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Suicide

How to Save a Life

Suicidality is on the rise in 2021. Talking about it can change everything.

Key points

  • A recent CDC study showed that about 11 percent of Americans reported having serious suicidal thoughts in August of 2020, up from 4.3 percent in August of 2018.
  • Talk about mental health in ways that show acceptance. Never, ever shame someone who is feeling down.
  • Anecdotally, I see clients talk about wanting to die at higher rates than ever before as the pandemic continues to disrupt that which previously made life meaningful.
  • When we de-stigmatize talking about suicide, we create space for people to come forward and get help.
hocus-focus/istockphoto
Source: hocus-focus/istockphoto

I have sat across from the most resilient people as they have, often with great trepidation, told me that they just don’t want to live anymore. They would often speak through the quaver in their voices and avoid looking up at me because they were so afraid that I would judge them.

I might have, in the before. Before my own sister jumped eighteen stories and ended her internal suffering on the concrete. Before I began to wake up with nightmares envisioning myself falling to the ground, just falling and falling. In the before, I booked hotel rooms without a second thought. In the before, death seemed like a distant thing that happened to other people. Now, years later, I still park in the inner spots of multilevel parking garages, because I no longer trust myself near the edge. What if the pain hits at the exact moment that I look over the rails down at the distant ground?

I had learned how to treat suicidal thoughts in my clients during my rotations at inpatient psychiatric units and through my post-graduate study of trauma and neuroscience. Those endeavors were useful in a pragmatic sort of way. However, I learned to truly, deeply enter the realm of extreme darkness with my clients in the after, after spending some time without any light at all.

It is more important than ever to talk about suicide. In the United States, suicidality has increased dramatically over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent CDC study showed that about 11 percent of Americans reported having serious suicidal thoughts in August of 2020, up from 4.3 percent in August of 2018. In my now virtual zoom screen office, I have seen clients talk about wanting to die at higher rates than ever before as the pandemic continues to disrupt that which previously made life meaningful.

These are some pieces of information that may be helpful:

1. It can happen to anyone.

Suicidality is independent of socioeconomic status. Anyone can be hit with hopelessness, with desperation, with deep fear and pain. Meghan Markle, in her recent Oprah interview, disclosed having suicidal thoughts while being part of the British royal family. Kate Spade, Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, Avicii, and so many other individuals who had achieved fame and celebrity status chose to actually end their own lives. We need to acknowledge, as a culture, that money does not equal happiness. This assumption is dangerous because it can lead people to believe that it is only acceptable to be suicidal in the absence of privilege. In doing so, we risk silencing calls for help from people who already feel guilt and shame about their feelings.

2. Old wounds can still sting.

The experience of trauma at any point in one’s life increases the risk for suicidality. The aftermath of trauma can be crushing in ways that are invisible and seemingly dormant for years. Survivors often hide their symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and dissociation until they just can’t handle it any longer (van der kolk, 2014).

3. The way out is elusive.

Once deep feelings of depression set in, they can change the neurobiological pathways in the brain. The pathways for happiness literally go dark, making it impossible for the depressed individual to imagine that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. If you or someone you know is experiencing intense hopelessness, do seek help from an experienced mental health professional. Know that even if you can not see the light, it is still there.

4. Believe.

It is always better to err on the side of caution and to believe someone who says they have lost the will to live. The worst that can happen is that we may mistakenly indulge someone who is not truly contemplating suicide, and we may give them some extra love and care. The reverse scenario is potentially fatal. If we miscalculate and decide to ignore a cry for help, thinking it is “just for attention,” we can end up contributing to the loss of a life. So, what is the harm, really, in just responding to cries for help without making it our job to authenticate those cries?

5. It hurts to be left behind.

Losing a close friend or family member to suicide carries its own set of psychological risks. Survivors of a loved one's suicide may develop PTSD, anxiety, depression, and most dangerous of all, an increased risk for attempting suicide (Jordan, 2020). This means that it is extra crucial to normalize talking about suicide, so that those left behind feel safe seeking help.

6. Spread awareness.

The semicolon project has done a great job of raising awareness for suicide. They’ve chosen the semicolon as a symbol; a semicolon in the middle of a sentence symbolizes that it will continue instead of ending with a period. The semicolon has come to represent the choice to continue one’s life at a time and place that it could have ended. Follow them on Instagram @projsemicolon. Consider reposting the symbol and the message so that your loved ones know you are someone who is open to talking about suicide.

7. Get help if needed.

For immediate help, 24/7: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

The bottom line is that suicidal thoughts happen. They happen to people we love, people we admire, people we think are above it all. Suicidal thoughts are real and dangerous. I hope that if you are reading this, you never feel the gut-wrenching pain of loss. I hope that you never face a moment where all of the light is gone. I hope you don’t know what I am talking about.

It is OK to be naive about this topic. But it is not OK to ignore it. Show your friends and family that you are a safe resource. When suicide is brought up on the news, comment with great care. Talk about mental health in ways that show acceptance. Never, ever shame someone who is feeling down. That is how you can save lives.

LinkedIn image: Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

References

Jordan, J. R. (2020). Lessons learned: Forty years of clinical work with suicide loss survivors. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 766.

Tal Young, I., Iglewicz, A., Glorioso, D., Lanouette, N., Seay, K., Ilapakurti, M., & Zisook, S. (2012). Suicide bereavement and complicated grief. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 14(2), 177–186. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2012.14.2/iyoung

The Fray. (2006). How to save a life [CD]. Sony Music.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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