No reason to take building inspector’s suicide as an admission of anything ‘except his level of distress’
Six people died in a building collapse at 21st and Market streets in Philadelphia on June 5, and a week later, Ronald Wagenhoffer, who had inspected the building site in February, committed suicide. “We had six people who died in the building collapse and now we’ve had another person perish because of this particular tragedy,” Mayor Nutter said in a statement last week.
But can we really assume Wagenhoffer’s death and the collapse are related? We reached out to Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a licensed clinical psychologist and senior director of research and special projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for more insight.
I’m trying to figure out—when something like this happens, what should the public perception be of this person? Are suicides often an admission that the deceased is guilty of something?
First of all, it’s just a very sad thing, that he took his life. There’s no reason to take this as an admission of anything except his level of distress. We don’t know what was going on with him so we can’t really speak [about] him in particular, but we do know that suicide doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s many factors that come together. Sometimes it’s the final stressor, sometimes it’s not. We know that more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death: depression, anxiety, substance abuse. And they have access to lethal means. So, there’s no evidence that he just felt guilty and he killed himself out of the blue, but there’s no way to know what was going on for him and we should definitely not take it as an admission of guilt.
Do suicides after incidents like this happen often, or is it random?
You have to look at the individual. We know there are a lot of things that come together and sometimes what will happen is there will be an event that looks like it caused the suicide, so when you go back and look at all the factors that relate to it, and the warning signs, hindsight is 20/20. That’s why we try to teach people to recognize the warning signs, so, for instance, low mood, depression, irritability, agitation, changes in sleep or appetite or energy. Sometimes people talk about how life is not worth living, or you’ll be better off without me, or I won’t have to worry about this soon. Sometimes there’s a family history of suicide or mental illness. But sometimes there’s vulnerability and then there’s a trigger. So, that trigger could have been the event. But it could also be alcohol use, it could be the loss of a relationship, it could be the start of a depression.
So, while it looks like it comes out of the blue, most of the time people don’t announce I’m going to do this. If we go back, we always find there are many things that come together. And when we think about these kinds of events, there are many people where accidents like this happen and there’s a, someone is involved in some way and they don’t kill themselves. There are many people involved in this, obviously, and they’re not killing themselves. This might be a trigger but it might not. I think that’s the way to think about it. Sometimes people who undergo some really awful things still don’t kill themselves.
This tragedy has already been tallied up as a casualty of the incident that happened on June 5. It’s possible it could have been a trigger, as you said, but it sounds like you’d think it’d be irresponsible to relate one tragedy to the other.
Absolutely. Even if it was a trigger, it’s not the cause. And to assume he did something worth killing himself over—you know when people are in that state, even if it seems logical, it’s not logical. In a distraught state, people are not thinking clearly. They get what’s called a tunnel vision and they think this is the solution and they’re not able to think about other possible solutions or the idea that this will pass. You can be pretty sure that most people in [any given] situation do not kill themselves. So, there’s faulty thinking and implausibility and solutions that comes in a suicide. People often kill themselves because they’re in tremendous pain and they don’t realize they can get help. It’s not often people want to die, but they want to stop hurting. So, they often don’t realize they can get help.