(This Op-Ed by yours truly was published in Florida Today, Monday, May 14, 2018.)
Most folks do not realize that homicide detectives spend more than half their time on the job investigating suicides, accidental deaths and even unexplained natural deaths, not just murder cases. That’s because any of those could be a homicide in disguise.
Sometimes, it hits home. As a Miami-Dade County homicide supervisor in the 1970s, I was routinely reviewing a stack of reports when I came across a suicide case where a 65-year-old man shot himself in the head and left a note: “I don’t want to suffer the cancer.” His name was Joe Strauss. My stepfather’s brother, he was “Uncle” Joe to me.
On another occasion, I visited the morgue to consult with the medical examiner, a frequent occurrence. As I passed by the array of bodies wearing nothing but toe-tags, I noticed a small person lying with a bullet hole in her temple. I gasped. I knew this girl, my wife’s niece, age 11. Alone in the house, she found her dad’s pistol, lay on the bed and elected to die.
Nationally, suicides comprise more than double the number of homicides, 44,965 compared to 19,362 ins 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control/Prevention.
Suicide cases are particularly heart wrenching. During my 30 years with Miami-Dade County Police, I knew 12 cops who killed themselves. One female officer had just lost her job. She took her 4-year-old son with her to the beach at night and lay on the blanket. She took both their lives with a revolver. Another detective struggled with love of wife and love of job, until his wife left for good. He got drunk, wrote a note and shot himself. Motives vary, though advanced sickness and alcohol played a major role in a large number. After that, comes depression and mental illness.
According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34. There are other surprising statistics:
- In most charts, the rates of suicide are 3.5 times higher among males, than females
- Racially, Native Americans/Alaskans, rank highest, followed closely by whites. Blacks show the lowest rates for suicide.
- Regionally, Rocky Mountain and Midwest states show the highest rates, while California, Illinois and New York show the lowest.
- Firearms account for over half of all suicides, followed by a myriad of other methods.
- The percentage of adults having had suicide thoughts were highest among adults 18 to 25,(8.8 percent).
- Roughly 18 percent of suicide victims are military veterans. That’s 22 per day.
- School bullying (and cyber bullying) play a significant role in suicides among young people.
- Having investigated hundreds of these cases, I saw that the common threads between cases were mental depression and other warning signs that were either ignored or dismissed by friends and relatives. It is important for parents and friends to pay close attention when suicide is ever mentioned, even in a joking fashion. Mental health professionals are available throughout the community for consultations. Or, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Other warning signs, according to mental health professionals, include:
- Sudden increase in use of alcohol or drugs
- Depression associated with unbearable pain
- Talking of being trapped or a burden to others
- Extreme mood swings
- Verbalizing a wish to die.
In rare occasions, I’ve seen suicides that actually translated to an act of love.
At age 88, Sam was suffering through a long and fatal illness. Greta, his wife of 65 years had been his caretaker for years, only to watch him wither in pain. One moonlit night, she took Sam for drive onto the beach. There, as he sat in the back seat, she connected the hose from the tailpipe into the car window. She turned on the engine and crawled into Sam’s arms. They were found the next morning in an embrace.
Theirs was an act of love.