I'm reading an article about suicide on the website 'NPR', but I don't understand the meaning of this sentence.

It's really when the symptoms add up in the mind of that person, where they think 'The way I deal with this is to take my life'.

This is entire paragraph from the NPR article including the sentence for your understanding.

Some of the warning signs would certainly be depression and ... loss of concentration. People not seeming like themselves. Insomnia can be a big risk factor. Other warning signs might include irritability, withdrawal. And the thing that's really critical: Lots of people have those symptoms and are not thinking about suicide. It's really when the symptoms add up in the mind of that person, where they think 'The way I deal with this is to take my life.'

The sentence I don't understand is the last one.

I understand what each word of the sentence means, but I don't understand the structure 'It's really when ~~, where ~~ .'.

2 Answers 2


I don't think that this sentence is well-formed. I agree with you; the where/when combination strikes me as somewhat odd. However note that this extract is from a succession of spoken comments by an expert in the field. It very much has the feeling of someone extemporising a summary of their deep knowledge. In such situations there is no chance to edit ones phrasing, so some oddities of expression may occur. We should also note that the punctuation will have been added by whoever transcribed this conversation.

Here the overall meaning seems clear to me: for some people the set of symptoms combine in their mind and they reach point in time where the solution is seen as suicide. The use of **where* brings to mind the idea of a vantage point, a person reaches a position where their view of the combined circumstances leads them to consider ending it all.


What the writer really means is that two main warning signs of depression are...
1: when the symptoms add up in the mind of that person,
2: where they think1 'The way I deal with this is to take my life.

(Effectively one could say the word really applies to the entire statement being made.)

Note that when / where are time- / space-based metaphoric usages here (technically, temporal / spatial relative adverbial pronouns). But it's important to realize that the writer could just as well have reversed the two words, or used either of them twice - because depression is an abstract noun that doesn't physically exist within our space/time continuum, it doesn't automatically favour spatial over temporal reference, or vice-versa.

To illustrate that interchangeability, consider thousands of written instances of Democracy is where and Democracy is when (some conditions are met).

I would just point out that where (when? :) the abstract noun itself has a strong temporal element, such as senility (the mental infirmity of old age), we do have a tendency to reflect this in definitions. So whereas there are dozens of written instances of Senility is when, there are none at all for Senility is where. Having said that, I don't think many native speakers would consciously notice anything unusual about the latter usage there.

1 In this context, they = that person, so it's obviously singular. But syntax overrides semantics, so we use the plural verb form think, rather than singular thinks.

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