You know by now that I have experienced suicidality, but did you know that over 700,000 people worldwide actually die from suicide each year? Did you know that September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month? I’m guessing you don’t feel very confident talking about suicidality, whether it’s your own or a loved one’s. The overwhelming response I’ve received in sharing my experiences has been praise for my courage, awe at the public nature of that sharing, and, most poignantly, so many “me too” messages. We need to do better at having these open conversations. In that spirit, here’s a collection of information, resources, and ideas regarding suicide prevention and awareness.
Which reminds me: Let’s delineate the differences between suicidality, suicidal behavior, and suicide attempts. Suicidality, or suicidal ideation, refers to thoughts of ending one’s life. Suicidality can range from fleeting thoughts to detailed planning. Suicidal behavior is acting on those thoughts and may look like self-harm, reckless behavior, or putting a plan into motion (giving away belongings, saying goodbyes, obtaining the method for suicide, etc.). Suicidal attempts or suicide is deliberate action taken to end one’s life; “attempt” refers to action that is survived while “suicide” refers to action that is not survived.
It’s important to understand these different phenomena as separate yet related, and to know that each stage has its own spectrum of severity. It is vital to understand that, while thinking about suicide increases the risk of suicidal action, it does not guarantee suicidal behavior nor a suicide attempt. Addressing suicidality on its own without rushing to behavioral intervention can help the person struggling feel safer talking about their suicidality. I hear from clients on a regular basis about their fear of voicing suicidal thoughts to me or other mandated reporters, believing that even talking about suicidality will land them in a psychiatric ward or emergency room.
So what is the best way to respond to a loved one when suicidality is present? Ask a few simple questions to start and go from there:
- “Are you thinking about suicide?” Use the actual word. It helps destigmatize the experience, and signals to the person that you’re willing to talk about it, even if it’s uncomfortable or difficult.
- “Do you have any sort of plan? Do you have a timeline?” Again, be direct. If they say yes, it’s likely time for some professional intervention. Offer to help them schedule a crisis session with a therapist or doctor. Sit with them while they make those phone calls or reach out to a crisis hotline. Ask for details about their plan. If they tell you the details, you can protect them by taking their means of self-harm, with their permission. If they say they do not have a plan, they may be lying, which is impossible to know. But they may also be telling the truth; their suicidal thoughts may be limited to an awareness of suicide as an option and not about a desire to act on that awareness.
- “This sounds so painful. I’m so sorry.” Suicidality is a trauma in and of itself. While it can be overwhelming for you as someone who cares about this person, keep the focus on them. Your own fears, anxiety, guilt, grief, or shame can take up space later; for now, let this suffering person know you can tolerate their pain.
- “I don’t know how else to help, but I know there’s help available. Let’s make a plan together.” Search for and/or schedule with a therapist, make an appointment with a doctor (medication may be a necessary part of the treatment plan), create a list of people to reach out to and their phone numbers, make sure crisis hotline numbers are added to contacts, and overall let the suffering person know they’re not alone.
After responding to your loved one, take care of yourself. You need to process the vicarious, secondary trauma of supporting a suicidal loved one. Don’t be surprised if your own depression or anxiety symptoms flare up; this is hard work. Call your own therapist or doctor, reach out to your own inner circle, practice your own true self-care.
Here are loads of resources for you to bookmark and learn from during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and beyond:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Program this number into your phone now; you never know when you or someone you love may need it!
Suicide Prevention Resource Center Consider taking one of their free, self-paced, open-to-anyone online courses on suicide prevention.
There are also countless community-based organizations, likely several in your own town or city. Look them up and bookmark those, too. So many people struggle with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and many more suffer after losing a loved one to suicide. It’s a near-universal experience; I truly don’t know anyone who is unaffected by suicide. It’s our collective duty to answer humanity’s call to take suicide prevention seriously, and the first steps are to simply learn more and talk more.
For information on working with Caitlin, look no further.