What You Need to Know About Suicide

School Nutrition’s March 2014 issue explores mental health and mental illness with the aim of starting a conversation about these conditions, which often go undiscussed from a combination of shame and stigma. Because the topic makes many of us uncomfortable, you may feel utterly unequipped to help a friend, colleague or family member whose battle with depression has become so grave as to leave him or her preoccupied with the idea of suicide. Begin by raising your awareness and understanding about suicide. Following is a brief primer to get you started.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), more than 38,000 suicides were reported in the United States in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available). This represents one suicide every 13.7 minutes! Also, consider the fact that many suicide attempts do not end in death—and thus tend to be underreported—so the number of those actively contemplating suicide at any given moment is shockingly high.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among all age groups. While suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24, the suicide rate is actually highest among people ages 45 to 64 years old and those over age 85. While around three-quarters of people who die by suicide are male, females account for about 75% of all non-fatal suicide attempts.

Suicide is seen as an option when pain exceeds the resources for coping with the pain. This definition from one website that provides tips and support for those contemplating suicide goes on to clarify that an individual who is contemplating suicide is not crazy, weak or a bad person; in fact, he or she may not really want to die. However, the person likely feels unable to cope to such an extent that she or he is unable to see any other alternatives.

A Few Signs That Should Raise Red Flags
Following are just a few of the possible warning signs that someone might be contemplating suicide.

  • The individual talks about hurting or killing him/herself, including making such assertions as “I just want the pain to end” or “I can’t see any way out” or “It just would be easier to go to a better place.”
  • He actively seeks out ways and means to carry out the intention, such as by seeking access to firearms or pills.
  • She talks of or writes about death, dying or suicide in a way that seems to be uncharacteristic and unusual behavior.
  • He expresses that he feels trapped, desperate or needs to escape from an intolerable situation.
  • She repeatedly apologies for being a burden to others.
  • He acts especially irritable or agitated—or excessively fatigued and disengaged. There are other factors to take into consideration, as well:
  • Suicide, as well as suicide risk factors such as depression and bipolar disorder, tends to run in families. However, having a family member who is depressed or who died by suicide does not mean that you will become depressed or die by suicide. Still, people who have a family history of suicide or mental illness should be particularly attuned to potential psychiatric symptoms they may experience and seek a professional evaluation as early as possible.
  • It’s important to note that the highest rates of suicide occur within some three months of initial signs of improvement in a severely depressed person.

How to Get Someone Help

  • Learn the warning signs.
  • Get involved. Be available and show interest and support.
  • Talk about it. If you see the signs, ask the person if he is considering suicide now, has considered it in the past, has a specific plan in mind or has previously taken any initial self-harming steps. Both past behavior and the formulation of a specific plan can help indicate the level of support and/or intervention that you should provide. Research affirms that talking about suicide does not cause someone to be suicidal or give them ideas they had not previously considered.
  • Be direct, willing to listen and non-judgmental.
  • Offer empathy, not sympathy.
  • Offer hope that other alternatives exist, without relying on glib reassurances.
  • Do not try to “argue the person out of” suicide; this could be interpreted as your failure to truly understand what she or he is experiencing.
  • Help the person understand that it may take time to find the right medication and/or therapist. Remain encouraging and supportive throughout the process, until the suicidal crisis has passed.
  • Don’t promise to keep it a secret. Seek support from individuals or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, such as:
    • A community mental health agency
    • A school counselor or psychologist
    • A suicide prevention or crisis intervention center, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255
    • A private therapist
    • A family physician
    • A religious/spiritual leader

Is there a distinction between the loved one who regularly makes end-of-life threats as a manipulative way to gain attention and the person who is in such despair and anguish that she or he believes life truly isn’t worth living? Many experts think you need to take every threat at a certain level of face value—today it may be a half-hearted threat to get attention, but tomorrow it could result in a self-harming action; there’s no way for you to be in the person’s mind to gauge the level of intent. Between 50% and 75% of people who attempt suicide tell someone about their intention. If you can get the individual to express their feelings and intentions, you will have a better sense of what level of assistance to provide.

If YOU Are Contemplating Suicide

  • Recognize that depression and a sense of hopelessness can interfere with your perceptions and affect your ability to make sound decisions.
  • Realize that suicidal feelings are the result of treatable problems.
  • Act as if there are other options instead of suicide, even if you may not be able to see them right now.
  • Don’t try to manage suicidal thoughts or behavior on your own. Ask for help from a loved one, religious/spiritual leader, medical professional or a Crisis Hotline.

Source: The Mayo Clinic

For more resources on suicide and tips for helping yourself or a loved one, see “Mental Health Resources.”

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