What Can I Do to Prevent Suicide?
“Matt has been shot.”
Those were the words I overheard my aunt say to my dad. We were sitting at the kitchen table doing my 6th-grade math homework when he got the phone call that his brother had taken his own life.
About a month ago a similar heartbreaking message was relayed when we learned my wife’s cousin had taken his own life.
I had seen this cousin just a month prior. We played games together, talked, and laughed. I never would have guessed he was struggling — and I still wonder what I could have done to help him.
I wish I would have known what signs to look for and how to bring up the topic if I’d had the inkling that something was wrong. I may not have been able to help — but maybe I could have done something. Perhaps you’ve had similar thoughts if you’ve lost people to suicide.
I’m an organizational psychologist, not a clinical psychologist — So I’m not trained to counsel people who are struggling with suicide. But I have been impacted by it and I want to do something about it.
The recent loss of my wife’s cousin nudged me to research academic articles and suicide prevention websites so I could help be part of a solution. This article is meant to enable you with the most important information and give you an action plan to help people in your life who may need it.
My hope is you take something away from reading this that will nudge your interactions or conversations in the right direction to help someone who is struggling with suicide.
If you are thinking about suicide do these three things:
- Watch this video for those contemplating suicide.
- Talk to one person about your suicidal thoughts before your next meal.
- Call the suicide prevention hotline 1–800–273–8255.
Myth 1 — Talking about suicide puts the thought of suicide in their head.
- Talking about suicide and the feelings someone has about suicide provides opportunities for communication, connection, and relief.
- When we share fears, those fears are more likely to dwindle because we can accurately process them with another person.
Myth 2 — The most effective intervention comes from trained professionals.
- Trained professionals include and rely heavily on family and friends to provide a network of support. If family and friends rely too much on the professional then interventions are more likely to fail. The most effective intervention is when trained professionals and family and friends all work together.
- Every person plays a role in helping each other feel they belong. This can be hard and it requires attention.
Myth 3 — People get offended when they are asked if they are having suicidal thoughts.
- For most people who are considering suicide, it is a comfort and support to have someone talk about suicide with them. It feels like someone genuinely cares about them and allows them to share the emotional burden.
- Someone may initially get defensive about the topic, but if you show you are truly interested in their well-being they may open up to you.
Myth 4 — Every suicide is preventable.
- People are dynamic and unpredictable. No matter what you do, you will likely have people within your network take their own life.
- Don’t let this discourage you. You are not responsible for everyone and everything. All you can do and should do is keep trying to recognize warning signs, start conversations, and help people feel they belong.
Why People Commit Suicide
The inevitable question paired with suicide is why? Why did our loved one take their life?
We usually won’t know the answer to that question but understanding some of the situations that have been shown to influence people to commit suicide can help us better understand and become aware. For instance —
- Depressive, psychotic, or anxious episodes
- The loss or death of a partner or the loss of a job
- Personal crises or life stresses that increase a sense of isolation or negatively impact self-esteem
- A loss of social support (i.e., moving, or the move of a close family member/friend)
- Illness or medication that sparks changes in mood or attitudes
- Exposure to suicidal behaviors of family, friends, peers, or celebrities
The list above is also a list of some of the major warning signs to watch out for.
The other warning signs that we should be aware of are:
- Verbal signs
- Behavioral signs
- Emotional signs
- Physical changes
Most of these behaviors do not lead to suicide and can be chalked up to bad days, frustrations, confusion, and too few opportunities to process emotions. However, you never know if you don’t ask.
As a general rule of thumb, any comments that imply hurting oneself, even if it sounds like a joke should catch our attention and nudge us to ask if someone is thinking of suicide (I wish I were dead; I might as well shoot myself, etc.)
Other less-obvious verbiage that should catch our attention could sound like:
- I can’t go on.
- Nothing matters anymore.
- I’m a loser.
- I can’t do anything right.
- I won’t be needing these things anymore.
- Nobody would miss me if I wasn’t around
- Acting depressed or withdrawn
- Being reckless
- Sudden changes to behavior, attitude, or appearance
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Giving away valuable possessions or getting affairs in order
Emotional signs — Feelings of…
- Rejection or marginalization
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Death of a close friend or family member
- Divorce, separation, or loss of a relationship
- Academic failings
- Job loss or problems at work
- Legal action
- Recent imprisonment
- Shortage of energy
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- No appetite
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Increase in minor illnesses
- Changes in sexual interests
- Sudden change in appearance
- Not caring about appearance
(List adapted from Befrienders Worldwide’s webpage on warnings signs)
In general, negative experiences that elicit strong harmful emotions and feelings of worthlessness and isolation can nudge people towards suicide.
So how can we start a conversation and discover if they are having suicidal thoughts? I’ll lay out a basic script for you to use after touching on a few basic dos and don’ts.
What you should do
- Create, take advantage of, or find a private space to bring up the conversation
- Be prepared to do a lot of listening and asking questions
- Hold your tongue — don’t offer advice unless they clearly ask for it
- Validate their experience the way they see it
- Ignore distractions
What you should NOT do
- Judge them for their thoughts
- Rush the conversation or end it prematurely
- Lecture them
- Accuse them of seeking attention
A Basic Script for Talking about Suicide
This is a very general suggestion for talking about suicide with someone you think may be contemplating taking their own life. Be ready to navigate away from it based on how the conversation flows.
Two crucial things to remember —
- You are there primarily to listen and ask questions — not to teach, educate, or advise until the other person is asking you for your advice/help.
- You must validate their subjective experience — if you don’t they will not feel heard, understood, or helped.
“How are you doing?”
“[Respond fittingly]. Okay, so how are you reeeaally doing?
[You will likely receive one of three responses. Either pessimistic, optimistic, or neutral. Discuss — eventually fitting in the next part]
If pessimistic: “This all sounds like its really hard. This is out of the blue, but it's important — Sometimes when life gets really crappy people think about suicide. Have you had any thoughts about committing suicide?”
[Then wait, listen, and ask questions]
If optimistic or neutral: “Great. It makes me happy to hear that things are going the way they are. So this is out of the blue, but it's important. I have been learning about suicide recently and I’ve been wanting to speak about it with the people I care about. Have you thought about committing suicide?”
[Then wait, listen, and ask questions]
If they confirm they have had or are having suicidal thoughts respond with things like —
- Tell me what that is like…
- How long have you felt this way?
- That must be really hard
This script’s beginning is very natural for starting a conversation that breaks the surface. It validates the experiences someone is having. The language also communicates the importance of the topic so they know you are serious.
Additionally, when you use the word “suicide” it shows to them you are someone they can speak with directly. Saying “hurting yourself” can be interpreted differently. The more specific the better.
After having this conversation, if the person has been thinking about suicide, it’s crucial that you help them connect with health care professionals who can provide more robust help.
This is done by contacting the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1–800–273–8255). Tell them what is going on and they will know how to help.
This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. I invite you to have a conversation with someone about suicide. Take two minutes and think about someone you should have this conversation with.
Write their name down. Then write down when you will do it. Use the script and have what could be a life-changing conversation with them.
I have a feeling we will all be surprised to find out how many people in our personal networks are thinking about or have contemplated suicide.
Let’s help each other with this.
Some Resources and References:
Help Someone Else
If someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time, you can be the difference in getting them the help…