% of the population as of 2007, they accounted for 15.7% of all suicides. Moreover, men over 65 were more than seven times as likely to kill themselves than were women of the same age, and this difference grew as they aged.

Lest you become too depressed in reading this essay, you might wish to know a remarkable story that describes how a willingness to play out the hand you are dealt can be a far better choice than to “fold” and leave the game too early: “In Defeat Defiance:” Suicide and the Danger of Giving Up Too Soon. Therapists are sworn enemies of suicide and hopelessness, of course. Religion and loved ones try to silence such thoughts, as well.

But, especially for some elderly men, the questions are persistent. Can you stop a person like William — as old as William — determined to commit suicide? Can Solo? Should Solo?

Watch the movie.

Special thanks to my friend Bernie for recommending this film. The first image is of Blowing Rock by Ken Thomas, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo comes from the movie, Goodbye Solo, left to right, Red West and Souléymane Sy Savané.

10 thoughts on “Can You Stop a Person Determined to Commit Suicide? Afterthoughts on Watching “Goodbye Solo”

  1. Gerry – another eloquent article.
    As a psychotherapist, I have strong reactions to suicidal ideations – I have lost a few wonderful, kind, generous, warm & caring clients who I cared for deeply, because they didn’t give me or therapy a chance to work.

    When a client admits that she has been thinking of killing herself, as ironic as it sounds I ask for her, “Get in touch with the Part of you who is thinking of suicide. Ask that Part what it thinks suicide would do for you?” Usually the suicidal Part wants to end the pain for her, to make life easy again. I then ask that Part, “If I could teach you a way to end the pain, and make life easy without ending your life, would you want that?” Almost always they say, “Yes.”

    So I make a deal with them, in a twist of logic, the suicidal Part is in charge of keeping the client alive so that we can work together long enough for her to learn the tools, resources and skills to resolve what is causing the pain, and make her life easier.”

    I believe that all our Parts want something positive for us, even when they don’t know how to get a positive outcome for that positive intention. When we uncover it’s positive intention, then the Part feels heard and we can then take care of it’s intention in healthy, positive and productive ways.

    Peacefully,
    Amy Grabowski, MA LCPC
    The Awakening Center, Chicago, IL

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    • drgeraldstein

      Beautifully stated, Amy. Moreover, a terrific clinical intervention; if, of course, the person comes to therapy and if they have the resilience to hang on and the willingness to take one more chance on life. In your example, the fact of them coming to treatment suggests that they have at least some hope. In the film (without giving the story away) William is not the kind of person to seek treatment. He is more an old-style “man’s man.” Solo does his best to try to show William that life might still have rewarding possibilities. As I’ve tried to indicate in this post, William’s age puts him in a zone of high risk. Solo, in effect (without the skills of a clinician) is trying to “teach (William) a way to end the pain, and make life easy without ending (his) life.” I will soon write about some of the difficulties peculiar to men that cause them to avoid the healing arts and our society’s need to find a way to get such people as William, as well as men much younger, to consult medical and therapeutic professionals. Many thanks for your comment!

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    • From a non-professional viewpoint, I believe that suicide is pretty much a nociceptive reflex and there are no “tools, resources and skills” that will “resolve what is causing the pain” by the time a person gets to the point of actually committing the act. Like pulling your hand out of the flame, there really is no choice involved and no way to stop somebody who has arrived at that painful reflex point.

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      • Thank you for your comment. People “on the verge” have been temporarily prevented from suicide either by others who stopped them or by circumstance (having no bridge to jump off of, for example, and not wishing to end life in any other way). Frequently these same people feel differently later, again due to a change of life circumstances, therapy, medication, etc. For those on a mission, however, such as William in “Goodbye Solo,” we are probably dealing not only with the desire to end pain, as you suggest, but with the absence of a vision of a possible future that is better than what they now have in life. They also tend to lack any reason that might justify to themselves enduring the pain, such as their responsibilities to others. These reasons might include children, friends, a goal they wish to accomplish, or even people who died early and to whom they feel an obligation and responsibility to live out the time that they have.

