Suicide is a significant cause of death in many Western countries, in some cases exceeding deaths by motor vehicle accidents annually. Many countries spend vast amounts of money on safer roads, but very little on suicide awareness and prevention, or on educating people about how to make good life choices.
Attempts at suicide, and suicidal thoughts or feelings are usually a symptom indicating that a person isn’t coping, often as a result of some event or series of events that they personally find overwhelmingly traumatic or distressing. In many cases, the events in question will pass, their impact can be mitigated, or their overwhelming nature will gradually fade if the person is able to make constructive choices about dealing with the crisis when it is at its worst. Since this can be extremely difficult, this article is an attempt to raise awareness about suicide, so that we may be better able to recognize and help other people in crisis, and also to find how to seek help or make better choices ourselves. It is intended to be informative rather than authoritative, and readers are encouraged to offer feedback, suggestions and criticisms.
This posting is accompanied by a companion posting containing information primarily about crisis and suicide prevention resources available on the Internet, and other national resources available in various countries.
Here are a number of frequently asked questions to help raise awareness and dispel some of the common myths about suicide:
1. Why do people attempt suicide?
People usually attempt suicide to block unbearable emotional pain, which is caused by a wide variety of problems. It is often a cry for help. A person attempting suicide is often so distressed that they are unable to see that they have other options: we can help prevent a tragedy by endeavoring to understand how they feel and helping them to look for better choices that they could make. Suicidal people often feel terribly isolated; because of their distress, they may not think of anyone they can turn to, furthering this isolation.
In the vast majority of cases a suicide attempter would choose differently if they were not in great distress and were able to evaluate their options objectively. Most suicidal people give warning signs in the hope that they will be rescued, because they are intent on stopping their emotional pain, not on dying.
2. Aren’t all suicidal people crazy?
No, being suicidal does not imply that you are crazy. Acutely distressed perhaps, but not crazy.
As Appleby and Condonis write:
The majority of individuals who commit suicide do not have a diagnosable mental illness. They are people just like you and I who at a particular time are feeling isolated, desperately unhappy and alone. Suicidal thoughts and actions may be the result of life’s stresses and losses that the individual feels they just can’t cope with.
The idea that suicide is usually due to mental illness is a myth which unfortunately tends to perpetuate the problem, particularly in our society where there is much stigma and ignorance regarding mental illness. A person who feels suicidal may fear that other people will think they are “crazy” if they tell them how they feel, and be reluctant to reach out for help in a crisis.
On the other hand, people who are suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia do have much higher suicide rates, although they are still in the minority of attempters. For these people, having their illness correctly diagnosed can mean that an appropriate treatment can begin to address their illness.
3. Doesn’t talking about suicide encourage it?
It depends on which aspect you talk about. Talking about the feelings surrounding suicide promotes understanding and can greatly reduce the immediate distress of a suicidal person. In particular, it is OK to ask someone if they are considering suicide, if you suspect that they are not coping. If they are feeling suicidal, it can come as a great relief to see that someone else has some insight into how they feel.
This can be a difficult question to ask, so here are some possible approaches:
“Are you feeling so bad that you’re considering suicide?”
“That sounds like an awful lot for one person to take; has it made you think about killing yourself to escape?”
“Has all that pain you’re going through made you think about hurting yourself?”
Talking exclusively about how to commit suicide can give ideas to people who feel suicidal, but haven’t thought about how they’d do it yet. Media reports that concentrate solely on the method used and ignore the emotional backdrop behind it can tend to encourage copycat suicides.
4. So what sort of things can contribute to someone feeling suicidal?
People can usually deal with isolated stressful or traumatic events and experiences reasonably well, but when there is an accumulation of such events over an extended period, our normal coping strategies can be pushed to the limit.
The stress or trauma generated by a given event will vary from person to person depending on their background and how they deal with that particular stressor. Some people are personally more or less vulnerable to particular stressful events, and some people may find certain events stressful which others would see as a positive experience. Furthermore, individuals deal with stress and trauma in different ways; the presence of multiple risk factors does not necessarily imply that a person will become suicidal.
