Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Suicide

Just in the last two months, I have heard of three individuals who have committed suicide. In each of these instances, the families and friends of these individuals were shocked that their loved one took their own life. Whether it is the economy (two of these individuals had significant financial problems in their lives) or because we are nearing the winter months, it is important to have our eyes open to those who are around us who might want to harm themselves in some way. Perhaps with a little intervention and listening, we can help someone who is moving toward hopelessness and despair. Most people who are thinking about suicide suffer from conditions that will pass with time or with the assistance of a friend, they can make it through this difficult time. There are many steps we can take to improve how we respond to those who are feeling suicidal and make it easier for them to seek help. Below are some thoughts on how you might be able to help.

First, it can be helpful to know who is most susceptible to taking their life. Research has shown that over 2/3rds of those that commit suicide meet clinical criteria for an affective disorder, such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Similarly, substance abuse also increases the likelihood of suicide. One who has a problem with alcohol or drug use can predispose one to suicide, because such substances may increase impulsivity or cause psychotic symptoms.

With this, you also have to determine the circumstance of the person who you think might be susceptible to suicide. Here are some points to be mindful of:

  • Has the person attempted suicide before? If so, how did they attempt suicide?
  • Is there a means to commit suicide?
  • Is there family/relational history in the case of suicide?
  • Has there been a significant life change for the person? (Death or terminal illness of relative or friend, divorce or separation, a broken relationship, significant health problem, loss of job or other personal security)
  • If the person is acutely suicidal, do not leave them alone.
In the above questions, if the person does have a means to commit suicide, you or someone close to the person may need to intervene in the situation to remove any means they may have in committing suicide (e.g., removing firearms from the home or detoxifying their home). Likewise, in the questions you ask of the person, if the person has a family history in terms of suicide (i.e., a family member such as a mother or sibling committed suicide), statistics increase dramatically that that person could be very susceptible to taking their own lives. The operative words here are to keep your eyes and ears open to those around you, especially for those who have a history with these issues.

If someone has confided in you that they are considering suicide, here are some issues to be mindful of as you speak with them. First, offer space to the person and give them every opportunity to unburden their troubles and voice their feelings. This is not a time to argue with them or attempt to give them advice (e.g., “But you have so much to live for!”). It’s a rarity that you can “talk someone out of” committing suicide. In these instances, you don't need to say much; again, you simply need to listen. Most importantly, let the person know that you are glad they turned to you. Attempt to create trust. If the person ever does come to a place where they are about to take their life, they may at the last minute reach out to you, because they trust you.

With this, one of the myths concerning suicide is that if I feel like someone might be susceptible, I shouldn't bring it up, because it might put an idea in their head about committing suicide. If you do have suspicions, the best thing you can do is bring the topic up. In the end, you are showing the person that you care about them, even so much that you are willing to ask difficult questions. When I was a counselor, I always wanted to be more safe than sorry, and I have asked many clients and a handful of friends if they were currently thinking seriously about suicide. All you have to do is gently ask, “Hey, are you thinking of harming yourself in any way?” This simple question can maybe save someone’s life. On one occasion some years ago, I was surprised by one friend who answered that question positively. By opening up to me, it gave him an opportunity to tell me what was really going on in his life and this burden was lifted from him over time. Today, he is doing great and the dire situation he faced many years ago is no longer an issue in his life.

These are just some thoughts on the issue of suicide. With the current state of our economy and the season turning over to winter, we may know someone who is at a point of despair so large that they may think that taking their own life is the only answer. Again, keep your eyes open to those around you and don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions. If you are currently struggling with suicidal thoughts, get help now. Don’t wait. If this is something you are struggling with, feel free to write me an email at and anything that you share with me will be confidential.

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