Suicide is one of the most silented topics within our society today. Yet, so many are affected by the dark skeletons and demons living in the mind. So why is suicide such a taboo topic in our culture? And why are we so uncomfortable with having a conversation around the topic of death?
Research has shown a trend in the United States holding the highest rates of suicide among wealthy nations. With an increase in mental health concerns due to the pandemic, the CDC conducted a study during the highest surge of COVID cases in June 2020. The study suggests the levels of suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts, wishing to fall asleep and never wake up) and other mental health and behavioral concerns were even higher emphasizing the continuous battle Americans face with suicide.
That’s the reality though there are also many myths about suicide we should all know. Recognizing the truth versus the myths about suicide can help us all destigmatize it and lead to better help for those who are struggling with it. Right now it’s too much of a mystery…
The Mystery of Suicide
Why is suicide such a mystery? Plain and simple, it’s hardly ever discussed. We have this perception that suicide is too scary to talk about. So we don’t talk about it- letting our thoughts and feelings fester and worsen. Moreover because we’ve let it go for too long, we may see some of the warning signs though choose to ignore them. Suicide has become such a hush-hush topic- it causes a chain reaction in our ability to recognize and support an individual living with suicidual thoughts.
This doesn’t just happen with friends and loved ones though also for medical and mental health professionals, too. Most medical professionals even struggle to adequately assess the risks of suicidal thoughts presented to make a clinical decision that potentially saves a person’s life. Professionally it’s important to develop a level of comfort and understanding about how to speak with patients and clients to properly assess suicidal ideation.
Talking About Suicide
It is commonly argued that discussing suicide will lead individuals to completing the act or following through with their plan to die. This concern has also been expressed with a specific emphasis on speaking with children about suicide. The idea seems to be that if you talk about suicide you may encourage an individual to do it or give them information they’ve needed to know how to do it successfully.
This is not the case. Research has shown there are no added risks in discussing suicide. In fact, there is no evidence that shows this to be the case at all. Instead, research has suggested the exact opposite. Talking about suicide creates a safe space for people to individually explore their thoughts and feelings.
How to Talk About Suicide
We must break the fear of talking about death, and having uncomfortable conversations with the people we love. By breaking down the fear, we can learn more about their experience. We can eliminate the tendency to assume we know what they are thinking and how they are feeling. The assumption that we know how they are doing without asking is too often causing us to miss the warning signs of suicide.
Without the support of a friend or loved one, it can be very difficult to find a safe space to explore shame, negative self-talk, depression, and suicidal ideation. Exploring these ideas requires a level of vulnerability some have never allowed prior. By indicating to your struggling friend or loved one that you can make space for this conversation is in itself relieving. If this is not offered it can lead to continuing keeping their voices quiet due to the fear, shame, or problem solving that arise from listeners’ own fear of death.
It is of utmost importance when talking about suicide, people are made to feel they can do so without judgment. Being met with shaming comments such as “snap out of it,” “stop playing the victim,” or “others have it so much harder” are counterproductive. This may hinder the process and compound the feeling. To speak openly and freely about suicidal thoughts and feelings, there should not be any need for problem solving behaviors to manage the concerns of their caretakers.
It’s best to sit back and nod while listening to a love share their experience. Avoid trying to fix them or the problems you hear them expressing. It’s best to maintain a level of curiosity in their process of managing these feelings alone. Before offering advice, be sure to ask if they want some. They might just want you to listen. They could just want a hug. They might not be able to tell you what they want or need. That doesn’t mean they never will or do not need you to do something more to help them. Be sure to make a plan with them about when to check back in with them, how they want you to, and what to do if you become really, really concerned. While recognizing that neither of you know what may be best, the more that you are able to understand about their willingness for support- the better. Most importantly, continue the conversation and hold yourself accountable for reaching out to check in, especially if there are noticeable changes in the safety plan created.
Again, avoiding the conversations of suicide, we are contributing to the myths of suicide funneling through our society and overpowering the ones we love.
