In the five minutes that it takes you to read this blog, it is likely that there will be roughly two deaths by suicide and eleven suicide attempts (American Academy of Suicidology 2019 Data). Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause among youth ages 15-24. About one out of every six students in grades 9-12 have seriously considered suicide and one out of 12 have attempted (CDC, 2015). Undoubtedly, suicide is a significant health concern that impacts individuals from diverse backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and ages. For the longest time, we thought that for every person who died by suicide there were six people impacted, but more recent research indicates that number is closer to 135 (Cerel, 2019). Approximately, 40-50% of the population is exposed to suicide in some fashion in their lifetime. That means, you or the person sitting next to you will be impacted by suicide.
So, how can we work together to prevent this?
The first step is realizing that you CAN make a difference even if you are not a trained mental health professional. It is a fact of life that the human experience consists of triumphs and joy just as much as it involves emotional and psychic pains. Challenge the assumptions and biases you have about suicide and ask someone how they are doing. One of the most important things you can do is ask questions. Kevin Hines, one of 36 survivors of a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge, shares his thoughts as he pondered jumping. In his mind, he made a bargain that if at least one person stopped and asked him how he was doing then he would not jump. No one did. So, even if it is a stranger and even if you are scared, stop and ask if there is anything you can do for that person who might be sitting in the coffee shop crying or the student in the classroom with the hoodie pulled over their head.
You can find out more about Kevin Hines and his story here.
The second step is recognizing the warning signs and factors that might precipitate suicide.
Warning signs include:
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings
- Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when this is out of the ordinary
- Giving away prized possessions
Contributing Factors include:
- Relationship problems
- Problematic substance use
- Job/Financial problems
- Loss of housing
- Crisis in the past or upcoming two weeks
- Physical health problems
- Criminal legal problems
Of course, consider the unique context for the individual if you know them well. If someone seems “off” or really different from how they normally behave then there may be more reason for concern. Just because someone displays one warning sign or has a relationship breakup doesn’t automatically mean they are contemplating suicide. Be direct when asking. For example, you can say, “You haven’t been responding to my texts lately and I know that you and Sam just broke up. Sometimes people feel so much despair after a breakup that they lose all hope for living. Have you thought about killing yourself?” The worse thing that could happen by being direct is that they think you are overreacting. The best result is that you prevented suicide. Most importantly, ask questions and listen without any judgment. Be aware of your own reactions and beliefs. For example, don’t get angry that they are even thinking about suicide or dismiss someone because you think they might never really follow through.
The third step is to remember that the individual with thoughts of wanting to die feels ambivalence about the decision to end their life and in the current moment they see that it is the only way to end the pain and suffering. Suicide is their solution to end that pain so we have to help them find other ways to deal with the anguish. As a loved one or a practitioner, you are trying to negotiate the idea that suicide is not the only option for ending their pain while still acknowledging that what they are experiencing is unbearable. You might tell them “I can understand that with all you have been through that you are hurting AND the decision to die by suicide is a forever solution. Would you be willing to take a closer look at the part of yourself that does not want to end your life (no matter how small) and consider finding a different solution and a reason for living?”
Lastly, do not do this alone. Here are resources if you or a loved one are displaying the warning signs or contributing factors.
You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org for online emotional support.
A text can be sent to the Crisis Text Line (Text Home to 741 741).
For LGBTQ+ youth, you can call The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or thetrevorproject.org.
For Trans individuals, you can seek specialized support at Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 or translifeline.org.
If you want to feel more comfortable having conversations about mental health and suicide, seek out training in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Learn more here or visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org.
If there is no one to talk to between 10pm-6am, reach out to the Los Angeles County Warm Line at (855) 952-9276.