September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. So let’s talk about that. How do we prevent suicide? Let’s start with the basics, and then let me tell you what I have learned that may be a better approach. Let’s get started….
Know the Risk Factors
First of all, there are risk factors you should be aware of. Risk factors are characteristics that make it more likely someone will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. They won’t cause suicide or predict it, but they are still something we should be aware of. They are:
- Mental disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and certain personality disorders
- Alcohol and other substance use disorders
- Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
- History of trauma or abuse
- Major physical illnesses
- Previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide
- Job or financial loss
- Loss or relationships
- Easy access to lethal means
- Local clusters of suicides
- Lack of social support and sense of isolation
- Lack of healthcare, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment
- Cultural and religious beliefs, such as the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
- Exposure to others who have died by suicide (either in real life or via the Internet)
Know the Warning Signs
Then there are warning signs. You may notice someone doing something that is a new behavior or seems related to a painful event, such as a loss or change. Keep an eye out for these warning signs, as it may be a good indication something serious is going on and they may need to seek help. They are:
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings
Know How to Talk to Them
So now you know what to look for. And let’s say you see someone exhibiting some behavior that sets off some alarms. But how do you start a conversation?
First of all, know that there are resources out there for YOU as someone who wants to help. Call 1-800-273-TALK and they can tell you what resources are available in your area.
Second, just start a conversation. Tell them you’ve noticed they have been different lately and you are concerned. Ask them if suicide is something they have thought about. And if they say yes…be supportive, be direct, be willing to listen, and be non-judgemental. Listen, they are probably already feeling isolated in some way. Validate their feelings. You don’t have to agree or disagree. You don’t have to rattle off lists of things they have to live for. Just LISTEN.
Honestly, all of this information I am giving you seems pretty straightforward. This isn’t much different from other articles out there on the Internet telling you what signs to look for or how to help someone you suspect is suicidal. But this is where I need you to hear me out…
We need to stop telling people who are suicidal to reach out for help, or wonder why they didn’t reach out for help after they died by suicide.
First of all, one of the warning signs and risk factors are feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Does someone suffering from those types of feelings strike you as the type of person to reach out for help? Probably not. Yet we are still telling these people “If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, reach out.” Literally every single time a celebrity commits suicide, it’s the same spiel. This is why we need to know the warning signs and risk factors, and then act on them if something seems off.
And also…THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO CHECK ON OUR FRIENDS, FAMILY MEMBERS, COWORKERS, ETC. Say you haven’t heard from someone in awhile. Maybe they suffered some sort of loss. Or maybe they haven’t and you just haven’t heard from them. Call them. Text them. Check up on them. Maybe they are sitting there wondering if anyone cares about them, waiting for someone to reach out. What if all someone needs is someone else to say, “Hey! I haven’t heard from you in awhile! How are you? Are you doing OK?” Then you have started a conversation they have been wanting to have, but didn’t know how to start themselves. I know this seems ridiculously simple, but try it.
The second point is that there is this cloud of stigma around mental health. It is so misunderstood. People are afraid to speak out because they don’t know how people will react. People dealing with mental health issues are not going to go around educating other people about depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. That is something we need to do for ourselves so we can be of help to someone with a mental health issue. In other words, WE NEED TO DO BETTER. There are so many resources out there. Take some time to get online and educate yourself. Read other people’s stories. Recognize the things you may be doing to contribute to the stigma and correct them. If you see other people stigmatizing mental health, take some time to educate them too.
Suicide is preventable. But I get so confused, and angry, when we tell people who are feeling suicidal that they are the ones who need to reach out and that they are the ones who need to tell us how they are feeling. As Sezin Koehler wrote in a phenomenal article (see resources at the end of this blog), “Please stop telling us to reach out. I know it comes from a place of love, but it’s as helpful as unsolicited advice. We aren’t going to do it. This terrible infection doesn’t work like that. The most helpful thing that anyone can do for someone going through this is to not expect anything from them. Do not expect that they will reach out, that they will know how to ask for help. If you think someone is in trouble, you should reach out to them. Not the other way around.”
Thanks for reading this week.