In 2010, just two years after September was deemed National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I (Cherise) led my first suicide prevention training. Based on the discussion during that training, it was apparent that viewing suicide as preventable was a rather new concept. In fact, saying “suicide is a preventable public health matter,” made no sense to some and for others, it evoked anger or shame.
When training on suicide awareness and prevention, I would encounter someone in the room who had survived either attempted suicide or the death by suicide of a loved one or client. What became increasingly clear is this; suicide is a very personal choice. Often survivors are left questioning if there was anything they could have done differently for their loved one.
To say that suicide is preventable is not to place blame on survivors. But it’s like saying, diabetes is preventable, or heart disease is preventable. All are serious matters with potentially deadly results. Like with physical ailments, suicide prevention also has variables to consider. When dealing with physical illness, there are points along the way where prevention and intervention can have a life-changing and positive impact.
Experts on suicide agree that the most common condition associated with completed suicide is depression. For every completed suicide, there are 25 suicide attempts. In 2020, upwards of 90% of those who complete suicide were reported to have had a diagnosable mental illness. Diagnosable but not necessarily treated.
Because mental illness is such a large factor, many helping professionals report treating a client who has either attempted or completed suicide. In 2015, 76% reported having a client who attempted suicide, and 39% stated they have had at least one client die because of suicide.
Most, if not all of us, can admit to having periods of sadness or emptiness. These periods of time can range from hours to months. Many are able to identify a reason for the sadness and then take action to alleviate the negative feelings, leading to relief. Yet for some, the negative emotions hang on and become suicidal ideations.
Ideations, or thoughts of suicide, are a risk factor for suicide that don’t always result in taking one’s own life. Suicide ideation can be summed up as thinking about death. Many of us, when facing a difficult season will ask the question; “What’s the use?” When feelings of emptiness are prolonged, some wonder if experiencing joy is possible. These ideations can be troubling and should be taken seriously, yet with proper intervention, a crisis can be averted.
As stated earlier, mental illness is a huge contributor to completed suicide. Unfortunately, there continues to be a stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment, and many do not seek therapy. Whether the reason for the stigma is cultural or religious, we may not be aware of how discouraging our statements can be when dealing with a depressed or sad loved one.
Offering over-the-shoulder comments like, “Just get over it,” without presenting any other support, can be interpreted by a suicidal person as dismissive and condemning. For people of faith, sermons focused on prayer and choosing joy may be intended to encourage. But when the sadness lingers, these messages could produce shame and isolation.
Prevention is merely presenting a hindrance to an impending result. For example, when we have small children, we erect safety gates and cover the electrical outlets to prevent them from potentially dangerous situations. Prevention is an attempt to put things in place to stop what might happen.
One of the key factors in suicide prevention is assessing for external and internal factors that might hinder an individual from attempting suicide. For example, the belief that suicide is wrong and against one’s values is an internal factor. A desire to not cause pain to loved ones can be an external factor. Prevention includes the building up and sustaining of hope. Loved ones, when hearing statements like, “I’m so tired of feeling this way,” can view it as an opportunity to offer nonjudgmental assistance to bolster that person’s outlook for the future.
Am I stating that all suicides will be prevented? Regrettably, no. Just like gates don’t prevent all children from climbing or falling. Yet, education about mental illness will lead to an increase in feeling confident enough to assist loved ones with depression and suicidal ideations.
NOTE: If you are experiencing feelings of sadness or emptiness, talk about it. If your loved one is exhibiting an inability to cope with depression, listen then act!
In an emergency, contact:
Myth: Asking about suicide plants the idea in someone’s head.
Reality: Asking someone about suicide does not cause suicide any more than asking about chest pain would cause angina.
Myth: There are talkers and there are doers.
Reality: Most people who die by suicide have communicated their intent. Responding to what is voiced allows for intervention to take place.
Myth: Engaging in manipulative and self-injurious behaviors just means he/she wants attention and is not suicidal.
Reality: Suicidal “gestures” require serious assessment and intervention. Multiple prior suicide attempts increase the likelihood of dying from suicide.
Myth: If someone really wants to die by suicide there is nothing you can do about it.
Reality: Most suicides are associated with an untreated mental illness. Provide a safe environment for the underlying issues to be explored.
Myth: There is no way he/she would kill themselves. They are about to be married, just had a child, just got a great promotion… fill in the blank.
Reality: Thoughts of dying can override all ability to think rationally.
- Working with suicidal clients: Impacts on psychologists and the need for self-care | APS (psychology.org.au)
- Suicide Statistics and Facts – SAVE
- Mental health parity (Federal and State priority) | AFSP
Originally published 8/2014. Revised 9/2022