With the recent death of a beloved, brilliantly talented actor, the daily news and many websites have been awash with talk about suicide. It is a painful, complex, and difficult subject. As a psychiatric nurse and professional counselor, I’ve cared for actively suicidal patients, confused, heart-broken families, and many parents worried about children whose friends have committed suicide.
People have strong emotions around this issue. Some label the act of suicide “selfish,” “attention-seeking,” “impulsive,” “cowardly,” a “mortal sin,” while others see it as a sign of mental illness. Some are angry, some are grieved. For many this subject hits too close to home. There is legitimate concern that too much attention to this issue and too many salacious details will spur vulnerable individuals to copycat suicides.
Putting Suicide Into Perspective
Suicide is more common than many of us want to believe. According to one study, suicide occurs every 15 minutes and claims more lives than even homicide. In 2010, suicide was the second leading cause of death of 24-32 year-olds and the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. Nationwide, it is the 10th leading cause of death, according to the CDC (2011).
Who is at Risk?
Suicide can affect anyone, and there is no way to predict with certainty who will commit suicide, but according to the CDC and other sources, these individuals are especially vulnerable:
- Teens between the ages of 15-19
- Adults ages 18-24
- Elderly men, over the age of 65
- Military personnel, or those who have recently returned from active duty
- Anyone who abuses drugs and alcohol
- Anyone with mental illness, especially depression, and bipolar disorder
- Anyone with a personal or family history of suicide or suicide behaviors
- Current or past trauma or abuse
- Access to the means of committing suicide
- People experiencing overwhelming stress or loss
- People in jail, who are 9x more likely to commit suicide, according to one study
- Gay youth, who are 2-3x more likely to commit suicide than their peers
- Males, who are 4x more likely than females to successfully complete suicide
Stigma and Shame
It’s estimated that 8 out of 10 people thinking about suicide show some sign that they are intending to do so. Many people won’t directly ask for help because of the stigma of mental illness and suicide. This, in spite of the fact that an estimated 20% of the American population has some form of mental illness and about 8.9% of Americans have a substance abuse problem. This is important because mental illness and/ or substance abuse are associated with 60-90% of all suicidal behaviors, according to some estimates.
While we are discussing it, let’s define mental illness. It is a range of issues and problems that affect thoughts, mood, and behavior and one’s ability to cope with the demands of daily life. Mental illness can affect people from all walks of life, at different times in their lives. Many people can recover from mental illness with proper treatment but people who need help often don’t get it because they are embarrassed to admit they have a problem. They see mental illness as a character flaw, or a spiritual problem, rather than an issue that has both environmental and biological components.
Overwhelmed and Hopeless
Suicide is painful to talk about because it is about raw human pain and utter hopelessness. When I sit with people who are actively suicidal, it is clear they are overwhelmed by the difficulties they currently face and have temporarily lost all hope. They no longer see choices, or options, or reasons to keep trying. They see ending their life as the only reasonable solution. Some are scared, some are broken, others are angry.
Suicide is also uncomfortable to talk about because it affects so many others-family, friends, co-workers, caregivers. These people are left with many questions. What did I miss? What should I have done? And they have to deal with the stigma of suicide, the many opinions about what it all means. In addition to grief, they have to worry about the judgment of others.
How can you help?
It’s a depressing and overwhelming topic, but if what I see in my practice is any indication, many of us have been or will be touched by suicide.
- If your child has a peer who has recently committed suicide, watch them closely. Copycat suicide is a legitimate concern. Talk to them openly about how they feel about what has happened and if they ever have thoughts of suicide. You won’t put ideas into their head by asking, but you will reduce the shame and stigma, making it more likely they will come to you if they need help.
- Take all suicidal statements and behaviors seriously.
- Remove access to the means of suicide: remove guns, knives, pills, etc. from the area.
- Get professional help if someone you know is suicidal.
- A suicidal person should not be left alone. Period. In the psychiatric hospital, we would place our patients in “line of sight” until the active suicidal thoughts passed.
Spiritual connection, financial and healthcare resources, social support, community, kids and even pets are part of what helps to create resilience. Seeking professional help early is critical to protect against suicide.
From my perspective, people who are suicidal have temporarily lost all hope and are overwhelmed by life. Our job is to keep them safe, give them compassionate support, and let them borrow our hope till their own returns. We must get them professional help and end the cycle of stigma and shame.
Suzanne Jones, BSN, MA, LPC, NCC
You may contact me at: [email protected] (225) 278-3541
Or look for other articles and resources @ www.crossroadcounselor.com