A suburban mother of two. An Oscar-award winning actor. Jennifer Huston and Robin Williams couldn’t be more different, but they shared a similar pain that evolved into something deeper: suicide. Both Huston and Williams recently ended their lives, and their deaths sent shockwaves through the nation.
The first question people usually ask when someone ends their life is, why? Why did my loved one want to die? Why did I not see the signs that they were this depressed and hopeless? Why didn’t they reach out for help in their darkest final moments? Suicide has long been a topic and phenomenon that most people cannot fully make sense of. More than one million people kill themselves each year. The most vulnerable age group for suicide are people between the ages of 45 and 65. This makes sense when you consider the life cycle of persons in that age group. An unrewarding or stressful career, family discord, a new health diagnosis and aging parents can all be triggers that propel someone into considering suicide, especially if they are already suffering from depression. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are second-highest ranked for suicide deaths. Mental health professionals, like physicians or attorneys, often specialize in a few select areas in their field. Suicide education and prevention has been integral to my work with clients, social work students and the greater Kansas City community. My work in this area has led me to three conclusions: 1. many clients who are in therapy feel tremendous shame in discussing suicide with their therapist; 2. many of my students, who will all eventually become licensed clinicians, have had very little training in suicide. 3. there is a need in our community to increase awareness of the dynamics of suicide and resources that are available for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. In the spirit of using the medium of journalism to educate the masses, I am sharing with you some tips that will help non-professionals support someone who may be suicidal. Take suicide seriously. There is an old, and not very accurate statement, implying, ‘People who talk about suicide don’t do it.’ This is false. If someone you know is talking about suicide, the best thing you can do is listen. Let them share their thoughts and feelings without interruptions from you. Manage your reactions. Being in the presence of someone who is thinking of ending their life can be stressful. Manage your body language, tone of voice and verbal responses. Remain calm and reassuring and avoid escalating the conversation by expressing disappointment, shock or confusion. Avoid pleas. Don’t try to bargain, beg or talk the person out of killing themselves. This doesn’t work, and it could further agitate both you and your loved one. Find help quickly. It is important to seek out help as soon as possible. For some, this may mean going to the emergency room for a mental health evaluation. Some people should schedule a next-day appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist (a medical doctor who specializes in psychiatric conditions). Keep calling around until you get a same- or next-day appointment. How do you know when someone is suicidal if they don’t tell you? Generally, suicidal people are hopeless and feel a lack of purpose. Depression, substance use and significant life changes can all be risk factors for suicide. Being attuned to when a loved one may be experiencing any of these signs can help you provide support and get them help. With my clients, I have found that normalizing feelings of suicide is helpful to open a dialogue. For example, asking, “Sometimes people who are going through what you’re going through may feel like hurting themselves. Have you ever felt that way?” can ease a person into discussing something that is incredibly painful. Finally, I’ll end with an example of how the power of caring and asking about the well-being of others matters. Kevin Hines was severely depressed and went to the Golden Gate Bridge to end his life. As he approached the bridge with tears streaming down his face, he told himself, “If just one person asks me if I’m OK, I won’t jump.” Unfortunately, no one did, and Kevin jumped. Beating the odds, he miraculously survived and is now a national suicide prevention speaker. There is help available for those contemplating suicide. Please call (800) 273-TALK to speak to a caring professional 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Until next time, be well.
Diane Bigler is a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Platte City with her family. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.