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

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.