Seven Suicide Myths Busted
Now that we have all the details straight about the importance of talking about suicide- let’s get to myth busting! Here are the seven suicide myths we’re busting:
Myth #1: Talking about suicide will encourage someone to die by suicide.
Fact: Someone suffering from suicidal ideation may not know how or who to confide in about their thoughts. Their thoughts may only be just thoughts of wishing to die to end the pain or they can be more than thoughts that influence self-injurious behaviors. Individuals struggling with suicidal ideation would benefit from a healthcare provider willing to ask assessment questions during the screening processes. Though many people may feel safer talking to a friend rather than a medical professional due to fears of reporting, healthcare providers should still be introducing the topic to invite suicide into the room. Simply inquiring about suicidal thoughts is the first step in approaching someone who seems depressed or potentially suicidal. Discussing the subject is helpful and validating.
Myth #2: People who attempt suicide are seeking attention or weak.
Fact: This myth is a complicated one. Let me be clear in stating, all attempts must be taken seriously as if every person reporting suicidal thoughts have intentions to die. Yes, individuals are not selfish or weak for attempting or dying by suicide. Majority of the time, individuals keep suicide to themselves in fear of being labeled weak due to society’s perception of experiencing emotions.
Now here is the tricky part, suicide can actually be an attempt to pull a family or system closer to the individual. For example, a young teen may be expressing thoughts of suicide due to experiencing their parents in consistent conflict. In attempts to pull their parents closer together or to re-join, a child may express thoughts of suicide to take the focus off of fighting and onto the child. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST SERIOUS FORMS OF SUICIDE. Individuals who use suicide to gain support or re-focus conflict / attention are more at risk for following through with their plan and dying by suicide.
Suicide can also be triggered as a form of revenge when in conflict in relationships. Individuals, again, are in hopes to pull people closer to them since it is more challenging to be vulnerable and seek help. Now, let me ease some boiling emotions, suicide is not attention-seeking, it is attention-grabbing, re-focusing, redirecting, and unconscious in the attempts to change an outcome. It is still always safer and important to never assume someones experience with suicide or be dismissive in their feelings. There are still potential behaviors leading a person to complete a suicide attempt.
Myth #3: Suicide happens without warning.
Fact: Sometimes warning signs are hard to identify, especially as a healthcare provider because it is not recognizable. We could be assessing by asking questions and individuals have the option to keep information to themselves. Verbally suicide may be denied, though behaviorally there are signs people demonstrate when they are making arrangements to end their live. This is why it’s so important for friends and loved one become aware of the following warning signs:
Non-verbal and physical indicators
- Giving away material possessions. Talk with support systems on noticeable behaviors especially related to giving possession and assets away.
- Individuals may also inquire about a mean, i.e their weapon of choice. They may collect pills, purchase a gun, or identify a place where they will complete their attempt.
- Physical appearance and daily functioning such as hygiene is a key sign of mental distress. If an individual living with suicide presents with an unkept appearance with unbrushed hair, unclean clothes, and generally looks unhygienic, it is critical to check in on them! Managing mental health symptoms alone are challenging and tend to be the reason individuals want to die, to take away the pain.
Behavioral observations will be the key factor in saving someone’s life. Theses are some of the uncharacteristic risky behaviors or self-injurious behaviors should should be looking out for:
- visual signs an individual is preparing to end their life.
- Self-injurious behaviors are characterized as endangering yourself through engaging in risky or life threatening activities.
- Individuals may show more risky behaviors that specifically are intended to put themselves in danger or even die.
- Sometimes self-harm can be considered a self-injurious behavior when an individual confirms cutting themselves with a knife was an attempt to die.
- Other times, specific self harm of cutting may be linked more to a release.
- Though self-injurious behaviors are not the same thing, rather, they are deliberately intended to cause potential harm or death.
Myth #4: Only “crazy” people attempt suicide.
