Four Powerful Ways to End Stigma About Suicide
When I was in high school, I had my wisdom teeth taken out. I remember an out-pouring of support from my friends and family members. My mom bought a variety of soups and yogurts from the store, so that I could easily swallow them. My friends visited with get well cards. A few family friends brought over meals and made calls to ask if I was doing okay. Even though I was in pain from the surgery, I felt the love and support of my community. Why doesn't this happen during mental health crises?
A family friend had a short stay in a psychiatric hospital a few years ago, and people spoke about it in hushed tones. It was as if people viewed her condition as something contagious. This incident made me realize that the stigma regarding mental health needs to change.
Not Talking About Suicide Can Contribute to Stigma and Stigma Can Kill.
There is an urgent need to prevent deaths by suicide. Yet, you rarely hear people discuss this topic. Suicide is a topic fraught with stigma and taboo. You may want to help to end the stigma, but are unsure of where to start. Below, I’ll detail four important ways to combat the stigma surrounding suicide.
1. Educate Yourself About Suicide
The first step in lowering stigma is becoming more knowledgeable. Read reputable books and articles about suicide. Take an in-person or online class or training about the topic. By learning more, you will be better equipped to discuss the topic.
Read reputable, evidence-based articles about suicide prevention. Glean information from trusted sources, such as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Here are a few good articles to start with:
One way to learn more about suicide prevention is to take courses. There are many options for both paid and free courses. There are a variety of courses available both online and in-person.
If you become a volunteer for a suicide prevention agency, you may receive free training (examples include The Trevor Project, Crisis Text Line, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, among others).
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center offers free courses on suicide prevention. You only need to log on and create a username. Two of the available courses include Locating and Understanding Data for Suicide Prevention, and A Strategic Planning Approach to Suicide Prevention.
Read accounts of individuals who have struggled with suicidal thoughts. Read books from reputable authors about the prevention of suicide. Here are some recommendations:
Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig, Penguin, 2017
The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression, Olivia Sagan and Jame Withey [Editors], Routledge, 2017
If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found, Lost, and Hoped For, Jamie Tworkowski and Donald Miller, Penguin, 2017Talk About
The subject of suicide is wrought with stigma. The topic is emotional, taboo, and difficult to discuss. All these reasons make it tempting to stay silent when it comes to suicide. But, silence gives power to myths and misinformation. It prevents individuals with suicidal thoughts from feeling free to speak about them. We need to talk about suicide, lives depend on it.
Bill White (owner of Chipur.com, licensed mental health counselor) stresses the importance of speaking about suicide. White asserts, “How sad that someone dies because ‘we just don’t talk about things like suicide.' Lives are lost when perceived unpleasant truths are swept under the rug. Death is part of life. Life is always a conversation.”
Speaking openly about suicide also allows loved ones to be vulnerable. It shifts our culture to one where it is okay to ask for help when you are struggling. Let’s partner together so that people no longer suffer in silence.
Speaking about suicide:
When we discuss suicide, the stigma surrounding the topic lessens. Speaking about suicide lessens the negative power that the topic holds.
If we never speak about suicide, it is difficult to address misperceptions. Open conversations lead to paradigm shifts. By speaking non-judgmentally about suicide, we encourage others to do the same.
Understanding the why behind suicide leads to a deeper empathy for those struggling. Additionally, those who are considering suicide feel more comfortable speaking about it out loud.
We need to talk about suicide because it saves lives. Many people speak to someone about suicide before ending their life. One study National Center for Biotechnology Information studyOne studyContact With Mental Health and Primary Care Providers Before Suicide: A Review of the Evidence (Luoma, Martin & Pearson, 2002) showed that nearly half of suicidal individuals speak to someone about their suicidal thoughts within one month of ending their lives.
Barriers to Discussing Suicide
If talking about suicide is so important, then why aren’t we doing it more? Below, I’ve listed some of the major barriers to discussing suicide.
“I Feel Awkward.”
As I established earlier, suicide is an awkward topic for many. It’s taboo and heavy. You may feel uncomfortable asking a friend about it.
Most things are awkward when you first begin. Your comfort in speaking about suicide will grow over time. At first, you can use suggested questions (i.e. "Have you thought about ending your life?"). In time, your comfort around the topic will grow.
“I Don’t Understand.”
You may struggle to understand how someone could take their own life. You’ve never experienced anything like this and so you aren’t sure how to empathize.
It’s difficult to understand something that you haven't personally gone through. With suicide, it’s important to remember that a person is in deep emotional pain. Imagine that you severely burned your arm. You don’t necessarily want to die, but you are in so much pain, you are willing to try almost anything to make the pain stop. This is the reality for a lot of individuals considering suicide. They are in deep emotional pain and want some form of relief.
