September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day.
Suicide touches all of us. Most of us have known or loved at least one person who took their life or who lives in the aftermath of losing a friend or family member to suicide. After cancer and heart disease, suicide accounts for more years of life lost (1.5 million each year) than any other cause of death. However, unlike cancer and heart disease, most of us feel very uncomfortable talking to someone about whether they are having thoughts about harming themselves.
Many of us grew up believing people who took their lives were crazy, selfish or morally defective. Medical research has proven suicidal thoughts are usually the result of psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, but this hasn’t helped us feel more comfortable talking about suicide.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control…
- 47,173 Americans died by suicide in 2017
- 1.4 million suicide attempts in 2017 (estimated)
- 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
- 2nd leading cause of death for ages 10-24
- White men ages 45 to 64 have the highest suicide rate
People who experience suicidal thoughts often don’t want to die but desperately want to escape unbearable suffering. A suicidal person can’t see any way out of their excruciating pain except through death. Despite their desire for the pain to stop, they are deeply conflicted about the act of suicide and wish there was an alternative. Most people who die by suicide talk about ending their lives prior to taking action. Thus, any mention of suicidal thoughts or plans should be taken seriously.
Studies also show that hopelessness is a strong predictor of suicide. People who feel hopeless talk of unbearable feelings, a bleak future and having nothing to look forward to.
People who die by suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, including:
|TALKING ABOUT||BEHAVIOR CHANGES||MOOD CHANGES|
|Killing themselves||Increased use of alcohol or drugs||Depression|
|Having no reason to live||Looking for ways to kill themselves||Loss of Interest|
|Being a burden to others||Acting recklessly||Irritability or rage|
|Feeling trapped||Withdrawing from activities||Humiliation|
|Unbearable pain||Isolating from family & friends||Anxiety|
|Increased or decreased sleep|
|Saying goodbye to people|
|Giving away possessions|
Tips for Talking about Suicide
Suicide prevention starts with recognizing these warning signs and taking them seriously. However, talking to someone about these signs or symptoms can be extremely difficult. If you are unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask. You cannot make a person suicidal by showing you care. In fact, giving a suicidal person the opportunity to express their feelings can provide relief from loneliness and pent-up negative feelings and may prevent a suicide attempt.
Ways to start a conversation about suicide:
* I’ve really been feeling concerned about you lately.
* Recently I’ve noticed some differences in you, and I’m wondering how you are doing.
* I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately.
If the individual you are talking to admits to suicidal feelings, you can continue the conversation by inquiring:
* When did you begin feeling like this?
* Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?
* You are not alone in this, you know. I’m here and I want to be helpful. How can I help you right now?
When you are talking to someone who is feeling suicidal, DO:
* Be yourself. Let the person know you care and they are not alone.
* Listen. Let the person unload no matter how negative the conversation seems.
* Be sympathetic, non-judgmental, patient, calm and accepting.
When talking with someone who feels like harming themselves, DON’T:
* Argue or say things about how much they have to live for.
* Act shocked or lecture them on the value of life or the wrongness of suicide.
* Promise confidentiality. A life is at stake and you may need to speak to someone in order to keep the suicidal person safe.
* Offer advice or make them feel they have to justify their feelings.
* Blame yourself.
It can be scary to know someone you care about is thinking of ending their life. However, many resources exist to help. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk and obtain resources in your area. If someone shares they are feeling like ending their life, take them to a doctor, local hospital emergency room or mental health professional or call 911 to get the immediate help the person needs to stay safe.
The important thing is to get help! If we are willing to ask uncomfortable questions and have difficult conversations, fewer people in our lives will die by suicide.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.