Why I’m an Advocate for Suicide Prevention
I was just arriving home from attending my church service when I got the text. I couldn’t believe the words I was reading, not until I called her mom to ask if it was really true. After I hung up the phone I sat in my car, dumbfounded, sad, in shock… I couldn’t believe my friend was gone just like that.
I was left with so many questions. Why was I not more attentive to her? Why didn’t I call her more often? Why was I not able to help her feel better? Why did she have to make this choice? Why? And I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I felt like I had failed her and her family. I know that her mom had really depended on me to be a support system for her. And I felt like I had failed my duty as a friend which had cost us a life of someone we all loved.
Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death in the youth. In 2018, 48,344 Americans died by suicide, and there were 1.4 million suicide attempts (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2020). Before my personal experience, I had thought that suicide was a rare occurrence, one most people only saw on TV. But the numbers show us that it’s a huge crisis, so why aren’t we talking about it more?
Research has looked at some of the factors that may put someone at a greater risk for suicide. For adolescents and young adults specifically, some of these risk factors include mental illness, prior suicide attempts, hopelessness, family history of suicidal behavior, parental divorce, child maltreatment, suicide of a peer, poor problem-solving ability, and social isolation (Stone & Crosby, 2014). And with three quarters of people with diagnosable mental illness experiencing first symptoms of poor mental health by the age of 24, it’s no wonder we need to address the risk factors as early as possible (Kessler, et al., 2005; McGorry, et al., 2007).
Recently, I watched a video on YouTube where suicide attempt survivors debunked myths and stigma surrounding suicide. One thing that they mentioned, something I wish I had known earlier, was that asking someone about their suicidal thoughts will not trigger them to go through with it. In the video, a mental health professional shared that people are often relieved when the topic of suicide is brought up, and a suicide attempt survivor mentioned that powerful (positive) things can happen by initiating a conversation to share about their feelings. In fact, studies show that talking about suicide does not increase suicidal ideation and may even reduce them (Mathias et al., 2012 & Dazzi et al., 2014). When I was talking to my friend, I was so afraid of asking about her darkest thoughts because I thought my questions would be a trigger for her. I was scared that I would say the wrong things. And maybe a part of me was trying to avoid facing the reality of her pain because I did not know what I supposed to do to help.
So how do we move toward talking to our loved ones about suicide and get them the help they need? First, it’s important to notice the warning signs. There are the obvious ones like talking about wanting to die, saying goodbye to friends and family, giving away their possessions, and making a plan to commit suicide. But there are also the not so obvious signs like acting anxious or agitated, talking about seeking revenge, showing rage, changing eating and/or sleeping habits, and talking about great guilt or shame. And in my experience, you should not dismiss the subtle signs. If you suspect that someone you know is thinking about suicide, TAKE ACTION. I cannot express to you enough how important it is to act as soon as you see that your friend or a loved one is in pain.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has come up with an evidence-based 5 action plan to prevent suicides. Step 1: Ask and listen. This may be the most challenging step because we not only have to be sensitive and compassionate with our tone and words, but we also must be ready for whatever we may hear. I know it is nothing compared to what the individual battling suicidal thoughts is going through but hearing about their thoughts and the pain is not an easy task for the listener either. My advice is to seek resources or a community who can help guide you in this process so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. But it’s so important to start this conversation as early as possible when you’ve started to notice the worrying signs. Remember to keep a non-judgmental and supportive tone as you ask and listen. Try to ask about their potential reasons for living and keep them focused on those reasons.
Step 2: Keep them safe. Now that you’ve started the conversation, you need to figure out what their plans are and take the steps to keep them safe. Find out if they have set up a plan to commit suicide and if they have access to lethal methods (pills, firearm, etc.). The answers to these questions will let you know how high the risk of suicide is and prompt you to get authorities involved if necessary. Research has shown that eliminating access to lethal methods decrease overall suicide rates and suggests that the particular method will not be replaced with another one (Sarchiapone et al., 2011 & Daigle, 2005).
Step 3 & 4: Be there and help them connect. Increasing the sense of connectedness so that individuals feel less alone can help tremendously to prevent suicidal thoughts (Centers for Disease and Prevention). Check in with them as much as you can to show support. This can mean being physically present for them, giving them a call, or even shooting texts throughout the day just to let them know that you’re thinking about them. Also, find out ways how you can help connect them to other resources. One resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), a confidential helpline that people can call to receive help from trained professionals whenever they need it. One study found that people who called the Lifeline were more likely to feel less suicidal, less depressed, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful after their calls with trained counselors who listened without judgment, helped them explore their reasons for living, and helped them create a list of support contacts (Gould et al., 2013).
And finally, Step 5: Follow up. This is a continuation of Step 3. After you’ve connected them with the right resources and even a therapist, you may feel that it’s time for you to step back and let the trained experts do what they need to do. However, following up with your friend or a loved one experiencing suicidal thoughts should not be forgotten. Being shuttled from one resource or therapist to another can make someone feel as if being tossed around from one person to the next. You can be that constant factor in their lives to help them feel like they belong somewhere. Reach out to them frequently and see how they are doing and ask if there is anything else you can help them with. Studies have shown that following up with people who struggle with suicidal thoughts can have a positive impact on suicide prevention (Motto & Bostrom, 2001 & Fleischmann et al., 2008).
These steps may sound simple, but they hit the core of helping someone in emotional pain. Please don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions and be proactive in helping. I can’t promise that it will be an easy journey, but it will be a valuable one, one that you will never forget. As for me, I have my regrets for not stepping up to the plate, but I hope my story can challenge others to take action. My friend visits me in my dreams from time to time. I like to think that it’s her way of letting me know that she’s okay and that our story is worth telling if it can help at least one other soul.
Disclaimer: THIS article DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. The information contained herein is not intended to be a substitute for, or to be relied upon as, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This article is for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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