Do you bring it up? What do you say? Is it better to not say anything at all?
If you’re concerned a loved one is contemplating suicide, such questions can be tough to answer. But experts stress that remaining silent isn't the answer. They point out that suicide is preventable, and knowing the facts about it can help you intervene and make a difference in someone's life. Here, we debunk seven common myths about suicide to help you give your loved one the support they need.
You may be afraid of raising the subject of suicide with a vulnerable person, for fear that even mentioning it could inspire them to harm themselves. But the reality is that those struggling with depression may be relieved to have the opportunity to share their disturbing thoughts, including the ones about suicide, with someone else. "Many times what people want to do is make that social connection with someone and be heard and listened to," explains Peggy Wagner, head of clinical operations and of organization risk management services at Aetna Resources For Living, which offers crisis counseling to Aetna members. "And then gradually it gives them an opportunity also to think out loud and to process what they're going through." Once that person feels heard, you can suggest they seek help. You should also ask if they plan to hurt themselves and how, and then discuss safely getting rid of guns or other weapons and disposing of drugs that pose a risk.
There's a misconception that a suicidal person will find a way to take his or her own life, no matter what. This fuels the dangerous notion that it's useless to reach out to someone contemplating suicide, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. "When people are suicidal, many times they're highly ambivalent. They're unsure about suicide," explains Wagner. "They're torn between a desire to live and a desire to die."
If you suspect a loved one is considering taking his or her own life, be proactive in trying to get them help. After all, a successful intervention ― one that results in a person getting the professional help they need ― can strengthen a person's desire to live. (Learn more about getting help for a friend or loved one below.)
“Through their words or actions, most people who take their own lives really have communicated their intent beforehand to other people,” Wagner says. There are almost always warning signs, including telling others they want their lives to end, giving away possessions, behaving more aggressively or recklessly, experiencing dramatic mood swings, abusing substances and withdrawing socially. (Learn more about suicide warning signs from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.) Witnessing such behavior can be distressing, but it also presents you with a chance to intervene and get them critical help before it's too late.
On the outside, someone can appear to have it all: a great job, a healthy family, an active social life, a beautiful home. "We look at the outside veneer and say, 'They're doing great. Life is wonderful. How could they even contemplate suicide?' But you really don't know what's going on inside of someone," Wagner says. While the deaths of Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade are high-profile examples of prominent people dying by suicide, seemingly happy people in your own life might be at risk, too. The takeaway? When you see someone exhibit warning signs for suicide, don't brush it off. Reach out to them instead. Have an honest conversation. Learn how to talk to someone who may be struggling.
"Many times, what people want to do is make that social connection with someone and be heard and listened to."
The holidays may be a time of togetherness, but they can also heighten depression among people who already feel lonely or stressed by the demands of the season. Still, contrary to popular belief, suicides don't peak during the winter holidays. Rather, they're at their highest in the springtime. While there's no scientific consensus as to why this happens, the seasonal spike in suicides means it's best to let go of any assumptions that sunny days and blooming flowers will lift the mood of someone who is struggling. Instead, make a point to check in with them and offer a sympathetic ear.
It's one of the cruelest ironies of suicide: Someone hits rock bottom. But then, perhaps with the help of treatment, their mood lifts enough that loved ones think they're out of the woods. Unfortunately, that’s oftentimes not true. It takes a lot of energy to attempt suicide, and when a depressed person is in the early stages of recovery, he or she might gain just enough of it to end their life, Wagner explains. “Many times, people are at the highest risk of attempting suicide when they first get out of the hospital,” she says. “So it’s important to make sure that they have ongoing treatment and support after they get out of the hospital.” Not sure whether your loved one has the necessary support in place? It never hurts to ask. If the answer is "no," offer to help them find the resources they need.
Suicide hotlines can be effective. Thousands of people call Aetna's Resources For Living call centers every year for help with suicidal thoughts. But Wagner cautions that it's not enough to simply suggest a suicidal person pick up the phone. Your struggling loved one might only pay lip service to your suggestion. “It's important to help facilitate getting them to take the next step, rather than just giving them a phone number because you don't know whether they're going to follow through," she says.
The best thing to do is ask how you can help, perhaps offer to reach out to a mental health provider they've seen in the past, or drive them to the emergency room yourself. If it's a co-worker, consider asking management at your company to get in touch with your colleague's relative, who can get them medical care.
To get more information and advice on what to do in a specific situation, you can call hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or Aetna’s Resources For Living. Aetna members whose health plans includes Employee Assistance Program benefits can call the number provided by their employer.
Often, when we hear about suicide, it's in relation to someone who actually took his or her own life. “That’s what gets publicity,” Wagner says. “But what we don't hear about is how many people were able to talk to someone, were directed to get help, did get care and didn't go on to take their life.” She and other experts agree that there are tremendous opportunities to intervene and prevent vulnerable people from doing the unthinkable. While such interventions may ultimately involve the work of mental health professionals, they often begin with family and friends. If your loved one is considering suicide, starting an honest conversation about it can be the first step toward getting them help – and saving a life.
If you or someone you know is at risk:
Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!
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