Shatter The Stigma Surrounding Suicide

September is Suicide Awareness Prevention Month. While few have any degree of comfort with the topic, it has become a national epidemic, impacting victims and those left behind alike.

 

September is Suicide Awareness Prevention Month. While few have any degree of comfort with the topic, it has become a national epidemic, impacting victims and those left behind alike.

Having witnessed my sons navigate the loss of a cousin to suicide and one of their friends lose a sibling, I can say in all honesty those left behind don’t ‘get over it’. Ever.

The enormity of the stigma around suicide can be paralyzing, preventing those suffering from reaching out for help. Under normal circumstances, this has led to sobering statistics, but under COVID, it has grown significantly worse. It will take the collective adjustment of our perspective on suicide and mental health to shatter the stigma.

 

Where We Are Now?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for the annual loss of 48,000 lives. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that since 2001, the overall suicide rate in the US increased by a staggering 31 percent. Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are 4x more likely to die from their attempt. In fact, men account for 75 percent of suicide attempts resulting in death.

According to NAMI, suicidal tendencies and risk vary across the population. Age, for example, can play a role. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34, and the 4th for ages 35-54. Sexuality and gender identity also impact risk; transgender people are 12x more likely and LGBTQ youth are 4x more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender or straight counterparts. Mental health also plays a role. While half of those who die from suicide have a diagnosed mental health condition, a full 90 percent of those suffered symptoms from their illness.

 

The COVID Impact

Enter COVID, a perfect storm of physical, financial, logistical, emotional and psychological threats heaped on top of these already staggering figures.

In an article published this month by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation reports a 21 percent increase in adults with mental health issues linked to the pandemic between March and July. This summer alone, adults experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression was 11 percent greater than the same time last year. A full 59 percent of those who lost work during the pandemic and 62 percent of those at higher risk for COVID infection experienced at least one negative impact to their mental health. Pandemic-related factors influencing the increase in mental health issues include social isolation, loneliness, job loss and economic concerns, as well as fear of contracting the virus. In terms of coping, an assessment by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention went on to find 13 percent of adults started or increased alcohol or drug consumption and 11 percent reported seriously considering suicide in the past month. For those between 18-25, this figure was 25 percent. Overall, it’s pretty grim.

 

Who Is At Risk?

According to Suicide Prevention Lifeline, factors that can increase the risk of suicidal tendencies include:

  • Mental disorders, particularly mood disorders
  • Alcohol/substance abuse
  • Hopelessness
  • Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
  • Major physical illnesses
  • Personal or family history of suicide attempts, trauma or abuse
  • Job or financial loss
  • Loss of relationship(s)
  • Easy access to lethal means
  • Local clusters of suicides
  • Lack of social support
  • Lack of access to healthcare
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that romanticize suicide or stigmatize asking for help
  • Real life or online exposure to suicide-related deaths

 

What Are The Warning Signs?

While a variety of risk factors can play a role in suicidal tendencies, it’s important know potential warning signs and take them seriously. According to National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), these include:

  • Talking about:

    • wanting to die
    • having feelings of overwhelming guilt or shame
    • being a burden to others
  • Feelings of:

    • hopelessness
    • being trapped
    • having no reason to live
    • extreme anxiety
    • agitation or rage
    • inability to endure emotional or physical pain
  • Behavior changes:

    • planning or researching suicide
    • withdrawing from loved ones
    • giving away important belongings
    • saying goodbye
    • risk-taking behavior
    • extreme mood swings
    • eating/sleeping changes
    • substance abuse

 

What Can Be Done?

The National Institute of Mental Health cautions against ever dismissing suicidal talk or behavior as “attention-getting”, recommending instead that it always be taken seriously. They recommend five steps to prevent suicide:

  1. Ask

Research shows that being asked “Are you thinking about hurting yourself? ” brings a sense of relief and can actually reduce suicidal thoughts according to Suicide Prevention Lifeline

  1. Keep Them Safe

Limiting access to dangerous items or places provides time and space to de-escalate suicidal thoughts

  1. Be There

Practice active, non-judgmental listening and acknowledge their feelings. This is done by repeating or rephrasing what the suicidal person says without adding an opinion. While the natural tendency may be to “fix” the problem, listening helps suicidal people feel less depressed and less overwhelmed

  1. Help Them Connect to Resources

Having access to resources and a support network can be an effective way to reduce hopelessness. This can include:

  • Finding a local mental health provider. One resource to consider is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1–800–662–HELP (4357)
  • Reaching out to their primary health care provider
  • Connecting with the National Suicide Hotline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor 24/7
  • Calling the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  1. Follow up and stay connected after the crisis

Having and maintaining connections with others is key in the long-term suicide prevention. Stay in touch and check in regularly.

 

If someone’s online behavior feels suicidal, for example their social media posts become worrying, contact the social media platforms directly or dial 911 if you witness live-streamed suicidal behavior

While the numbers are alarming and the impact of the pandemic shows little sign of lessening any time soon, there is hope for reducing the trends of mental illness and suicide. It starts with re-thinking how we view mental health, what relationships and connections look like in the tech-centric, always-on modern world and what our responsibilities are to each other collectively. Something as simple as reaching out and listening really can make all the difference.

 

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