Unlike the lyrics to the old M.A.S.H. theme song would have you believe, suicide is not painless. It hurts not only its victims, but their families and loved ones. This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, but preventing suicide is a topic that should never drop out of the conversation — no matter what time of year it is.
Suicide can be preventable, and it is important to take seriously. We can all play an important role in preventing suicide. Below we will discuss and debunk five myths associated with suicide, share warning signs you can look out for, and explain ways you can go about talking to and supporting someone in your life who is having suicidal thoughts.
Debunking Myths About Suicide
While it is generally being talked about more than it has in the past, there are still several myths associated with suicide. It is important to know the truth so you can best understand and support your family, friends, or other loved ones who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.
MYTH #1: Suicide only affects people with mental illness.
FACT: While suicide often coincides with mental illness, many people with mental health conditions do not experience suicidal thoughts or behavior. Likewise, not all people who attempt or complete suicide have a mental illness. Difficult life events, stressors, changes, or relationship problems can all trigger suicidal thoughts.
MYTH #2: Suicide typically happens without warning & can’t be predicted.
FACT: While it may be more difficult to tell how some people are feeling compared to others, there are usually red flags or warning signs for suicide that you can look out for. Whether you suspect someone you know is thinking about suicide or not, the signs discussed in the next section should always be taken seriously.
MYTH #3: Asking someone if they are feeling suicidal will put the idea in their head & encourage them to do it.
FACT: There is still a negative stigma attached to suicide, and because of this many people are hesitant to talk about it. However, contrary to popular belief, talking about suicide actually works to reduce the stigma and may provide a sense of relief to people having suicidal thoughts, allowing them more opportunities to share how they’re feeling and seek help. Research has shown that asking individuals who are at risk of suicide does not increase their suicidal thoughts or chance of attempting suicide. As a matter of fact, directly asking someone “are you thinking of killing yourself?” may be the question that helps stop them from doing so. Below we will include examples of ways to talk to and support someone thinking of suicide.
MYTH #4: People who attempt or complete suicide are selfish or seeking attention.
FACT: People usually attempt or complete suicide because they are feeling deeply hopeless, helpless, and empty and want an end to their suffering. Experiencing suicidal thoughts is not something they can control and is a sign of severe distress. Their thoughts & actions do not mean that they are simply being selfish or only thinking of themselves, but instead that they are going through a very difficult time and need help. These should not be ignored or dismissed as attention-seeking.
MYTH #5: If someone is currently suicidal, they always will be.
FACT: While suicidal thoughts can return at different points in people’s lives, they are not permanent. Most active suicidal periods are typically short-term and specific to a certain situation. Often, active suicidal ideation is a result of someone trying to control painful emotions they are experiencing at that time. People who have experienced suicidal thoughts can live long and healthy lives with the help of support and professional treatment.
Warning Signs for Suicide
It is important to know and be able to recognize the red flags in order to get immediate help for a friend or loved one when it is needed.
Is the person talking about…
- wanting to die or kill themselves?
- feeling hopeless or empty and having nothing to look forward to?
- feeling like a burden to others, guilty, or shameful?
- being preoccupied with thoughts of death and wondering what it would be like?
Are they participating in increased risky behavior such as…
- using drugs and/or alcohol more often?
- driving recklessly?
Have there been noticeable changes in their daily routine, such as…
- increased or decreased sleeping?
- increased or decreased appetite and/or eating?
Have you noticed changes in their social activity, such as…
- no longer hanging out with friends?
- decreased overall time spent with family or loved ones?
- increasingly isolating themselves?
- decreased participation in activities such as sports, fine arts, clubs, church, or other social groups?
Are there noticeable changes in their mood, such as…
- extreme mood swings or sudden changes in mood not present before? (This can look like someone who normally feels down or depressed suddenly experiencing blissful happiness without any explanation or someone who normally feels happy/content experiencing sudden deep sadness.)
- often feeling agitated or anxious?
- an overall loss of interest in things they previously enjoyed?
Obtaining means to complete suicide, including…
- buying a gun, knife, rope, etc., or making other unusual purchases?
- stockpiling pills or other substances?
Giving away possessions or getting affairs in order, like…
- making a will?
- giving prized or beloved belongings to other people without an explanation?
- saying goodbyes or writing letters to family, friends, or other loved ones?
If you notice one or several these warning signs in someone you know or if you believe that they apply to you and you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please seek help as soon as possible.
How to Talk to and Support Someone Who is Suicidal
As was mentioned above, don’t be afraid to ask! It will NOT increase the chance of suicidal thoughts or attempts. It can feel uncomfortable to ask someone “are you thinking about killing yourself?” But asking can be a great way to communicate to them that you have been paying attention to their changes in mood and behavior and that YOU CARE. It also gives the person an opportunity to open up about what they are going through. Questions like “Have you been more unhappy lately?” or “You seem down today, what’s been going on?” can also be helpful.
Keep them safe.
If you believe someone you care about is actively suicidal, you can help to prevent attempts by reducing their access to lethal items or places. Again, it is okay to ask the person if they have a plan to attempt suicide and then taking steps to reduce and remove the lethal means they might use to do so.
Being there for someone having suicidal thoughts can include simply listening carefully to understand what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. Using active listening by acknowledging the person, responding, reflecting, and summarizing what they are saying while maintaining focused eye contact and body language can show them you truly care what they have to say. Again, research has shown that openly acknowledging and discussing suicide may actually decrease suicidal thoughts.
Help them connect.
Despite having friends and family, people experiencing suicidal thoughts may actually feel very emotionally disconnected and alone. You can help them by reconnecting them with a friend, family member, mentor, coach, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional and encouraging them to be open about their suicidal thoughts. You can also connect them with resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), a crisis text line, or other mental health resources in their local area.
Staying in touch with them after a crisis or a discharge from care services can make a world of difference. Just because the crisis appears to have ended or the person received treatment, does not mean their thoughts won’t return. Research has shown that following up with an at-risk person after a crisis actually decreases deaths by suicide.
Ways to Seek Help
There are many ways to reach out for help for a loved one or yourself to prevent suicide. Often picking up the phone is the first step. Please know that it is always ok to ask for help. Needing help and asking for it is a sign of strength. There are people who care everywhere.
Here are some resources to consider:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (provides 24/7 free & confidential support to those in crisis) at 1-800-273-8255. If the person would prefer to text or chat, they can text HELLO to 741741 to get in touch with the Crisis Text Line or chat online here.
- Reach out to a local local mental health provider like Covenant Family Solutions. Helping the person reach out and connect with a therapist can be a great way to support them and prevent suicide. Providers can help them find the best treatment options to help overcome suicidal thoughts and get on a path the mental wellness.
- In an emergency call 911. If the person is actively engaging in suicidal behavior or has made a suicide attempt, call 911 to get emergency help immediately.