September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, a collaboration between the World Health Organization, the World Federation for Mental Health, and the International Association for Suicide Prevention to raise suicide prevention awareness worldwide.
Where we stand
Over one in 100 deaths—about 1.4%—is a suicide; this number is higher for specific ages, countries, and within groups experiencing targeted discrimination. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to increase economic, health, and food insecurities, making people’s access to mental health services challenging and is exacerbating feelings of isolation.
Still, everyone can help prevent suicide.
Risk factors and warning signs
- Family history of suicide
- Childhood maltreatment
- Previous suicide attempts
- Mental illness
- Physical disability, illness, or chronic pain
- Self-medication with drugs or alcohol
- Aggressive or impulsive behaviors
- Isolation and lack of support
- Local suicide clusters
- Loss of family, work, finances, or social relationships
- Obstacles to receiving healthcare, particularly mental health treatment
- Easy access to lethal means
- Cultural, religious, and social beliefs about suicide
A commonly believed myth is that suicides occur suddenly, without warning. In truth, there are usually one or more warning signs.
- Talking about wanting to die
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unrelenting pain
- Talking about having no reason to live and feeling hopeless
- Increased use of drugs and alcohol
- Emotional changes such as increased anxiety, rage, agitation, or reckless behavior
- Sleep pattern changes
- Extreme mood swings
- Giving away cherished possessions
Lose the stigma
Supporting survivors as well as those who’ve lost someone to suicide by talking about it with empathy and honesty. When a person ends their own life, societal norms of not mentioning that fact doesn’t preserve their memory, it only furthers the stigma.
While suicide is not illegal in the United States and other Western countries, it is still illegal in 25 countries and an additional 10 countries criminalize attempted suicide, meaning that attempt survivors can be jailed rather than given tools to help them.
Talk about it
It’s also a myth that talking about suicide with those at risk encourages it. Stacy Freedenthal, author of Helping the Suicidal Person says, “Avoiding the topic doesn’t make it go away; it drives it underground, where a suicidal person may feel even more alone in the darkness.”
The question “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” can lead to misunderstanding: Some people view suicide as a solution to stop hurting and others want to hurt themselves with no intention of taking their own lives. Directly ask, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” to start a real conversation. Ask questions that encourage them to tell you more, and don’t be afraid to assess their right-now risk regarding plan and timeline.
Show you care
More important than what you say to a suicidal person is how to listen to them. Listen, don’t fix. Validate their feelings and experiences instead of minimizing or discounting them.
Genuinely pay attention to people you cross paths with. A small act of kindness or a friendly word can make the difference to a stranger.
If you or someone you care about is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The organization’s website has indispensable resources, including how to find a therapist, ways to build a support network, steps to make a safety plan, and stories of hope and recovery from all walks of life.