“I Don’t Know What to Say.”
You may not feel well educated about suicide. It’s difficult to bring it up. It feels like something that should be “left to professionals.”
Help from a qualified mental health professional is definitely necessary for some scenarios. Recommending that a someone seek help is a good starting place. Still, we owe it to society to become better educated about suicide.
Identify why you feel uncomfortable discussing it, and try to remedy the problem. For instance, if you don’t feel educated enough, then commit to learning more about the topic.
“But What if by Talking About Suicide, I Make the Person Suicidal?”
You may worry that by bringing up the topic, you could actually encourage the person to consider suicide. You worry that even though they weren’t considering it before, they might now.
A wide body of research disproves this myth. You cannot make someone suicidal by asking if they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts. Discussing suicide does not lead to the increase of suicidal thoughts for a person. (See Evaluating iatrogenic risk of suicide screening programs, Gould, Marrocco & Kleinman, 2005.)
3. Check in With Others About Suicidal Thoughts
Because of some of the reasons listed above, it can feel awkward to discuss suicide. Yet, one of the most important things we can do is talk to our loved ones about suicidal thoughts.
- Ask Direct Questions
Be direct. If you notice that someone seems down, ask them if they are having any suicidal thoughts.
For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you seem down lately. I know that sometimes when people feel sad, they have suicidal thoughts. Has this been the case for you?” Or, “Are you thinking about ending your life?”
Assure your friend that you are there for them. Remind them that you care about them. If they speak to you about their experiences, thank them for being honest. Thank them for sharing.
Don’t quickly change the topic. Avoid sounding judgmental. Try to keep an open mind and relate to how the person must feel. Avoid trying to cheer the person up. Don't come up with simplistic solutions for the problems they are experiencing.
Know the Warning Signs
Being knowledgeable about the warning signs of suicide can help direct you. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some of the common warning signs for suicide are:
Talking about wanting to die
Talking about being a burden to others
Feeling empty, hopeless, and/or trapped
Using drugs or alcohol more often or other self-destructive behavior
Researching how to die
Saying “goodbye” to friends and family members
To see the complete list, go to this link (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/
My Friend/Loved One is Considering Suicide
If someone is considering suicide, first, thank them for being honest with you. It takes a lot of courage for someone to speak up about suicide. Be sure to take any and all suicidal comments seriously. There is a widespread misconception that people are not serious when they talk about suicide. Take every suicidal assertion seriously.
Do not leave the person alone. If you need to leave for another commitment, make sure to get someone else to stay with the person.
If you feel that a suicide attempt is likely, call 911 or the local emergency services. Or, if the suicidal person is willing to go the emergency room (ER) and you can get them there safely, transport the individual to the nearest ER.
Or, if the person sees a primary care physician, therapist, and/or another healthcare professional regularly, try to arrange an emergency (same-day) appointment. If the appointment is possible, stay with the person until the appointment. If you feel it is urgent and an appointment is not possible, take the individual to the ER. You can also inform the person's healthcare provider about the situation.
Don’t keep it a secret. Inform a trustworthy friend, family member, and/or professional of the situation. Encourage the suicidal person to reach out to others, themselves.
You may not be sure if your friend is suicidal. For example, they may be unwilling to talk or frequently go silent. It’s also possible that they may say that they have had some suicidal thoughts, but don’t plan to act on them.
If you aren’t sure if your friend is suicidal or are unsure of what to do, a good first step is to call a suicide hotline. You can encourage your friend to speak with the operator. The operator will usually further direct you. Here are some of the best hotlines:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line - Text “Hello” to 741741 (U.S. Canada)
The Trevor Project - Support for LGBTQIA+ 1-866-488-7386
My Friend/Loved One Says They Are Not Considering Suicide
If you are worried about someone who says that they are not suicidal, then reaffirm your support. Let them know that you are there for them and will check in on them again.
Make an effort to reach out to them the next day. You can give them the number of a suicide hotline service in case they ever feel suicidal.
3. Make a Donation of Time and/or Money to a Suicide Prevention Organization.
There are many quality suicide prevention organizations. Consider donating time and/or money.
One great perk of becoming a volunteer is that you often get free comprehensive training. I’ve listed a few of the many great organizations below:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
In conclusion, we all have a role to play in ending the stigma surrounding suicide. You can make a difference by learning and talking about suicide prevention. You can save a friend’s life by asking direct questions about suicidal thoughts. Your life and the lives of others will change when you make a donation of money and/or time to a worthy organization.
Are there ways of ending stigma about suicide have I missed? Leave me a comment on my Mental Health Memoirs blog!