September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. While it is unfortunate that the need exists to have months and days that are dedicated to suicide prevention, awareness of suicide and what can be done to recognize and prevent suicides is essential to help combat the devastating effects.
It seems all too frequent that we read a news story where a celebrity, college student, or other individual has committed suicide. Even more suicides go unreported. It is estimated that over 800,000 people commit suicide each year across the globe, and the number of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts that occur each year is even more staggering. Even with significant developments in recognizing the importance of mental and emotional health and providing resources that can assist those in a mental health crisis, suicide continues to bear a stigma and many people do not understand the factors that contribute to a person ending their own life.
One of the best steps that people can take to help prevent suicide is to confront its existence head-on. It is important to recognize that unfortunately some people are experiencing such significant struggles, despair, and depression that suicide may seem like their only option. Educating yourself about depression and other mental health illnesses can help you to gain compassion for those around you who may be feeling this way, and can help you better understand how to interact with those who are struggling. Learning the right way to respond to a person who confides in you that they are feeling depressed or having a mental health crisis is important because it reinforces that person’s worth, does not minimize their feelings, and can help them feel validated in seeking the help that they need to overcome what they are feeling. Many people feel uncomfortable to learn that someone they know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, and may want to either avoid the conversation or say something that they think is helpful in an attempt to cheer the person up, but can actually make the person feel even more isolated and misunderstood. Listening is the most important step, followed by responding in a way that indicates that you have heard what this person is telling you and that you take it seriously and care. It can be tempting to offer advice such as “get some exercise or sleep and you’ll feel better,” or to tell them “you won’t feel this way forever, it’s just a bad day,” but these responses may instead cause the person who is struggling to feel as if they shouldn’t even bother reaching out for help about their feelings. Instead, professionals suggest letting the person express their thoughts and feelings, even if it is very hard to hear, and letting them know that they are not alone in feeling this way and that there are resources that can help them.
Learning the warning signs of suicidal ideation or behavior is also an important step in prevention. These signs include withdrawing from friends, family, or activities, anger, hopelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, reckless behavior, giving extravagant gifts or giving away possessions suddenly and seemingly without reason, and unexpected or unusual expressions of love for friends or family. Asking a person who seems to be showing these signs, or exhibiting any symptoms of any other mental health issue, if they are OK and letting them know that you are concerned for them is the best first step that can be taken in intervention and prevention. If signs of suicide persist or worsen, taking further steps to keep that person safe are important. This can include not leaving them alone if self-harm seems imminent, limiting access to weapons or other instruments of self-harm, and referring them to suicide crisis hotlines or mental health professionals. You can even suggest seeing a professional or making a hotline call together.
Finally, another step that can be taken to help prevent suicide is in the way we speak about it. Many times people are hesitant to acknowledge that someone they know or love has committed suicide, and instead simply refer to their “death” or “passing” without addressing the reason. While there is a time and place to discuss a suicide, it is important not to sweep it under the rug in order to raise awareness of it as a very real problem and continue to find ways to prevent suicides. Reducing casual talk that references suicide is also a good step toward bringing awareness to the severity of the problem. Phrases are used in everyday language without serious meaning, such as “if I don’t get this promotion, I’ll kill myself!” contribute to the stigma that surrounds suicide and may make those who actually feel suicidal feel like they would be taken less seriously if they were to share their feelings.
There are many other ways to help prevent suicide on a larger scale too. You can donate to a suicide prevention organization, or volunteer for a hotline or at a crisis center. You can attend events that address suicide, depression, and other mental health issues so you can learn more about how to recognize warning signs and better understand what a depressed or suicidal person is feeling. There are hosts of reading materials, videos, and resources that can help you educate yourself as well. For more information, and to learn how you can help spread awareness and prevent suicides, you can check out the World Suicide Prevention Day website: https://www.iasp.info/wspd2019/.