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Suicide Prevention Awareness

“Creating hope through action.”

Key points

  • Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34.
  • There are many misconceptions about suicide, including that a person was weak or never tried to get help. Suicide is often a last resort.
  • Frequent triggers for suicidal thoughts include shame, social isolation, serious health concern, hopelessness and mental health conditions.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month in the U.S. The National Alliance on Mental Illness made this designation in 2008 to help destigmatize conversations about suicide, and to communicate vital information as well as hope to those affected by it.

World Suicide Prevention Day also occurs annually on September 10, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO). This year’s World Suicide Prevention Day theme is, “Creating hope through action.” The international community is calling on everyone to take action to increase the understanding and prevention of suicide worldwide.

Painful Suicide Statistics

It is difficult for us to comprehend the facts about suicide in our country. According to the CDC:

  • Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States
  • It is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34
  • Suicide took the lives of nearly 48,000 people in 2019, about one every 11 minutes
  • Suicide rates went up 33 percent between 1999 and 2019
  • American Indian/Alaska Native and non-Hispanic White populations have the highest suicide rates
  • LGBTQ+ young people have a higher rate of suicidal behavior and ideation than their straight peers
  • In 2019, 12 million American adults thought seriously about suicide and 1.4 million attempted it

The global numbers are equally distressing:

  • 700 000+ people die by suicide every year, one person every 40 seconds
  • In 2019, 77 percent of suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries
  • 20 adults attempted suicide for each one who died of it

We must remind ourselves that these are much more than just numbers. They represent human beings who found it impossible to continue to live. That is why this month – and every month – we must work to recognize their pain and help them find ways to survive.

Do Not Fall Victim to Myths

People trying to cope with the suicide death of a loved one sometimes falsely characterize that individual or what led them to choose death. The person who died by suicide is often termed “selfish” for leaving behind confused and grieving family, friends, and colleagues. A recent article points out that this is just one of many misconceptions about those who die by their own hand:

Assumption: They wanted attention. In fact, many do not want to die but simply can no longer live with the emotional and/or physical pain they feel.

Assumption: They were weak. In fact, they may have lived with excessive challenges and hoped for improvement for weeks, months, or years, and finally found it too difficult.

Assumption: They never really tried to get help. In fact, suicide is the last resort in most cases, when all their other efforts have failed.

Assumption: They did not consider how their death would affect others. Many people considering suicide hang on because they do not want to hurt their loved ones. If they do die by suicide, they may think that will ease the burdens on those caring for them.

Keep an Eye Out for Triggers

Many feelings and experiences can induce suicidal thoughts; however, there are some frequent triggers:

Not surprisingly, a person with depression is 20 times more likely to die by suicide than someone without the disorder. It is important to watch for symptoms of depression – such as sadness, irritability, less interest in favorite activities, sleeping too much or too little, change in appetite, forgetfulness, and lack of self-care – in family members or friends.

Most of all, do not be afraid to ask a person if she or he is having suicidal thoughts. You will not make that individual think about suicide by doing this… but indeed you may open a line of communication. Knowing they can discuss such thoughts with you, the person may be able to take a step forward towards assistance.

What to Say – and Not

Two-time suicide survivor Kimberly Zapata emphasizes that saying something to a person contemplating suicide is better than saying nothing. However, from her first-hand experience, it is important to say things that do not end up making that individual feel worse. Here are some of her suggestions for engaging with a suicidal person, and what comments and questions to avoid:

Say “That must be scary. I'm sorry you've been feeling so alone,” instead of “What's wrong with you?”

Say “That sounds awful. Would you like to tell me more about it?” instead of “It's not that bad.”

Say “You mean so much to me,” instead of “But you have so much to live for.”

Say “It must be so hard to feel so alone. What can I do to help?” instead of “Cheer up!”

Say “I'm worried about you. Do you want to talk about your feelings?” instead of “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

Say “I'm here for you. You don't have to go through this alone,” instead of “It will get better.”

Say “There is hope. Let me help you,” instead of “Stay strong.”

Identify Prevention Strategies and Programs

Once a person considering suicide is comfortable discussing those thoughts, help them take the next steps. If he or she is depressed, do what you can to get them professional mental health care. Treatment might include therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Keep the lines of communication open and be a good listener. Support routines in their lives, which can be beneficial. You might also suggest listening to music or journaling. Encourage consistent connection and interaction with family and friends.

You cannot maintain 24/7 contact with someone considering suicide. Be sure that person has information about other resources readily available.

Our country’s suicide prevention efforts must occur on the local, state, and national levels. In Ohio, where 31 Black children ages 10 to 14 died by suicide in 2019, a recent research study pointed to some of the conditions leading to those suicides, including a crisis or argument with a boyfriend or girlfriend, a recent legal problem, or family and school issues. Principal investigator Arielle Sheftall called on all parts of the community to get involved, to identify the risk factors for Black youth, and then evaluate prevention programs for use or adaptation. New accreditation standards for behavioral health care providers and augmented education and awareness are also being explored.

On the national level, there are numerous organizations and agencies working to prevent suicide such as U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), The Jed Foundation, The Trevor Project, and Children's Safety Network (CSN). I am proud to say that our firm works with organizations, the federal government, non-profits, and partners to reduce suicide rates across the country. Some of our suicide prevention efforts have focused on American Indian/Alaskan Native, military, and Arctic region suicide.

When I began contributing to Psychology Today one year ago, I had no idea how these posts would heighten my own appreciation for the thousands of professionals and volunteers dedicated to the mental wellness of our nation and our world. Karl A. Menninger said, “Hope is a necessity for normal life and the major weapon against the suicide impulse.” Let us continue to devote our actions to creating those beacons of hope.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


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