Mental Health Matters: Suicide Prevention
Suicide is a preventable act. Everyone can help save a life. According to the American Psychological Association, rates of suicide have increased sharply. The suicide rate increased 33% from 1999 to 2017, and it ranks as the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 35 to 54 and the second for 10- to 34-year-olds. Overall, it is the 10th leading cause of death.
These grim statistics have indeed risen since 2017. The suicide rate among youth and minorities is increasing at a rapid pace. The isolation related to COVID-19 and the impact of racial injustices throughout our nation is also impacting mental health functioning in ways we cannot even fully appreciate. Suicide is a mental health crisis. It is a public safety factor that requires attention from our policymakers and serious conversations around the dinner table and in our places of work and places of worship.
Suicide can affect any person from any family from any place in the world. Mental illness is a significant risk factor for individuals who experience suicidal ideation (thoughts of killing themselves) and those who attempt it.
According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), mental health disorders related to suicidal behavior often include Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, withdrawal from substances, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opiates, and Personality Disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder. These are just some of the mental health disorders frequently associated with suicide, and there are other mental health disorders associated with suicidal concerns.
The Journal of the American Medical Association has identified new risks for suicide, including financial distress, feeling downhearted, and doing activities less carefully due to emotional problems as strong risk factors.
Situational factors can contribute to an individual feeling suicidal. Such factors include experiencing a significant loss such as a death, ending a relationship, or even losing a job. Individuals who experience considerable trauma are also at greater risk for suicidal concerns.
Many individuals who are experiencing significant emotional pain speak of just wanting the pain to end. They don’t necessarily want to die, but they cannot see any other way to be pain free. They are ambivalent. They are stuck in such a level of despair; there doesn’t seem to be any way out. It’s not even logical, but thinking about how things could get better has come and gone for the individual suffering. This person feels hopeless, helpless, alone, tired, and in constant emotional and perhaps physical pain. They may even be gambling with phrases in their mind such as, “If someone reaches out to me today and even says hello, maybe I won’t do it today.” And at the same time, in their mind, they are rehearsing every step of their suicide plan. These are the people living amongst us who are crying inside, yet there are no tears left to shed.
How can you help?
Ask Questions. If someone you know talks about suicide, take it seriously. Ask direct questions like, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” Or ask, “Do you have a plan to take your life?” Don’t be afraid to ask these questions; you could save a life. If you are unable to ask these tough questions, solicit help from someone who can.
Be There. Do not leave an individual alone who you think is at risk of harming themselves alone. Take all threats concerning suicidal statements seriously. Help them connect. You can also help a suicidal person connect with the Lifeline: 1(800)273-8255. Help them dial the phone and remain present as they make a connection with a crisis counselor.
Call for Help. Reach out for help, and don’t ignore that feeling in your gut that something isn’t quite right. If you think there is an imminent risk for harm, which means someone has thoughts of killing themselves, a plan for taking their life, and the means to carry out the plan, don’t hesitate, call for help. Call 911, take this person to the Emergency Room if you can find another person to accompany you. There is safety in numbers. The bottom line is, take action.
Follow Up. Continue to provide support to those in need. Reach out and let this person know you care. Don’t live in the moment of awkward silence. Don’t hesitate, pick up the phone and show you care.
Make a Connection. Reach out to people and make a connection. You never know the meaning of that connection. Going to the Emergency Room is not how anyone envisions spending their afternoon or evening. Still, neither is planning a funeral or telling someone you love that their loved one is no longer alive. Many people have already lost a friend or family member to suicide or know someone who has. I have and every single person who dies from suicide is deeply loved and missed. They have left an impression on your life and your heart.
Suicide is a scary subject, and it brings up a tremendous amount of fear, worry, and anxiety for many. Mental illness does not have to live in the shadows if we can talk about it, learn about it, and support people who experience it. Mental illness is a treatable illness. You don’t have to suffer alone. Mental health matters to you and me!
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1(800)273-8255. Help is available 24/7.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1(800)662-HELP. Mental health and substance use disorders.
Dr. Skillestad Winans retired from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, after 24 years of service, where she served as the Chief of Psychology Services. She is currently an Associate Professor at Northwest University, and a Clinical Supervisor at the University of Washington, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. The information in this article does not constitute a doctor-patient relationship, assumes no professional or legal liability, and does not represent the views of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Northwest University, or the University of Washington.