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    • Nancy Worthless

      I appreciate your post. I think I will print it and put it up where I can see it each day. I wish that my previous therapist could have said the things that you did. Instead, he told my husband in front of me that he believed that my part that was suicidal would be successful. He was argumentive with that part and the result was that the part broke a $ 7 picture frame in his office. Then the therapist I had trusted for 6 years tells me that I cannot come back because I broke one of his possessions.

      He told me that he talked to a therapist in Chicago that agreed with him that it was the right thing for him to do. I wonder now if it was this site that he referred to. I hope that he will get some help for himself. What kind of therapist says and does something like that? Everyone tells me that it was a blessing and that I didn’t need to be seeing someone like that. I guess they are right.

      Anyway, thank you for your insight. At least in my situation, you are right on target. It’s not about dying, it is about trying to end the pain, to get someone to listen and help, because no one listened back then and those that should have helped just joined in hurting you more. And now, the people who are supposed to help you don’t. They just hurt you too.

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      • I rather doubt that I ever met your husband. Nor does the essay endorse suicide, but asks some questions about what one can or should do as a therapist or friend in a set of circumstances that are very particular to someone like the fictional character William in this movie. I do hope that you pursue therapy with someone competent and trustworthy. Many such people do exist. In the movie, the character of William certainly would not have ever considered any kind of treatment at any point in his life. Had he been open to it, everything could have been different. If you live in the Chicago area, I can provide you some names of very good people. Alternatively, go to the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy website. There is a therapist locator on that site.

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    • Nancy Worthless

      Amy, I appreciate your post. I think I will print it and put it up where I can see it each day. I wish that my previous therapist could have said the things that you did. Instead, he told my husband in front of me that he believed that my part that was suicidal would be successful. He was argumentive with that part and the result was that the part broke a $ 7 picture frame in his office. Then the therapist I had trusted for 6 years tells me that I cannot come back because I broke one of his possessions.

      He told me that he talked to a therapist in Chicago that agreed with him that it was the right thing for him to do. I wonder now if it was this site that he referred to. I hope that he will get some help for himself. What kind of therapist says and does something like that? Everyone tells me that it was a blessing and that I didn’t need to be seeing someone like that. I guess they are right.

      Anyway, thank you for your insight. At least in my situation, you are right on target. It’s not about dying, it is about trying to end the pain, to get someone to listen and help, because no one listened back then and those that should have helped just joined in hurting you more. And now, the people who are supposed to help you don’t. They just hurt you too.

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  2. Nancy Worthless

    Dr. Stein,

    Thank you for your suggestion to look for a new therapist on the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy website. I will do that.

    When I read your response, I thought that perhaps my post was unclear. Your statement of, “I have never met your husband.” made me wonder if you thought I meant that you were my previous therapist. If so, I do appologize for not being very clear.

    I live many miles and several states away from Chicago.

    I do realize that your article was based on a different scenario than exists with the fight to preserve my life.

    However, I have a very loved family member of the age and demeaner as you describe. And because of severe physical pain we have had some discussions with him about this same very difficult issue. We have let him talk out his feelings and tried to show compassion and give him a nonjudgemental listening ear. I do understand the dillema and do see the difference in that and someone who is pursuing help from a therapist.

    When I found your site, I was not feeling very safe, and was looking for something to help me change that momentary pattern of thinking. When I read your article, Amy’s comment, and then your reply, I found some comfort in both yours and Amy’s words.

    When you said, “Moreover, a terrific clinical intervention; if, of course, the person comes to therapy and if they have the resilience to hang on and the willingness to take one more chance on life.”, I realized that when I entered that therapist’s office that last time, those words applied to me. I do have the resilience to hang on. I was there for help to stay alive, not to be told there was no hope for me and then later be abandoned for breaking his possession. He said I broke a rule. I did, I made a mistake, I agree. But he broke so many rules that day and during the six months before.

    This was the most ethical person I had ever met in this field. It is so hard for me to comprehend that I will ever trust anyone other than my husband ever again.

    Again, thank you for the direction to look for a new therapist. I will do that today.

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  3. Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too.
    Interesting and important information. It is really beneficial for us. Thanks

    Like

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