Tragically, deaths by suicide happen far more frequently than we may realize. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among American adults. Among teens, it is the 2nd leading cause of death. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2019, there were 47,511 deaths by suicide in the U. S. and 1.38 million suicide attempts. During the pandemic, those figures have grown. Suicide Prevention Month is an opportunity to learn how to communicate with someone who is suicidal and possibly help them before it is too late.
The Stigma of Suicide
Culturally, we do not often publicly discuss suicide because, for most, it is unthinkable and deeply uncomfortable. Because most people cannot possibly imagine it, sometimes, when they hear of a death by suicide or a suicide attempt, their reactions are not always kind. You will often hear it described as a “selfish” act. There is often tut-tutting that the victim should have gotten help. Those who have not been touched by suicide will sometimes look to the deceased’s family members and wonder what they did or did not do to “cause” their loved one’s death. People will snidely say someone who attempts suicide just “did it for attention.” Unlike cancer or stroke, suicide is seen as a shameful way to die. Consequently, it remains a quietly festering problem that we do not publicly address. Those who are suffering with suicidal thoughts keep their struggles to themselves, embarrassed and ashamed. Further, families may try to conceal if their loved one died by suicide. The result is that information and education about suicide remains elusive.
For all these reasons, we must talk about suicide – openly and honestly.
Recognizing the Signs, Taking Action
We may not immediately recognize the depth of a loved one’s mental health troubles. Many who suffer from severe depression, anxiety, mania, or other mental illnesses are ashamed and try to hide it. But there are often signs before a suicidal crisis if we know what to look for. Parkdale Center’s Substance Use Counselor Sandra Carabajal says, “Individuals with suicidal thoughts tend to use a specific language such as "It is not worth trying," "I am not valuable," and "My family will be better off without me." They may call themselves “worthless,” give away their possessions, behave recklessly, or overuse alcohol or drugs.
So what can you do if you suspect a loved one may be in danger of suicide? According to Parkdale Center’s Dr. Christine Kurtz, “If someone expresses hopelessness and/or makes comments about ‘not being around’ or others ‘being better off without them,’ or if you just have a gut feeling that a person may be having suicidal thoughts, don't be afraid to ask. You won't give someone the idea by talking about it. People often express these types of thoughts before acting on them, and it can be a sign that part of them wants help. Having the courage to have the hard conversation could save a life.”
In other words, just talk with your loved one—calmly, compassionately, without judgment, and without shaming. Let them know they are valued, and you want to help.
If your loved one is in immediate danger, do not leave them. Remove potential means of harm such as excess pills or firearms. If necessary, call 911 or take them to an emergency room.
If your loved one is having thoughts of suicide, but not yet planning for it, encourage them to get help urgently. Offer to help them find a mental health professional such as a counselor or psychiatrist. When someone is struggling with a severe mental health crisis, sometimes just making appointments for themselves can feel like too much work. Offer to drive them to appointments or watch their kids while they go. Check in with them often and remind them they are loved and needed.
If you see a friend or loved one suffering and suspect their illness may be more severe than they’re reporting, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline for information and support. Learn more about recognizing suicidal thinking and how to respond at the National Alliance on Mental Health’s Risk of Suicide page.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255