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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 3, 2009

“Demystifying suicide”
Barr talks about prevention and healing, from the heart

By Philippa Stasiuk

VOORHEESVILLE — W. Brian Barr has had a quarter century to think about his son’s suicide, and he’s distilled some of his thoughts for others.

When he speaks in public, as he will on Sept. 17 in Albany, he uses his years of work as a mental health and substance abuse expert to try to demystify suicide and help prevent it. Suicidal thoughts, he says, are — much like a sharp internal pain or a bleeding wound — a signal that the self needs immediate care.

He urges those who think about killing themselves to tell someone, to seek help.

The chilling story of his son’s descent into suicide still sounds raw when he tells it.

“You know when you’re in your house and you know things aren’t right?” he asks. “At one in the morning, my wife was asleep, and I said I’d go check on the kids, and I went downstairs to the basement and there was snow on the TV.”

Barr says of his 18-year-old son, Kevin, “He wasn’t there. I went back upstairs and looked in the carport and the car was gone. I was one of those parents waiting for the dreaded call and it came at 3:30 in the morning.”

The policeman told Barr his son was alive, but that he needed to get to St. Peter’s Hospital immediately. Barr and his wife rushed out to the carport in a blind panic, only to remember that their son had taken their only car. They went inside and called a cab.

Kevin, a student at Guilderland High School, had intended to drive his parents’ car off a cliff at Thacher Park but park rangers had unknowingly foiled him by blocking it off, possibly to avoid the exact scenario that Kevin hoped to act out.

Barr describes the scene from his son’s hospital bed: Kevin told him that, in his frustration, he had smashed a Coke bottle and cut both wrists. When he didn’t die, he got in the car to go home, hoping to clean himself up before his parents awoke. The police had spotted him driving at a crawl, almost unconscious from the loss of blood.

It was while in the trauma unit holding his son’s hand, waiting for the doctors to stitch him up that Kevin finally told his father what was going on. “He said, ‘Dad, I just want to die.’”

Kevin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and stayed in hospital for six weeks. Soon after he was discharged and despite therapy, Kevin finally, Barr said, “completed the act” and killed himself.

Amid such tragedy, Barr considers himself lucky in a way. The episode at Thacher Park, and the talks he had with his son after leaving the hospital helped him to cope with the suicide in a way that some survivors aren’t afforded. 

“I lost my mother to a painful form of cancer,” said Barr. “I was with her quite a bit of time when she was struggling in the final throes of passing. I held her hand a lot of the time and she was wracked with pain. The pain Kevin was experiencing was so much worse than what my mother was experiencing — there was nothing like it. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Barr, the former associate commissioner for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, had worked as the director of a local mental health clinic for 30 years. After decades of work as a psychotherapist, Barr’s message to people thinking about suicide is that they are their best protection against the fatal act.

“As good as I was, I never could see into somebody’s mind and see in their heart their intent to hurt themselves,” he said. “If they told me, I could be of great help to them. They know when they think the world would be better off without them. They have to let somebody know — voice it, act on it. Don’t think someone can see in their eyes and see the danger they’re in because no one can do it.”

In 2006, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Within adolescents aged 15 to nineteen, 8.2 killed themselves per 100,000, and 14.2 people aged 65 and older killed themselves per 100,000 people. There are over a million suicides per year around the world, although Barr says that figure is likely to be low due to underreporting and the stigmas still attached to the disease.

When Barr speaks to the public, he likens suicidal thoughts to being doubled over with pain — a perilous symptom requiring immediate medical attention.

“I know the symptom of distress because I live in a culture that has taught me from the earliest stages that, when I have this kind of pain and distress in a part of my body, I require attention and there’s help for it,” he said. “What I don’t know is if I have a sentiment in my mind that is saying this place would be better off without me and I could just as well leave because I feel so badly about being here. That is my body and mind signaling me to do something about my state of being.

“I haven’t been taught that that’s as dangerous a sign as if I’m buckled over in pain that says get to the emergency room or get to your parents’ bedroom and tell them I’m in desperate need of help. And it has nothing to do with any weakness, social embarrassment, regarding me.  It has to do with what is happening in my person at this time that requires attention.”

It was Barr’s encounter with the Good Samaritans in 1985 that helped him cope with the loss of his son the year before. Barr said that in the Samaritans, an organization founded in England in 1953 to train people to listen to other people’s problems through a helpline, he found what he needed to begin healing.

“People need somebody to listen to them.” He said. “They need to know somebody is interested in understanding the enormity of their loss, the huge hole that’s been left in their lives by this sudden violent death.”

These days, when Barr meets with people who have lost someone to suicide, he said he tries mostly to listen too. “By doing so,” said Barr, “I share what I’ve learned myself about suicide, which is that the person wouldn’t have been doing it to hurt them, but was just desperately trying to relieve themselves of that excruciating pain. It’s a disease and it has a beginning point and a progression and a terminal point.”


W. Brian Barr will be speaking on Thursday, Sept. 17, at SEFCU Corporate Headquarters, 700 Patroon Creek Blvd., Washington Ave., Albany at 7 p.m. in conjunction with Choices 301, Inc., based in Altamont. The title of his presentation will be “Demystifying Suicide: The Road to Understanding and Healing.”

The Samaritan Suicide Prevention helpline number is 689-4673.

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