May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. So what better time to take a good, hard look at how aware we actually are about the facts surrounding the worst case scenario of mental health issues: suicide. Did you know, for example, that someone in the United States dies by suicide every 12 minutes? Or that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death overall in the U.S.? When you look at different age groups, that statistic is even more shocking: suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among those aged 35-54, and the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-34.
When you see these statistics, it can’t help but feel like we’re failing somehow. But what can we do? Well, it comes back to awareness. One of the first steps in dealing with a problem is looking at it head on, and learning the real facts so we know how to take action. There are myths surrounding suicide that need to be debunked so we can have an open, honest discussion about it, and hopefully move towards changing the statistics.
1. Talking about suicide will only encourage it
If you’re concerned about someone you know, and you’re worried that bringing up the topic of suicide will plant dangerous ideas in their head, don’t be! It’s understandable to be nervous about approaching the topic with them – after all, suicide can feel like a major taboo – but if you’re worried about someone, asking them outright about their feelings is probably the best thing you can do for them. Talking about suicide probably feels taboo for them, too, but bringing up the subject to them will, in a sense, give them permission to talk about their feelings and the disturbing thoughts they’re having. Encouraging them to open up could be the first and most important step in getting them help.
According to Rory O’Connor, professor of Health Psychology at Glasgow University, “Evidence shows asking someone if they’re suicidal can protect them. They feel listened to, and hopefully less trapped. Their feelings are validated, and they know that somebody cares about them. Reaching out can save a life.”
2. People who talk about suicide probably don’t mean it, or are just looking for attention
Someone who says – or even hints – that they want to take their own life should always be taken seriously. It’s possible they’re talking about suicide or their feelings of hopelessness as a way to “get attention,” but only in the sense that they are calling out for help. If someone you know talks about life not being worth living or that they have no future, listen to them, and help them get the support they need. Remember, most people who are thinking about suicide don’t actually want to die, they just don’t want to continue on living their life as it is.
3. If someone wants to take their own life, they will always find a way
Many people who are contemplating suicide are actually torn between their desire to live and their desire to end their suffering. It’s simply not true that it’s useless to reach out to them; it’s also not true that reducing their access to means to harm themselves won’t help. Making it harder to access a weapon or drugs can actually help delay or stop their attempt, and ultimately save their life.
4. People usually commit suicide suddenly, and without warning
While suicide can take many loved ones by surprise, it’s simply not true that it usually comes completely out of the blue. Most people who are considering suicide will exhibit certain behaviors (or say certain things) that point to their state of mind. It can fall on loved ones, though, to recognize these warning signs and take action. These warning signs can include:
- Beginning to say things like “I wish I wasn’t here,” or “Nothing matters”
- Increased alcohol and drug use
- Aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and community
- Dramatic mood swings
- Impulsive or reckless behavior
The following signs are an indication of an emergency situation, and should be acted on immediately:
- Collecting and saving pills or purchasing a weapon
- Giving away possessions
- Tying up loose ends, like paying off debts
- Saying goodbye to loved ones
5. When someone is suicidal, they will always be suicidal
Thinking about suicide, or making suicidal attempts is not necessarily a long-term issue. Suicidal ideation, as it is called, is usually short-term and specific to a certain situation or time in a person’s life. In fact, studies have shown that approximately 54% of people who have taken their own lives did not have a diagnosable mental health disorder. And for those with mental illness, the proper treatment can help to reduce symptoms. Many people who have thought about suicide or attempted it can go on to live long, successful lives – again, it is never useless to reach out to someone who is suffering and at risk.
One thing to be aware of, though: many people will attempt suicide more than once, and they can be particularly at risk directly after recovery from an attempt, so make sure they have the support they need.
6. Only those who are seriously mentally ill consider suicide, or go through with it
The above statistic is worth repeating: approximately 54% of people who have died by suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition. Consider this statistic, as well: 1 in 5 people have thought about suicide at one point in their life.
Just as not all people with mental health issues will think about suicide, not all people who attempt it are considered mentally ill. Some might be struggling with mental health issues, but their condition is unknown to others. In addition, relationship problems and other stressful life situations, such as criminal/legal matters, bullying, eviction or loss of home, death of a loved one, a devastating or debilitating illness, trauma, sexual abuse, rejection, or recent crises are also associated with suicidal thoughts and attempts.
7. Someone who “has it together” isn’t at risk of committing suicide
Looks can be deceiving. On the outside, it can seem like someone has it all: a loving family, a nice home, a good job – but no one can ever really know what is going on on the inside. The take-away this National Mental Health Awareness Month – and always – is that no one is immune to mental health challenges. That’s why it’s so important to check in with your loved ones and keep an open dialogue. If you see someone exhibiting any warning signs, or struggling in some way, don’t brush it off – reach out. And if you see any of these myths being perpetuated, speak out. Please remember this: suicide is preventable. Mental health issues and crises are treatable. If you or someone you know is at risk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential support 24/7, text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7, or call 911 in case of an emergency situation.
Remember also: while those hotlines are excellent resources, and you should always make use of them if you or someone you know needs help, it might not be enough to simply give one of these numbers to a person in crisis. Talking to them is the first step, and making sure they reach out for help is important. Ask how you can help, and contact their mental health professional or drive them to the ER if that is what they need. Anyone can be part of the solution by knowing the real facts, and by being ready to talk about this difficult subject.