Bringing hope to those affected by suicide
It’s a disturbing coincidence that my father-in-law committed suicide in September last year. He was 64 and had recently retired from his job. From the outside, his life looked perfect. He had always looked forward to retirement, although he mentioned feeling sad a few months prior to ending his life. We all assumed his mood was just part of his adjustment to retirement and never guessed it would take such a lethal turn.
Remember that a suicidal person isn’t crazy. Often they don’t want to die, suicide is only a desperate attempt to stop internal pain and suffering they feel have become unbearable. With effective help and support, these feelings can be turned around and healthy solutions can be found.
1. Recognize the risk factors
Each year over 1 million people die by suicide worldwide. On average, that means one person dies every 40 seconds. Suicide can affect anyone, although there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt.
The young and elderly tend to have a higher risk of suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youths aged 15-24, and white men aged 85 years and older are four times more likely to commit suicide than Americans in any other age group. For the 85+ group, one out of every five attempts is fatal, compared to those aged 15-24 where there is one suicide for every 100-200 attempts.
A person considering suicide is being influenced by many things. The person often has very conflicted feelings around wanting to live and wanting to die. Other risk factors to be aware of include:
- History of mental disorder or substance abuse
- Family history of suicide, violence or abuse
- Incarceration – being in prison or jail
- Recent loss or other stressful life event
- Exposure to others’ suicidal behavior, such as family members or celebrities
- Terminal illness or chronic pain
Antidepressant medication treatment can also increase the risk of suicide for some people, particularly during the first two months of treatment or dosage change. The Federal Drug Administration in the U.S. recommends to watch anyone on antidepressants for increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
2. Take warning signs seriously
Suicidal comments or behaviors are not passing moods or phases, they are often serious calls for help. If someone is not openly talking about suicide, more subtle warning signs may be present. Feelings of hopelessness are linked to an increased risk of suicide. The person may state they have nothing to look forward to or the future will be horrible.
Additional warnings signs to watch out for include:
- Talking about suicide
- Seeking out lethal means
- Self-hatred or self-destructive behavior
- Sudden changes in mood, personality or daily routine
- Getting affairs in order
- Withdrawing from others
- Unusual visits to family and friends as if to say goodbye
A less obvious sign can be a person’s sense of calm and happiness after a long period of depression, which can signal that the person has come to a final decision to commit suicide.
3. Speak up
It may feel awkward to approach someone you think is considering suicide, but talking openly about suicide can be a vital first step to saving their life. Suicidal thoughts often become like tunnel vision and the person feels very alone and isolated. When you talk to someone, it will show them you care. And if they’re given a chance to speak honestly about their feelings, it can help relieve loneliness and broaden their view to find different solutions.
You can start a conversation by mentioning that you’ve noticed a change in the person lately and you’re wondering how they’re doing. Even if they’re hesitant to speak about it, you can gently ask them if anything has happened to make them feel this way, or ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
Let them know you care and you’ll be there for them if they need you. Be sympathetic, listen and offer hope by reminding them that feelings are temporary and there are many options for help besides suicide. Speaking directly about suicide will not put ideas in their head. Instead, it can create a safe space for the person to share what’s already on their mind.
Do not try to lecture the person, argue or attempt to fix their problems. These are not constructive or helpful. And never promise confidentiality; you need to be able to get outside help when needed.
4. Respond quickly and establish a crisis plan
When a loved one tells you they are thinking about death or suicide, it’s important to determine if they are in immediate danger. Those with the highest risk typically have a plan, the means to carry it out (gun, pills, etc.), a set time and the intention to commit suicide.
If you feel a suicide attempt is imminent, make sure the person is never left alone and get back up if needed. Phone family or friends to help, call 911 or take them directly to an emergency room. Remove any available means for suicide, including guns, drugs, knives or other potentially lethal tools or objects.
Also determine a plan for any future crises. Collect and post all emergency phone numbers in one place, such as crisis lines, 911, mental health support lines or any other appropriate services in your area. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and AntiSuicide both have comprehensive lists of international crisis and suicide lines.
Include all numbers for family and friends on the list, and speak to everyone to figure out the best way to support your loved one. Do whatever you can to get a suicidal person the help they need. Encourage them to see a mental health professional, help locate a treatment facility, or take them to doctor’s appointments.
5. Promote life skills and social networks
Positive lifestyle changes are very important. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep are all vital for relieving stress and promoting emotional well-being.
It’s also helpful for anyone considering suicide to expand their social support network beyond friends and family. They can join a community suicide or depression support group or another specific support group, such as youth or older adult groups. If they are open to the idea, volunteering or other social involvement can be helpful to reconnect and remind someone they are needed and valued.
My family followed many of these steps and, sadly, it wasn’t enough for my father-in-law. We’ll never know if we could have prevented his suicide had we done more, but what’s important now is to realize it was no one’s fault and to support each other as we deal with what happened. I hope sharing my father-in-law’s story and these suggestions can help prevent another needless death.