Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Steve McNair, Sahel Kazemi, and the Woulda Shoulda Coulda Game

In case you missed it, police in Nashville have announced what pretty much everyone suspected:  that Sahel Kazemi killed Steve McNair and then herself sometime early Saturday morning.  The Quarterback has already delved into how incredibly messy this situation is for McNair's wife, and how the blame game is so hard to play but so compelling at these moments.  Now we've added another level. 

One of my CISM mentors is fond of saying that when there's a suicide, there's always a lot of "woulda shoulda coulda," as in, "If only I woulda paid attention.  I shoulda taken her seriously.  I coulda stopped her."  Once again, as our minds desperately try to make sense of a senseless situation, we try to come up with a plausible way that this event could have been stopped.  We do this because we want to believe that we can protect ourselves from it happening again, to us or someone else.  The problem is that often, as we weave our theories about what could have been done differently, we wind up blaming ourselves, if we are close to the person who completed the suicide, or, if we are not as close, we blame those who are.

In this situation it seems pretty clear that Kazemi told some folks she was thinking of killing herself.  She told a friend her life was a mess and "I should end it."  This leaves the obvious question, what did the friend do with that information?  We don't know, and we're not going to know.  Whatever it was, I'm sure the friend is doing a whole lot of woulda shoulda coulda right now.

But let's take this out of the context of suicide.  Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that you are standing on a busy street corner when a fellow pedestrian walks past you and into the street.  You see a car coming at them, and in a flash the car has hit them.  Are you responsible?  I think most people would say you are not, although you would feel horrible and guilty and traumatized.  Was there more you could have done?  Maybe.  Maybe you could have yelled, or pushed the person out of the way, or thrown yourself in front of the speeding car.  And it's entirely possible none of that would have made a difference.  And maybe it would have.  There is a big difference between missing a possible opportunity to avert a tragedy and being responsible for it in the first place.

When someone has decided to kill themselves, there are absolutely things you can and should do to try to stop them.  At the same time, if they complete the act of suicide, it is their responsibility.  That's a tension that's hard to deal with, but it's true.

The Quarterback would be remiss, however, if she did not remind you of some simple things that you, no matter who you are or what your background or training is, can do to try to prevent someone from killing themselves:
  • Take it seriously.   No, not everyone who talks about "ending it" means they are going to kill themselves, but it's better to overreact than underreact.
  • Ask the question.  There is a myth out there that if you ask someone if they are contemplating suicide they might get the idea from you.  No one has ever killed themselves because they were asked.  If you're worried, ask very directly, "Have you been thinking about killing yourself."  If the answer is yes, that person needs to be seen by a mental health professional, period.
  • Call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.  There are also national and local hotlines listed in your yellow pages and on the web.  If you're not sure what to do about someone you think may be a danger to themselves, call.
  • Don't try to handle it alone.  Friends can be the most helpful by getting the suicidal person the help they need.  Don't leave the person alone until you can connect them with professional help.
And again, you could do all of these things and the person could still complete the suicide.  You could do none and they decide not to.  You are not that powerful, certainly not as powerful as depression can be.  But it's always worth a try.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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