Depending on a person’s individual response, risk factors that may contribute to a person feeling suicidal include:
Significant changes in:
- Well-being of self or family member.
- Body image.
- Job, school, university, house, locality.
- Financial situation.
- World environment.
- Death of a loved one.
- Loss of a valued relationship.
- Loss of self esteem or personal expectations.
- Loss of employment.
5. How would I know if someone I care about was contemplating suicide?
Often suicidal people will give warning signs, consciously or unconsciously, indicating that they need help and often in the hope that they will be rescued. These usually occur in clusters, so often several warning signs will be apparent. The presence of one or more of these warning signs is not intended as a guarantee that the person is suicidal: the only way to know for sure is to ask them. In other cases, a suicidal person may not want to be rescued, and may avoid giving warning signs.
Typical warning signs which are often exhibited by people who are feeling suicidal include:
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Loss of interest in usual activities.
- Showing signs of sadness, hopelessness, irritability.
- Changes in appetite, weight, behavior, level of activity or sleep patterns.
- Loss of energy.
- Making negative comments about self.
- Recurring suicidal thoughts or fantasies.
- Sudden change from extreme depression to being `at peace’ (may indicate that they have decided to attempt suicide).
- Talking, writing or hinting about suicide.
- Previous attempts.
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
- Giving away possessions.
This list is not definitive: some people may show no signs yet still feel suicidal; others may show many signs yet be coping OK. The only way to know for sure is to ask. In conjunction with the risk factors listed above, this list is intended to help people identify others who may be in need of support. If a person is highly perturbed, has formed a potentially lethal plan to kill themselves and has the means to carry it out immediately available, they would be considered likely to attempt suicide.
6. I’m a bit uncomfortable about the topic; can’t it just go away?
Suicide has traditionally been a taboo topic in Western society, which has led to further alienation and only made the problem worse. Even after their deaths, suicide victims have often been alienated by not being buried near other people in the cemetery, as though they had committed some utterly unforgivable sin.
We could go a long way to reducing our suicide rate by accepting people as they are, removing the social taboo on talking about feeling suicidal, and telling people that it is OK to feel so bad that you’d think about suicide. A person simply talking about how they feel greatly reduces their distress; they also begin to see other options, and are much less likely to attempt suicide.
7. So what can I do about it?
There usually are people to whom a suicidal person can turn for help. If you ever know someone is feeling suicidal, or feel suicidal yourself, seek out people who could help, and keep seeking until you find someone who will listen. Once again, the only way to know if someone is feeling suicidal is if you ask them and they tell you.
Suicidal people, like all of us, need love, understanding and care. People usually don’t ask “are you feeling so bad that you’re thinking about suicide?” directly. Locking themselves away increases the isolation they feel and the likelihood that they may attempt suicide. Asking if they are feeling suicidal has the effect of giving them permission to feel the way they do, which reduces their isolation. If they are feeling suicidal, they may see that someone else is beginning to understand how they feel.
If someone you know tells you that they feel suicidal, above all, listen to them. Then listen some more. Tell them “I don’t want you to die.” Try to make yourself available to hear about how they feel, and try to form a “no-suicide contract”: ask them to promise you that they won’t suicide, and that if they feel that they want to hurt themselves again, they won’t do anything until they can contact either you, or someone else who can support them. Take them seriously, and refer them to someone equipped to help them most effectively, such as a doctor, community health center, counselor, psychologist, social worker, youth worker, or minister. If they appear acutely suicidal and won’t talk, you may need to get them to a hospital emergency department.
Don’t try to “rescue” them or to take their responsibilities on board yourself, or be a hero and try to handle the situation on your own. You can be the most help by referring them to someone equipped to offer them the help they need, while you continue to support them and remember that what happens is ultimately their responsibility. Get yourself some support too, as you try to get support for them; don’t try to save the world on your own shoulders.
If you don’t know where to turn, chances are there are a number of 24-hour anonymous telephone counseling or suicide prevention services in your area that you can call, listed in your local telephone directory.
8. Help? Counseling? But isn’t counseling just a waste of time?
Certainly it is true that counseling is not a magic cure-all. It will be effective only if it empowers a person to build the sort of relationships they need for long-term support. It is not a “solution” in itself, but it can be a vital, effective and helpful step along the way.
