Ending the Stigma: How to Address and Prevent Suicide
As the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, suicide has a devastating effect on individuals, families, workplaces, and communities. The CDC reports that suicide rates have increased annually since 2006, and as many as 1.3 million adults attempt suicide every year.
But there is good news: suicide is preventable, and we can all play our part in understanding and addressing the root causes of suicide in our communities. In recognition of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), here are some of the facts about recognizing and preventing suicide.
Suicide Risk Factors
Many of us associate suicide with serious mental illness, but the truth is that even people without known mental health conditions can experience suicidal thoughts or even attempt suicide. While those with depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are at higher risk of suicide, a wide range of other factors can also contribute to suicidal thoughts, feelings, and actions. These include:
- misuse/abuse of alcohol and other addictive substances,
- major physical illnesses or injuries,
- highly impulsive or aggressive tendencies,
- family history of suicide,
- loss of a job or other form of financial stability,
- loss of a relationship,
- lack of healthcare, particularly mental healthcare,
- history of trauma or abuse,
- feelings of isolation or lack of social support,
- feelings of hopelessness,
- cultural, religious, or other personal beliefs that prevent asking for help,
- social and economic inequalities and injustices, and
- exposure to others who have died through suicide, either in real life or via the internet/media.
Suicide Warning Signs
While it often comes as a shock to loved ones left behind, suicide rarely happens out of the blue. The majority of people who commit or attempt suicide give some type of warning, whether direct or indirect. Knowing what to look out for can help family members, friends, and co-workers intervene. The warning signs of suicide include:
- talking or posting on social media about wanting to die,
- talking or posting about feeling hopeless or worthless,
- talking or posting about feeling trapped,
- talking or posting about being a burden to others,
- withdrawing or isolating,
- increased drug or alcohol use,
- reckless or uncharacteristic risk-taking behavior,
- anxiousness, agitation, or rage,
- sleeping too little or too much,
- excessive mood swings,
- a sudden shift to calm or even happy after extreme depression,
- a sudden interest in getting one’s affairs in order, and
- researching ways to kill oneself.
What can you do if you notice these signs in a loved one or co-worker? The most important way you can help prevent suicide is to speak up if you are worried. Even someone who is severely depressed doesn’t necessarily want to die; they simply want their pain to stop. Knowing they are not alone can go a long way to easing that pain. While it can be very difficult to talk to someone about their suicidal thoughts or feelings, giving them the chance to express themselves can help relieve their loneliness, sadness, and other negative emotions.
When talking with someone about suicide, it’s crucial to remain non-judgmental and to avoid arguing with them over logic or making them feel like they need to justify their feelings. Be empathetic and reassure them that you care and that they are not alone. Asking questions like, “When did you begin feeling like this?” or “How can I best support you right now?” can help move the conversation forward.
You should also do everything in your power to get them professional help. This includes encouraging them to see a therapist or other mental health professional, helping them locate treatment facilities, and taking them to doctor’s appointments. Suicide crisis lines can provide advice and referrals for treatment. If the person is prescribed medication or other treatment to help with their suicidal feelings, follow up with them to make sure they are sticking to their treatment plan. These follow-ups can also help you and them determine whether the treatment is working or whether they need further help.
Help them come up with a safety plan: a set of steps they can follow if they find themselves in a crisis. This includes identifying triggers that could lead to a crisis (alcohol, a fight with a significant other, the anniversary of a loss, etc.) and creating a list of contact numbers, such as their doctor or therapist and friends and family who can come be with them so they are not alone. Any safety plan should also involve removing potential means of suicide, such as firearms or pills.
Finally, be proactive about keeping in touch. For people struggling with suicidal thoughts, reaching out for help can often feel impossible, but ongoing support is vital to their recovery. Instead of simply telling them to call if they need to, take the initiative to call them and to drop by if they don’t answer.
Addressing Suicide to End the Stigma
Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about, but sweeping it under the rug does far more harm than good. There remains a stigma around suicide, making it even more difficult for people to admit to having a problem and to reach out for help. By proactively addressing suicide with openness and empathy, we can help reduce suicide rates and help people struggling with this heavy burden find hope and healing.
Get More Help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Trevor Project (suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (referrals for substance abuse and mental health treatment).