Myth #1: Asking a person if they’re thinking about suicide will encourage them to end their life.
Be a part of Suicide Prevention. Asking about suicide doesn’t “plant a seed”. The message is of care and concern. “Many times, what people want to do is make that social connection with someone and be heard and listened to,” explains Peggy Wagner, head of clinical operations and of organization risk management services at Aetna Resources For Living℠, which offers crisis counseling to Aetna members. “And then gradually it gives them an opportunity also to think out loud and to process what they’re going through.” Once that person feels heard, you can suggest they seek help. You should also ask if they plan to hurt themselves and how. Then discuss safety. Remove guns or other weapons, and drugs that pose a risk.
Myth #2: There’s nothing you can do to stop someone who wants to end their life.
There are many things we can do to intervene when someone is thinking about suicide. For most, the crisis is a limited-time period. With the right help and support, it may subside. Asking someone directly about their suicidal thinking puts time and space between them and the potential of them ending their life. When we limit a person’s access to lethal means, most are not likely to seek an alternative. Limited access includes:
- Securing firearms and weapons
- Adding carbon monoxide sensors to cars
- Using blister packaging for medications
- Adding barriers on bridges
If you suspect a loved one is thinking of ending their life, have a non-judgmental conversation with them. Listen to them. Don’t minimize or dismiss their experience. Avoid giving advice or trying to “fix” the problem. Help them connect to their reasons for living rather than try to convince them their life is worth living. This conversation allows the opportunity to encourage professional help. This can make all the difference. Learn how to talk to someone who may be struggling.
Myth #3: People take their own life “out of the blue.”
“Through their words or actions, most people who take their own lives really have communicated their intent beforehand to other people,” Wagner says. There are generally warning signs. Warnings are generally organized in three distinct categories:
- Talk: Some things they may say include, “wanting to die,” or “having no reason to stick around anymore.”
- Behavior: They may withdraw from friends and family, no longer do the activities they enjoy, or act reckless.
- Mood: They may show extreme irritation, anger, increased depression or even a complete, sudden improved overall mood.
You can learn more about suicide warning signs from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Witnessing such behavior can be distressing, but it’s an opportunity to share your concerns openly. It also starts the conversation to encourage professional help and support.
Myth #4: Someone who has their act together isn’t at risk of suicide.
On the outside, someone can appear to have it all: a great job, a healthy family, an active social life, a beautiful home. “We look at the outside veneer and say, ‘They’re doing great. Life is wonderful. How could they even contemplate suicide?’ But you really don’t know what’s going on inside of someone,” Wagner says. The deaths of Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade are high-profile examples of prominent people dying by suicide. They are all a reminder that we can’t make assumptions about people when we don’t know the full story.
Suicide is a complex health issue. It’s never the result of just one thought. It’s a result of multiple intersecting factors. These include health factors, historical factors and environmental factors.
Myth #5: Most suicides happen around the winter holiday season.
The holidays are a time of togetherness. They can also heighten depression among people who already feel lonely or stressed by the demands of the season. Still, contrary to popular belief, suicides don’t peak during the winter holidays. Rather, according to John Hopkins Medicine, they’re at their highest in the springtime. While there’s no scientific consensus as to why this happens, the seasonal spike in suicides means it’s best to let go of any assumptions that sunny days and blooming flowers will lift the mood of someone who’s struggling. Instead, make a point to check in with them and offer a sympathetic ear.
Myth #6: The risk of suicide declines following a suicide attempt.
While most individuals who attempt suicide will not go on to die by suicide, the risk for future suicide attempts remains. According to the World Health Organization, a prior suicide attempt is the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population. Without adequate follow-up treatment and a support network, someone who has attempted suicide may feel alone and isolated. This can trigger feelings that led them to attempt suicide initially. Offer connections to social support and treatment should things become overwhelming or challenging going forward.
Myth #7: Giving someone a hotline number to call is enough.
Suicide hotlines can be effective. Thousands of people call Aetna Resources For Living every year for help. But Wagner cautions that it’s not enough to simply suggest a suicidal person pick up the phone. Your struggling loved one might only pay lip service to your suggestion. “It’s important to help facilitate getting them to take the next step, rather than just giving them a phone number because you don’t know whether they’re going to follow through,” she says.
The best thing to do is ask how you can help. Perhaps offer to reach out to a mental health professional they’ve seen in the past or drive them to the emergency room yourself. If it’s a co-worker, consider asking management at your company to contact your colleague’s relative who can get them medical care.
Often, when we hear about suicide, it’s in relation to someone who actually took his or her life. “That’s what gets publicity,” Wagner says. “But what we don’t hear about is how many people were able to talk to someone, were directed to get help, did get care, and didn’t go on to take their life.”