Fact: Most people have thought of suicide at some point, but this is a topic rarely discussed because of the stigma surrounding it. While mental health conditions such as social anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder are certainly risk factors, not everyone with a mental health condition is likely to commit suicide. In addition, not all people who attempt suicide have mental health problems. Finally, mental health symptoms are normal and experienced by many individuals! Even, I, as a therapist, experience mental health symptoms, providing me with a natural reminder to give myself more compassion.
Myth #5: If a person attempts suicide and is unsuccessful, they are “cured” and unlikely to attempt again.
Fact: The opposite is actually true—studies show that people who attempt are more likely to attempt again, often even in the next few months or year after their first attempt. A failed attempt is not a cure. Please consider, a failed attempt places a higher risk for a potential death by suicide in the future.
Myth #6: Most people who attempt suicide leave notes.
Fact: Similar to other experiences in our world, everyones’ attempts and deaths by suicide are different. Some may leave notes to loved ones apologizing, some may call a person they trust right before the attempt, and others may keep it hidden for many reasons; shame, avoiding others’ reactions, etc. Notes are different for everyone especially when differentiating age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Research suggests the evaluation of preparatory behaviors, such as leaving notes, is rare and not tangential. Notes may provide a comfort for some, though with grief and loss, a note does nothing to soothe.
There is no such thing as gaining closure during grief- we forever feel the effects of losing someone in our lives. We will forever ride a wave of grief as it randomly debilates us at the most inconvenient of times. These movements will provide more comfort when you let go of control and allow yourself to experience the emotion of losing someone by suicide or death.
This is an unfortunate, romanticized aspect of suicide; notes are rarely left by suicidal individuals. Notes that are left don’t usually include reasons, explanations, or expressions of rage and loathing that would give survivors a sense of closure. More often, the notes are practical—to-do lists, instructions, etc…
Myth #7: Only professionals can prevent someone from attempting once a person has made up their mind.
Fact: No way, anyone can support an individual attempting to die by suicide. Sometimes a medical professional is not as helpful as a close friend, supportive family members, or even a professional crisis counselor. Validation is key and as a bystander, recognizing your own internal feelings during the conversation in the moment will bring new awareness to our own perceptions and biases towards suicide. Professional treatment can assist in stabilizing the behaviors of intentions to die and manage symptoms through psychopharmacology, though a strong supporting unit in the family, networks, relationships, work, school, etc, will keep a person in remission and re-directed towards coping mechanisms. Suicidal ideation is often a passing feeling; it is not permanent and if caught in time, professional treatment can avert the intention to die. But anyone–not only a medical or psychological professional—can help prevent suicide. Acts of kindness and a willingness to listen are crucial.
We are just starting to see how education, bravery, and normalization has begun to allow for more individuals to openly share about their mental health diagnoses and previous suicidal thoughts and/or suicide attempts. More and more advocates and influencers now share their journeys through recovery and tell their stories of managing pain. They are allowing viewers to relate to a similar experience, and creating feelings of empathy.
We are also becoming more aware just how powerful our brain is and how dangerously our symptoms can manifest. We are learning, we are not alone in our struggles and that many face these challenges daily. There’s so much hope for truly understanding how our brain works and how we can continue to destigmatize suicide and support our loved ones.
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Paraschakis, A., Michopoulos, I., Douzenis, A., Christodoulou, C., Koutsaftis, F., & Lykouras, L. (2012). Differences between suicide victims who leave notes and those who do not: a 2-year study in Greece. Crisis, 33(6), 344–349. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000150
Nicholas, A., Niederkrotenthaler, T., Reavley, N. et al. Belief in suicide prevention myths and its effect on helping: a nationally representative survey of Australian adults. BMC Psychiatry 20, 303 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02715-9
Whitlock J, Knox KL. The Relationship Between Self-injurious Behavior and Suicide in a Young Adult Population. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.2007;161(7):634–640. doi:10.1001/archpedi.161.7.634
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