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Understanding Your Role in Suicide Prevention

September is Suicide Prevention Month.
September is Suicide Prevention Month.

Published on September 29, 2023

Read Time: 6 Minutes

Three Things to Know

  • In 2021, suicide was responsible for over 48,000 deaths in the US, or one death every 11 minutes.
  • While there continues to be a mental health stigma, everyone faces mental health challenges to some degree, and support is essential.
  • If someone you know is considering suicide, remember the acronym “ACT,” where “A” stands for acknowledge or ask, “C” for care and “T” for tell.

Did you know? In 2021, suicide was responsible for over 48,000 deaths in the US, which is one death every 11 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also alarming, suicide rates have increased approximately 36% between 2000 and 2021.

In addition, an estimated 12.3 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.7 million attempted suicide in 2021.

Given these sobering statistics, Paige Heitman, Phelps Health Marketing and Public Relations director, recently sat down with Forrest Rackham, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Phelps Health, to bring awareness to the issue. Read on to learn the answers to commonly asked questions about this public health crisis.

Why does there continue to be a stigma around mental health?

Unfortunately, some people (mistakenly) think that something is absolutely wrong with individuals who struggle with mental health. They may assume that these individuals are messed up or crazy or something to that effect, which is not true. All of us have a brain, and therefore, all of us have mental issues. Instead of making assumptions, we need to be there to help each other out.

Dr. Forrest Rackham, Phelps Health psychologist
Forrest Rackham, PsyD

With suicide in particular, people often perceive a person as being selfish. Suicide also can carry strong religious connotations. For example, people may believe that if someone has committed suicide, they're going to hell. When we talk about suicide then, people are quick to say, "Oh, I'm not suicidal.” These individuals don’t want people to be overly worried about them, or assume that something's wrong with them.

These preconceived notions and stereotypes are devastating for those people who are the survivors of someone who has committed suicide. These assumptions have far-reaching effects on the community, loved ones and other individuals.

Can you explain what might be going on inside the mind of a suicidal individual?

Oftentimes when someone commits suicide, that person believes that ending their life is the only other option they have. Typically, people don't just flippantly say, "Oh, I'm going to commit suicide today." Rather, these individuals have already tried a variety of different things on a regular basis. They've been trying to make themselves better, happier. They've been looking for ways to alleviate the discomfort, pain or suffering they're currently experiencing.

Simply put, they've tried everything else they know to do, and their mind asks, "Well, what else is there? I'll never be released from this thing, whatever it is." That’s when suicide becomes more of an option in their mind. While this may not be their best option, they see suicide as a way to escape from their current suffering and pain.

How can we, the general public, participate in National Suicide Prevention Month?

In every day life or even on social media, we can share our experiences. We can talk about suicide prevention with other people. We also can inform others how we've been touched by suicide or mental health struggles, because almost everyone will have been touched by suicide in some capacity. For more information on getting involved, refer to these practical tips.

Speaking of social media, is there a correlation between social media usage and suicide prevalence?

We do know this: Heavy doses of social media use can definitely influence your mental health. In particular, researchers have found that social media has negative effects on teenagers. Given this, it would be safe to say that social media could be a contributing factor to suicide.

What are some common misconceptions about suicide?

One of the most common misconceptions surrounding suicide is that if you talk about it, you’re going to encourage an individual to commit suicide. This isn’t true, however. We don't implant suicidal thoughts when we ask someone if they are depressed.

Rather, talking about suicide provides the opportunity for communication. Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks about them in a caring way. Findings suggest that acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts.

What are common warning signs in someone who may be considering suicide?*

  • A loss of interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Self-isolation
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Giving away valuable possessions
  • Sudden change in mood, for example, becoming more irritated or frustrated
  • Feelings of loneliness: Researchers have identified loneliness as the primary factor contributing to suicide risk. Loneliness is the perception of being alone and unwanted, even when one has a support system. This perception can persist even when people have friends or family around them, as they may doubt that their support system would be there, when push comes to shove.

*Some of these symptoms can be indicative of depression, too.

If I’m concerned that someone I know may be contemplating suicide, what should I do?

Familiarize yourself with the “ACT” acronym:

  • “A” stands for acknowledge or ask. We need to acknowledge the warning signs a person may be exhibiting (see above).
  • “C” is for care. Listen to them and validate their emotions. Don't dismiss what they have to say. If anything, doing so will cause them to shut down and not feel comfortable sharing with you in the future. They may think, "Well, I've already tried reaching out. Doesn't matter anyways. They don't really care. They just care about their emotions and how it affects them. They don't really care about mine." You may not know what to do, and they may not either, but offering to help and asking what they need can be a great first step in expressing you care.
  • “T” is for tell. Tell a trusted adult, mental health professional or healthcare provider about their struggles and encourage this person to seek treatment.

What NOT to do:

If you are concerned about a loved one, show them you care by asking questions, such as, "Hey, are you considering hurting yourself?" or "Are you considering ending your life?" These questions may open up a door, a pathway.

When someone trusts you enough to confide in you, resist the urge to overreact and say things like, "That is so selfish. That is so messed up. How could you do that?" Also, don’t moralize their struggle, by saying something to the effect of, "Don't you know that you're going to hell if you do this?" In spite of their belief system, recognize that they took a chance by sharing something that's extremely personal with you.

If someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, where can they get help?

I would advise they utilize the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, by calling or texting 988. This lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Talking with a behavioral health provider also would be helpful. Finally, if possible, put them in touch with another person who has struggled in the past. There's nothing better than to be able to find someone who has gone through that struggle and has come back out on top.

Knowledge is Power

To learn more about this important topic, read this Q&A by Phelps Health Psychiatrist Mallikarjuna Bagewadi Ellur, MD.

Found in: Behavioral Health Health Stress Suicide