“Are you thinking about suicide?” this may be the hardest question you ask a loved one. Conversations about suicide can feel awkward and difficult; it’s a heavy topic to broach. No one wants to imagine their friend or loved one is struggling, unable to see a way out, and considering ending their life. And that’s precisely why we need to talk about it! Having open, honest, and transparent conversations about suicide normalizes these experiences, helping those struggling see they are not alone.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Understanding the risk factors, warning signs, and how to talk with someone experiencing suicidal thoughts can help equip you to intervene in a crisis before it becomes a tragedy. Talking about suicide may never be an easy conversation, but it can be a life-saving one.
Prevalence of Suicide
In the United States, the suicide rate has been steadily increasing since 1999. Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 10-34 and the 10th cause of death overall. While women attempt suicide three times as often as men, men are two to four times more likely to complete suicide. Men tend to use more lethal methods to end their lives, so there is less opportunity for intervention. The most common is firearms, used in about half of all suicides.
Impact on Communities
The effects of suicide deaths reverberate through entire communities. On average, each suicide death impacts up to 135 people, including family, friends, teammates, coworkers, and acquaintances. Exposure to suicide places these individuals at a greater risk of suicide themselves. Grief and loss can contribute to mental health problems if survivors of suicide loss lack strong support systems and healthy coping mechanisms.
Listen to Related Podcast: What Andy Taught Us. In this episode we hear from Destiny Welsh Teixeira who shares how her family found ways to cope after her brother took his own life. Destiny shares how her faith and family got her through a challenging season of life and how her family and the community continue to honor her brother Andy’s life.
One of the biggest questions regarding suicide is “why?” Why would a person end their life? While the answer is complex with many contributing factors, a common thread remains; hopelessness. When someone considers suicide, it’s often because they don’t see an answer to a challenge in their life. Those contemplating ending their life tend to have tunnel vision and distorted thinking. They cannot see solutions to problems or cope with life changes. Suicidal thoughts blind individuals to the options available if they seek help.
Risk factors are characteristics that make it more likely a person will consider or attempt suicide. It is essential to keep in mind that no risk factor can accurately predict if someone is suicidal. The following factors contribute to increased risk, but they cannot predict risk. Factors include:
- Has attempted suicide in the past.
- Has a mental health condition, such as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia, or anxiety disorders.
- Has long-term pain or a disabling or terminal illness.
- Expresses feelings of hopelessness.
- Has money or legal problems.
- Has violent or impulsive behavior.
- Has alcohol or other substance abuse problems.
- Has easy access to self-harm methods, such as firearms or medications.
Warning signs indicate an immediate risk of suicide. If you or a loved one starts to take any of these steps, seek immediate help from a health care provider. If you are unsure, a licensed mental health professional can help assess. If you are concerned for someone’s immediate safety, call 911 for a welfare check.
Warning signs include:
- Being sad or moody: The person has long-lasting sadness and mood swings. Depression is a major risk factor for suicide.
- Sudden calmness: The person suddenly becomes calm after a period of depression or moodiness.
- Withdrawing from others: The person chooses to be alone and avoids friends or social activities. They also lose of interest or pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed.
- Changes in personality, appearance, sleep pattern: The person’s attitude or behavior changes, such as speaking or moving with unusual speed or slowness. Also, they suddenly become less concerned about their personal appearance. They sleep much more or less than usual.
- Showing dangerous or self-harmful behavior: The person engages in potentially dangerous behavior, such as driving recklessly, having unsafe sex or increase their use of drugs and/or alcohol.
- Experiencing recent trauma or life crisis: Examples of crises include the death of a loved one or pet, divorce or break-up of a relationship, diagnosis of a major illness, loss of a job or serious financial problems.
- Being in a state of deep despair: The person talks about feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or being in severe emotional pain.
- Making preparations: The person begins to put their personal business in order. This might include visiting friends and family members, giving away personal possessions, making a will and cleaning up their room or home. Often the person will search online for ways to die or buy a gun. Some people will write a note before attempting suicide.
- Threatening suicide or talking about wanting to die: Not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it. However, every threat of suicide should be taken seriously.
Talking to Someone with Suicidal Thoughts
When someone expresses suicidal intent, one of the best things you can do is to be sensitive and ask direct, straightforward questions like;
- How are you coping with what is going on in your life?
- Do you ever feel like just giving up?
- Are you thinking about dying?
- Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
- Are you thinking about suicide?
- Have you thought about how or when you’d do it?
- Do you have access to weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself?
It’s a common misconception that asking someone if they are suicidal will push them to do something self-destructive, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Having a conversation when there is cause for concern is one of the most beneficial actions you can take! One in five people expresses suicidal intent before they attempt suicide. Talking with the person offers them an opportunity to share their feelings, which may reduce their risk of acting on suicidal thoughts.
When talking with someone about suicide, take an open-minded approach—express concern without judgment. Don’t argue with the person, as that can make them feel alienated and misunderstood. Avoid contradicting their views with reassurances like, “you don’t have it that bad- you have a family who cares about you!” Instead, use active listening techniques like reflecting their feelings and summarizing their thoughts. Encourage them to seek help and offer to call a crisis helpline or professional together.
Take Suicide Seriously
Suicide is a sensitive and difficult topic. It’s hard to know what to say or when to take someone’s talk of suicide seriously. You may worry you’re overreacting, but the safety of your friend or loved one is most important. Your choice to intervene could help the person see other options are available when they reach out.
If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out! EFR offers affordable, confidential, compassionate counseling services. Connect with EFR Counseling.