(Editor’s Note: Laurie Hubbs first addressed the issue of suicide in last week’s Daniel Island News, offering readers the story behind the staggering number of deaths attributed to suicide each year and sharing what family, friends and community members can do to help. For this edition, she debunks the myths associated with suicide and provides insights on how to spot warning signs. In her next column, Hubbs will address how to have a conversation with someone you think may be suicidal.)
The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as well as local music personality Richard ‘Box’ Bachschmidt, have thrust the topic of suicide into the spotlight once again. But there are thousands more that don’t make the news. In fact, with almost 45,000 cases of suicide in 2016 alone, experts have deemed it a public health crisis. And yet, what do we really know about suicide?
We do know that suicide is the deliberate ending of one’s own life. Experts agree that suicide is an equal opportunity event and anyone, given the right circumstances, can become suicidal. Thus, no one is immune to suicidal ideation.
To truly understand this issue, we must recognize suicide is about deep, often unrelenting, emotional pain. While the suicidal person may say, “I want to die!” the true intent behind suicide is ending the pain, not death. They are in enough emotional pain, and often the pain has gone on long enough, that death appears to them as the only way out of their pain. It is important to understand that death is not the goal. Death is a by-product of ending their pain.
Many find it helpful to know that death is not the suicidal person’s goal because knowing that the suicidal person’s goal is to end the pain means there are options available to help. If death is the goal, there are no options. When ending pain is the goal, there are many options.
Suicide is often called a contagion and one suicide is often followed by more suicides in the same family or community. Therefore, it is important for all adults to know the truths about suicide. Below are some of the myths that surround suicide, along with the warning signs that can indicate someone is having suicidal thoughts.
MYTH #1 - Only mentally ill people think about or attempt suicide.
FACT: Over 50 percent of those who commit suicide have no history of mental illness.
MYTH #2 - People who talk about or attempt suicide are just trying to gain attention.
FACT: Anyone who attempts or even talks about attempting suicide is in a dangerous place and needs to be taken seriously. Suicidal talk or attempts are not manipulations. These are serious cries for help.
MYTH #3 - Talking about suicide to a person who is sad or upset will put the idea of suicide into their head.
FACT: We all know suicide is a potential path. When we are healthy, suicide is far away from us. So far away, in fact, that we don’t think about it. Sometimes, when things get too hard and too painful, people bring suicide in close. People in pain may consider suicide. They examine it. Gaze at it.
Flirt with it. And all this is generally done quietly in the privacy of the suicidal person’s head.
Suicidal thoughts ordinarily take place in isolation making the suicidal person feel separate and alone. This makes asking if they are thinking about suicide even more powerful because it provides the opportunity for the sufferer to share their thoughts and feelings. Once the conversation about suicide is opened, they are no longer alone in their pain.
MYTH #4 - When a person is intent on committing suicide there is no way to stop them.
FACT: Research is clear that any intervention by a caring individual can prevent a suicide. Asking someone about suicidal thoughts can be a powerful intervention.
MYTH #5 - Only a trained mental health professional can prevent a suicide.
FACT: Anyone can intervene and prevent a suicide. Asking about suicidal thoughts and facilitating getting the sufferer to professional help is a solid intervention.
MYTH #6 - People often commit suicide without warning.
FACT: Sometimes, there are no warning signs, however, in 75 percent to 80 percent of suicides warning signs were present. Often, family and friends are unaware of the warning signs or didn’t know how to intervene.
WHAT ARE THE WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE?
While not everyone who attempts suicide is depressed, anxiety and depression top the list of warning signs. Many of the risk factors include changes such as withdrawing from social interactions, changes in mood, changes in attitude, behavior and appearance or a significant life change such as job change, divorce or moving away from home.
Preoccupation with death, making final arrangement or giving away cherished possessions can also be warning signs as these may signal a person is letting go of things in this life. In these cases, preoccupation with death does not mean the normal planning that adults do to take care of their families, but rather, fixating on death and making final arrangements. For example, it is normal for a 75-year-old to plan the details of their funeral service. That is not normal for a 30-year-old in the absence of a terminal illness.
Reckless behavior, such as drunk driving, and abusing substances are common warning signs that often end in accidents or death. Many times, the person in pain wants to commit suicide and is hoping that the risky behavior will end their life. Should the risky behavior not end their life, the substances will mask some of the pain in the meantime.
Suffering a loss such as the death of a loved one, job reversal or end of a relationship may precede a suicide attempt. Often along with experiencing a loss will come expressed feelings of worthlessness. These expressions often sound like, “My family would be better off without me.” Or “I mess up everything I touch.” Often these utterances convey a belief that they are not worthy of existing here on earth.
Finally, two major warning signs are hopelessness and helplessness. Hopelessness and helplessness are said by experts to be strong precursors to suicide. Hopelessness often sounds like, “My life is garbage and it will never change.” And helplessness may sound like, “My life is garbage and there is nothing I can do to change it.”
If you see or hear any of these warning signs, you can help. Remember, any caring individual can intervene and facilitate getting the suicidal person to the professional help they need.
If you are unsure of the next steps to take, call the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Trained hotline counselors are available 24/7 to answer questions, provide support and help.
Laurie Hubbs is an author, speaker, Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Coach. Laurie teaches and speaks on a variety of mental health and life issues. Laurie lives happily on Daniel Island with her husband, Dean.