September is Suicide Awareness Month; a cause that is very close to my heart for several reasons. For one, I believe that mental health and suicide should be a topic discussed more often. In order to do my part in helping to eradicate the stigma of mental illness and suicide, I wanted to dedicate a blog post to suicide awareness and prevention. Whether you are struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself or you have lost someone, I hope this post can alleviate some of your pain.
When a loved one confides in us that they have been struggling with suicidal thoughts, it is ok to feel panicked and scared. Even as a therapist, I sometimes still feel like this too. Three years ago, when I was in my last year of undergraduate college, I lost my boyfriend of the time to suicide. When he first told me about past suicide attempts, I completely panicked. I was suddenly very aware of my body, my facial expressions, and, for the first time ever in my life, I had no idea what to say. I have never felt so unsure and helpless before. I want you to know that it is ok to be scared in moments like this. Finding the exact right words to say, is not as important as how you act. The most important thing you can do this at that moment is to offer support, listen, and reassure them that you care and want to help.
In times such as this, our brain ends up going into defense mode for ourselves. Therefore, we are much more likely to process and attend to information that will calm us down. For example, we hold more weight to statements such as “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t try again. I’m better now.” versus “I’m feeling pretty sad today. Wish I could just sleep forever.” Our brain is defending us from stimuli that is causing stressful and negative reactions in ourselves. In other words, our brain knows when certain stimuli will negatively impact us and, therefore, that stimuli is not attended to or processed in the same way as positive stimuli. Therefore, it is important that you take any mention of suicide or thoughts of self-harm very seriously.
What to do if you think someone is suicidal:
- Talk with them and share you concerns. Emphasize that you care and want to be help
- Therapy: encourage them to see a therapist and even offer to go with them to the first appointment and wait in the waiting room
- Talk to the family: make sure that the people they see every day are aware of your concerns so that they can, also, be monitoring for warning signs and can have a supportive conversation with them. This may also include talking to roommates.
- Help them make a safety plan: this can include a hotline number, things to do or think about when feeling lonely or looking into an impatient treatment center. Often, asking them to guarantee or promise they won’t harm themselves can be very helpful. Have them write down a promise to themselves or someone else on a note card to keep in their wallet.
- Check in often: Check in to see how they are doing and send encouraging messages or statements to them. Often times, people who are having suicidal thoughts feel lonely and isolated
- Encourage their goals: help them make plans and goals for both the short-term and long-term and do some with them! If they are depressed, they may find it hard to motivate themselves. Having a designated activity buddy for some of the goals can be very helpful.
- Encourage a support group: this will help them feel as if they are not alone and not the only person struggling.
- If you think someone is going to commit suicide or has a plan call 911 immediately.
If you have lost someone to suicide…
After you lose someone to suicide you become consumed with an endless procession of questions. What did I miss? What should I have done differently? Why didn’t I pay more attention? In an attempt to relive some of the pain and guilt you are feeling, you begin to go over every memory you have with that person, looking for something…anything to make sense of it all.
Think of your brain as a search engine. If I were to type in “warning signs of suicide” into the search engine of my brain under Memories of X, I would get hundreds of results. Every small detail that could possibly have indicated the smallest sign of suicide, would be highlighted. Once we know what we are looking for, it is very easy to find information that meets our known criteria. In the moment, however, it is not as easy. Especially, if you have little to no knowledge or experience in that area. This endless questioning leads to a tremendous amount of guilt and, unfortunately, will not provide you the relief you are desperately looking for.
If you have lost someone to suicide here some tips to help you cope, process and move forward.
- Do not go down the What If Rabbit Hole: I know how easy it is to fall into this trap. Trust me, I spent a lot of time down in that hole and I gained absolutely nothing from it. We cannot change the past, we only have control over the future. Re-direct your thoughts and focus on things that are concrete.
- Educate yourself: educate yourself on warning signs of suicide and share the information with others!
Warning signs of suicide:
- History of depression or past attempts
- Low energy
- Isolation from others
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Substance use
- Recent trauma or life-changing event
- Family history
- Having a plan
- Find a community: there are many ways to do this. For me, I participate in a suicide walk every year and look for volunteer opportunities. Other options include: joining a support group, volunteering at a hotline, educating others or talking with the people in your support circle
- Be patient with yourself: It takes time to heal and it is important that you allow yourself that time. It can be very helpful to talk to a therapist during this time of healing and processing everything.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255