Talking about suicide prevention and awareness

Sep 3, 2011 at 1:26 p.m. ET
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September 4-10 is suicide prevention week -- according to the American Association of Suicidology and the World Health Organization, someone attempts suicide in the US every 38 seconds and almost a million worldwide die from suicide every year. With these staggering statistics in mind, we wanted to take a closer look at suicide – something that is often very misunderstood – and find out more about how to prevent it.

Finding hope

We turned to Cheryl Brown, founder of Suicide: Finding Hope, and Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D. – both of whom have lost loved ones to suicide – to learn more about prevention and education strategies. Brown founded the site as a way to provide the latest knowledge and research surrounding suicide and to offer a place for survivors and those coping with suicide loss to better understand and navigate what they are going through. "My greatest message to survivors is that it gets better and life can be fully lived, even in the face of such a tragedy. I and others are living examples," she says. She also hopes to educate people about suicide. "Education about suicide, without glamorizing it, will engage all of us to think about prevention and compassion."

Misconceptions about suicide

There are many misconceptions about suicide, which can end up standing in the way of prevention. The more assumptions we make about something, especially when it comes to mental illness, the harder it is to deal with it in a way that can actually help people.

One of the biggest misconceptions about suicide is the belief that the person wants to die, Brown explains. "They don't want to die, they just want to kill the pain and they can't figure out any other way to do it."

Another common misconception is if it's a true suicide, the individual will leave a note to explain. Brown says that only about 25 percent of people who suicide will leave a note, meaning that 75 percent won't. The lack of a note leads to unending questions and doubts but doesn't mean very much, she adds. "The person has lost a sense of connection to others at the point of suicide and thus makes higher-level thinking less likely."

Prevention tips

Brown shares some of her tips for suicide prevention below.

  • Take a change in behaviour or mood seriously. Be vigilant about those close to you.
  • Encourage the person to talk, and when they do, try not to be judgmental. Don't try to offer solutions to their problems. If you encourage them to go on, they will discover things on their own, which is more effective. And when you're listening, look them in the eyes and show attentiveness with your body, like leaning forward or moving closer.
  • Don't promise that what they say will be confidential. If they're suicidal, you need to involve others.
  • If they have a plan for suicide, don't leave them alone until they are in the hands of a professional.
  • In this economy, many people are lacking medical insurance or have insurance that doesn't cover mental illness. Listening is free and a great way to show that you care.

Importance of coping skills

One of the contributing factors to suicide that most concerns Linn-Gust includes the lack of coping skills.
We all have to learn to deal with loss and change in our lives and understand that life is filled with ups and downs and that, despite what we see on media, our lives are not going to be perfect or happy all the time. "It's important to teach people the difference between good and bad coping skills," she explains. For instance, when we feel down, we need to think of healthy ways to deal with those emotions, like going for a walk, calling friends or reading a book. It's not productive or healthy to abuse alcohol or drugs – a choice someone who doesn't have a lot of coping skills might make. "Many people don't realize the simple things in life that do help us feel good -- like feeling the sun's warmth and being with friends."

When it comes to coping with depression and other forms of mental illness, Linn-Gust stresses that it's also crucial that people know who they can call when they believe they need support. "While a crisis line should always be included in this list it also would include family, friends and other people in someone's life who care," she says.

What to do if someone is at risk

If you're worried about someone you know being at risk for suicide, the first thing you need to do is ask them if they are suicidal, Linn-Gust says. She adds that many people are afraid to ask that question because they're worried the answer will be yes -- and then they won't know what to do.

If someone says yes, they are feeling suicidal, then you need to:

  • Find help immediately. Call a national or local crisis line, a clinician, or 911 (or whatever your local emergency response number is).
  • Do not leave them alone.
  • You also don't want to be the only one who knows this person is suicidal. It's important to call on several trusted people to help.
  • Give the person a chance to talk. Sometimes people who are suicidal don't get the chance to express why they are suicidal and there is a lot of relief in being able to say why they feel the way they do.
  • Don't immediately say, "Oh, you have so much to live for!" They need the opportunity to express why they feel as though suicide is their only option, before they can think about reasons for living.

Suicide Prevention Week is September 4 to 10. To find out more and prevention and awareness visit Suicide: Finding Hope and the American Association of Suicidology.

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