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Save a Life by Listening
Prairie Doc Perspectives
Richard P. Holm MD
Richard P. Holm MD

Our nation has a large and growing public health problem called suicide. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States and it is preventable. The Centers for Disease Control indicates suicide was responsible for more than 47,000 deaths in 2017, resulting in about one death every 11 minutes and it affects all ages. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years of age, the fourth leading cause among people 35 to 54 years of age, and the eighth leading cause among people 55 to 64 years of age.

While the causes of suicide vary, depression is often an underlying factor. Most of us periodically have what is called “situational depression,” such as the understandable sadness that follows severe loss or death, but what is more typical of harmful depression is when there is no particular situation, no identifiable “reason” for it. 

The diagnosis of depressive disorder is not easy. We suspect depression when people experience chronic pain, find it hard to concentrate, are without energy, have flares of temper, sleep too much or too little, have a loss of appetite or have over-eating binges, have unexplained crying spells, or become filled with anxiety for minimal reasons. Often people make things worse by covering-up depression with alcohol, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, or substance abuse, and these all make the diagnosis even more difficult.

The challenging concern is that with or without a diagnosis of depression, suicide remains extremely hard to predict. We know that “talking about it” is probably our most important means to help someone who is planning suicide. Although two-thirds of the people with depression do not seek or receive help; of the one-third that do get help and follow-through with treatment, 80 percent are better in four to six weeks.

Whenever possible, it’s best to guide people for whom we have concern to talk about their feelings with a professional. However, the most important preventer of suicide is, in many cases, the loved one, friend or kindly neighbor who can give that person an ear, offer true compassion and call for help when red flags are flying. You may never know it, but you might save a life by listening and being a friend.

If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally, help is available 24/7. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Richard P. Holm, MD is founder of The Prairie Doc. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc, visit or email