9. Talk, talk, talk. It’s all just talk. How’s that going to help?
While it’s not a long-term solution in itself, asking a person and having them talk about how they feel greatly reduces their feelings of isolation and distress, which in turn significantly reduces the immediate risk of suicide. People who do care may be reluctant to be direct in talking about suicide because it’s something of a taboo subject.
In the medium- and longer-term, it’s important to seek help to resolve the problems as soon as possible, be they emotional or psychological. Previous attempters are more likely to attempt suicide again, so it’s very important to get unresolved issues sorted out with professional help or counseling as necessary.
10. How do telephone counseling services work?
Different services vary in what they offer, but in general you can call and speak anonymously to a counselor about any sort of problem in a no-pressure context that’s less threatening than a face-to-face session. Talking the situation over with a caring, independent person can be of great assistance whether you’re in a crisis yourself, or worried about someone else who is, and they usually have connections with local services to refer you to if further help is required. You don’t have to wait until the deepest point of crisis or until you have a life-threatening problem before you seek help.
Demand for telephone services vary, so the most important thing to remember is that if you can’t get through on one, keep trying several until you do. You should usually get through straightaway, but don’t give up or pin your life on it. Many people who feel suicidal don’t realize that help can be so close, or don’t think to call at the time because their distress is so overwhelming.
11. What about me? Am I at risk?
It’s quite likely that some people who read this will one day attempt suicide, so here’s a quick suicide prevention exercise: think of a list of 5 people who you might talk to if you had no-one else to turn to, starting with the most preferred person at the top of the list. Form a “no-suicide contract” with yourself promising that if you ever feel suicidal you will go to each of the people on this list in turn and simply tell them how you feel; and that if someone didn’t listen, you’d just keep going until you found someone that would. Many suicide attempters are so distressed that they can’t see anywhere to turn in the midst of a crisis, so having thought beforehand of several people to approach would help.
12. How does suicide affect friends and family members?
Suicide is often extremely traumatic for the friends and family members that remain (the survivors), even though people that attempt suicide often think that no one cares about them. In addition to the feelings of grief normally associated with a person’s death, there may be guilt, anger, resentment, remorse, confusion and great distress over unresolved issues. The stigma surrounding suicide can make it extremely difficult for survivors to deal with their grief and can cause them also to feel terribly isolated.
Survivors often find that people relate differently to them after the suicide, and may be very reluctant to talk about what has happened for fear of condemnation. They often feel like a failure because someone they cared so much about has chosen to suicide, and may also be fearful of forming any new relationships because of the intense pain they have experienced through the relationship with the person who has completed suicide.
People who have experienced the suicide of someone they cared deeply about can benefit from “survivor groups,” where they can relate to people who have been through a similar experience, and know they will be accepted without being judged or condemned. Most counseling services should be able to refer people to groups in their local area. Survivor groups, counseling and other appropriate help can be of tremendous assistance in easing the intense burden of unresolved feelings that suicide survivors often carry.
13. Hang on; isn’t it illegal, though? Doesn’t that stop people?
Whether it is legal or not makes no difference to someone who is in such distress that they are trying to kill themselves. You can’t legislate against emotional pain so making it illegal doesn’t stop people in distress from feeling suicidal. It is likely to merely isolate them further, particularly since the vast majority of attempts are unsuccessful, leaving the attempter in a worse state than before if they’re now a criminal as well. In some countries it is not illegal.
14. But don’t people have the right to kill themselves if they want to?
Yes, and it must always remain the person’s own responsibility to choose what they wish to do. However, helping people to deal with their problems better, see their options more clearly, make better choices for themselves and avoid choices that they would normally regret empowers people with their rights; it does not take their rights away.
1. “Hearing the cry: Suicide Prevention”, Appleby and Condonis, 1990. ISBN 0-646-02395-0
2. Not usually or necessarily clinical depression, which is a diagnosable mental illness; however, people suffering clinical depression are more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
This article is Copyright 1994 by Graham Stoney, but may be freely redistributed so long as this copyright message remains intact.