It’s a very heavy word that all of us are familiar with. Some of us have a detached awareness after having seen suicide attempts depicted in a movie or reading about a celebrity’s death online. Some of us are closer to it because of our profession – nurse, therapist, educator, police officer – and may work with or come into contact with those struggling with suicidal thoughts on a daily basis. Even closer still are those of us who have experienced a devastating, intimate familiarity with suicide in the death or near-death of a friend, family member, or oneself.
Although heartbreaking, it’s not surprising that all of us have been affected by suicide in some way. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was a leading cause of death in the United States in 2019; it was the second leading cause among 10-34-year-olds and the fourth among 35-44-year-olds. Over 47,500 people died by suicide that year.
With suicide being so painfully common, why is it still so taboo to talk about?
This month we hope to change that.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, an annual campaign aimed at educating the public on preventing suicide, promoting community resources and treatment options, honoring survivors, and remembering those we’ve lost to suicide. One important goal of the movement is to destigmatize suicide by encouraging open communication. Once we can talk openly about it, the associated shame and guilt lose their power and prevention is more likely.
Feeling heard can be a literal and figurative lifesaver.
When entering into a conversation about suicide, we often clam up or feel self-conscious. What am I supposed to say? is a common concern. What if I say the wrong thing? Some of us are reluctant to even bring up the topic out of fear or embarrassment and worry that we’ll put the idea in their head.
Discussing suicide and showing concern for someone who is struggling provides them with relief. Research shows it actually decreases their suicidal thoughts. You can rest assured that you won’t be giving them the idea but are instead helping them by being open, upfront, and willing to listen with compassion.
Be direct and ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” Show you care by listening attentively to their feelings and refraining from passing judgment. It’s not helpful to list out all the reasons they have to live; this is patronizing and induces guilt. Do less talking, more listening.
Be there for them physically and emotionally. Let them know you care and will support them however you can. Offer to stay overnight so they’re not alone. Express how much they mean to you. Being there helps them feel less isolated and more connected.
KEEP THEM SAFE
Ascertain the details of their suicidal thoughts by asking these specific questions:
- Do you intend to kill yourself?
- How would you end your life?
- Do you have access to a gun, knives, pills, etc.?
- When do you plan to kill yourself?
These questions may seem intrusive and difficult to ask but they are crucial to determining the person’s immediate risk and safety. The more detailed their plan, the more at risk they are. Remove access to their chosen method of harm and stay with them at all times if they seem in immediate danger.
HELP THEM CONNECT
If they are high risk (have a plan and intent), get help as soon as you can by calling 911. Do not let them out of your sight until EMS arrives. They may be angry at you for calling but it is truly a matter of life or death. They may have to be hospitalized for their safety. Do not feel guilty for this as you are helping to save their life.
If they are lower risk (having suicidal thoughts but no plan and no intent), help them find behavioral health resources in the area as soon as possible. Ask if they are already connected with a psychiatrist, therapist, or other mental health professional and help them get in touch with that practitioner. Stay with them while they call the Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) to talk with a crisis worker who will offer counseling, support, and assistance with referrals.
Establish yourself as a support person by checking in on them after the initial conversation. Visit them in person or send an encouraging text. Remind them that you care. Make sure they get or stay connected with mental health professionals. Keep the lines of communication open.
Talking openly about suicide is an important way we can all fight the stigma and save lives. If you have concerns about a friend, family member, or acquaintance, ask them how they’re doing. What do you have to lose?