How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal

        September is National Suicide Prevention Month.  As a way of honoring it, I’m writing today to bring it out into conversation.

        Suicide is one of those extremely difficult conversations to have openly.  There is a lot of stigma about it, as well as a lot of myths.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, http://www.afsp.org, these are some of the myths associated with suicide:

Myth: Suicide can’t be prevented. If someone is set on taking their own life, there is nothing that can be done to stop them.

Fact: Suicide is preventable. The vast majority of people contemplating suicide don’t really want to die. They are seeking an end to intense mental and/or physical pain. Most have a mental illness. Interventions can save lives.

Myth: People who take their own life are selfish, cowards, weak or are just looking for “attention.”

Fact: More than 90% of people who take their own life have at least one and often more than one treatable mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and/or alcohol and substance abuse. With better recognition and treatment many suicides can be prevented.

Myth: Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide will put the idea in their head and cause them to act on it.

Fact: When you fear someone you know is in crisis or depressed, asking them if they are thinking about suicide can actually help. By giving a person an opportunity to open up and share their troubles you can help alleviate their pain and find solutions.

Myth: Teenagers and college students are the most at risk for suicide.

Fact: The suicide rate for this age group is below the national average. Suicide risk increases with age. Currently, the age group with the highest suicide rate in the U.S. is middle-aged men and women between the ages of 45 and 64. The suicide rate is still highest among white men over the age of 65.

Myth: Barriers on bridges, safe firearm storage and other actions to reduce access to lethal methods of suicide don’t work. People will just find another way.

Fact: Limiting access to lethal methods of suicide is one of the best strategies for suicide prevention. Many suicides can be impulsive and triggered by an immediate crisis. Separating someone in crisis from a lethal method (e.g., a firearm) can give them something they desperately need: time.  If they balk, remind them that it is temporary.  This provides time to change their mind, time to resolve the crisis, time for someone to intervene.

Myth: Someone making suicidal threats won’t really do it, they are just looking for attention.

Fact: Those who talk about suicide or express thoughts about wanting to die, are at risk for suicide and need your attention. Most people who die by suicide give some indication or warning. Take all threats of suicide seriously. Even if you think they are just “crying for help”—a cry for help, is a cry for help—so help.

Myth: Talk therapy and/or medications don’t work.

Fact: Treatment can work. One of the best ways to prevent suicide is by getting treatment for mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar illness and/or substance abuse and learning ways to solve problems. Finding the best treatment can take some time, and the right treatment can greatly reduce risk of suicide. In fact, it can bring you back your life.

There are some warning signs of suicidal thinking.  Here are some listed from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline organization, http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, which sponsors a suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK, which is available 24-7-365.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves.
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

Of course, having some of these does not necessarily mean that someone is fully suicidal or an imminent danger to themselves.  However, it is important to remember to just simply ask and be direct about your concerns to check in with them.  Oftentimes they are anxiously waiting for someone to simply ask.

While helping someone who is suicidal can be scary, it is less scary if you know something about what to do about it.  Http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ suggests the following for tips for how to help someone who is contemplating suicide.  I added a couple.

  • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
  • Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
  • Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • Don’t dare him or her to do it.
  • Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
  • Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
  • Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
  • Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.  Calling the hotline above or getting your friend to the nearest emergency room/calling 911 in an emergency is a simple way to get the help.
  • Usually, people who are suicidal don’t actually want to kill themselves.  They want a troublesome situation to change instead.  Explore that with them and help them get help so that they can change their situation without ending a life.

While neither I nor my employer, Psych Choices, is a dedicated suicide crisis provider, we are available to discuss these feelings and help people get the proper help.  If you are feeling like this, please feel free to ask us about next steps if it isn’t imminent, or to call the hotline if it is.

Your life is important.  To us.  To me.

Many of us remember celebrities and/or personal people in our lives who have died of this.  Respect them by being more open and prepared to helping others, and, if needed, taking care of yourself to prevent tragedy for others.

 

About Nate Prentice, MSW, LCSW, CAS-PC

Nate Prentice, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Pastoral Counselor who maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Drexel Hill, PA.
This entry was posted in Social Services Resources and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal

  1. Pingback: Providing Help Against a Suicide Risk | NAMI South Bay

  2. Pingback: “Suicide prevention signs in SEPTA stations part of attitude shift, advocates say” | Pennsylvania Mental Health Issues

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