Twenty questions with psychologist Dr. Howard Drutman

Following the death of a Grady student who took his own life, the Southerner spoke with Dr. Howard Drutman, chairperson of education for the Georgia Psychological Association about grief, loss and the warning signs students should look for.


First, how long have you been a psychologist?
I’ve been a psychologist for 30 years now.

Do you specialize in any particular area in psychology?
Yes, I specialize in forensic psychology in family law cases and court evaluations. I also work with people individually.

As you know, there was a recent suicide by  a Grady student. What are the best ways students can deal with grief?
People deal with grief in many different ways. And, this isn’t specific to suicide, but there are a set of stages for grief that most people go through when dealing with trauma. When people deal with horrible events, they go through stages, though they aren’t perfectly linear.

What are these stages?
The first stage is denial. People think, “No, it can’t be. I don’t believe it.” That’s denial. It’s shock, and you’re numb. Then people become angry. They’ll get mad at the person who killed themselves thinking, “Why didn’t I recognize this? Why didn’t anyone notice?” They’re angry that it happened, angry that it disrupts their life. Next is the bargaining stage. “If only I said…, What if I did…” It’s like bargaining. It’s how humans think about things. Then is the depression stage. It’s just sadness. At the end is acceptance. You accept the reality.

How can you best help a friend who is dealing with grief?
One thing to look out for is when grief turns abnormal. There’s a difference between sadness and depression. Overeating or undereating, sleeping too much or too little and isolating yourself are all signs of depression. Get help if you see this. You’ve got to talk to each other and tell teachers, counselors, administrators and parents. People in authority need to know if there’s a problem.

How does grief differ in teenagers than in adults?
Coping can be difficult for teens because it’s often the first time you’ve dealt with something like this. There’s been an artificial sense that the world is predictable. Then boom: there’s been someone your own age that became so distraught that they killed themselves.

What self-help advice can you give to teenagers?
It’s important for students to talk about it, to try to make sense of it. If school counselors can offer talk-groups, that can be really helpful.

What advice can you give to teenagers who are having suicidal thoughts?
If your friend has suicidal thoughts, you need to let adults know. You need to demand that they get help. When you’re so distraught, you almost don’t have the energy to go get help for yourself. If they start giving away their stuff, that’s very serious. That is a person who is at a very high risk..

How do you know when you should go on medicine?
When your emotions are negatively affecting your school functioning, you should get professional help. Your psychotherapist will let you know if it is time to meet with a physician for medication evaluation.

What is suicide contagion?
There have been documented cases of ‘suicide clusters:’ a few suicides within a short period of time within a particular area.

Why do these ‘cluster suicides’ occur?
Teenagers hear the details of a suicide over and over until it’s like they’re being bombarded nonstop. That can influence the decision of anyone. Teens will listen more to teens than to parents or adults. What another teen does has more influence than what an adult does. Teens also tend to be impulsive; the front part of the brain that controls impulses doesn’t develop until mid 20s. If you add a mental illness on top of that, it’s even worse.

So, is there a link between mental illness and suicide?
There is a relationship between the two. A suicidal person usually has depression, bipolar disorder or another type of problem such as impulse control, substance abuse, personality disorder or psychotic disorder. However, in the vast majority of cases, the individual has depression.

If a student doesn’t feel close to a certain teacher or parent, who should they go to if they need help?
They should talk to teachers and school counselors. They can always find resources in the community.

In your expert opinion, why do people commit suicide?
There is a sense of burden; the person feels they are a burden to their friends or family and think they might be better off not there. They feel emotional pain that is nonstop. There is an aspect of suicide that is just to make the pain end. Loss is a contributing factor, say a relationship ended and they feel lost and empty that they won’t connect with anyone again. Hopelessness leads to a bottomless pit of “nothing is going to get better.” It’s when these feelings are really intense and all occurring at once that makes it lethal.

Statistically, which gender has a higher percentage of committing suicide?
The rate is higher among males. For every one female that commits suicide there are 3.5 males.

Why do you think that is?
Men are more likely to succeed because they are more likely to use more violent means. A woman who swallows pills has a lower chance of dying than a man who used a gun, a much more lethal weapon.  

What can we do to help boys express emotion?
It’s really important to get boys to talk about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking about. We’re trying to get them to understand their own feelings and their own thoughts. We want to help them see that there are coping skills they can use.

How does social media impact mental illness?
The problem with social media is that it can glorify things. For example, the Tide Pod problem. You see something totally stupid, but people are doing it and posting it as a way to get attention. That’s the danger. People think, “that’s a cool thing to do.” Or, you take someone really depressed and see that someone is glorified for killing themselves. They think, “At least people will be talking about me.”

How should the school/peers respond in the short term?
Everyone is in the crisis mode now. Everyone is extra friendly and supportive. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t usually last. Usually after 6-12 weeks, people tend to forget. They forget to watch out for those around them and pay attention to warning signs.

So, what should we do to make sure it lasts?
It’s critical that the mindset changes in the students to look out for each other. When you see someone changing, go to the counselors. Seek help. Whatever you do, don’t be silent.

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