The following is a true story by a Beacon Health Options employee. Anna was one of the most talented and creative people I had ever known, and just about everyone who met her felt the same. She was a perfectionist to a fault, and there was seemingly nothing that she did not do well. The one person who did not see this though was Anna herself. As I got to know Anna, she shared more and more about her struggle with depression from the time that she was a small child as well as her persistent feelings of not being good enough and not really fitting in. Eventually she had to be hospitalized and underwent electroconvulsive therapy. It was after this treatment that her symptoms finally began to improve, and this improvement would follow her through her final weeks. She was able to do things, without it seeming like such an effort, that she had not felt like doing in a long time. She went camping with friends, started planning a vacation for the upcoming summer with her family, and began talking about pursuing her doctoral degree. Sadly, these plans would never come to be. The details about her final day are not known to me, as I was not with her. Many people were truly shocked because they had not been aware that Anna was struggling with anything.
Unfortunately, the story of Anna is not unique or unfamiliar to many people. Often, the friends and families of people at risk for suicide have no idea of that risk. It’s only when there is death by suicide that people learn of the lifelong pain and anguish their loved ones suffered. Sadly, many loss survivors are left with lingering questions and often, crippling guilt.
How Did I Not Know? How Could I Not Have Seen It? Why Didn’t I Do Anything?
While behavioral health professionals have shared with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers that everyone can play a role in suicide prevention, we have fallen short when it comes to teaching practical ways to identify those at risk and how intervene which has left survivors feeling shame.
Recognizing September as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Beacon wants to shed light on the warning signs and provide tips on what you can do to help.
Warning Signs for Suicide
Individuals at risk for suicide may not communicate about their thoughts or intentions directly, but the following situations indicate your loved one may be at risk:
- A person thinking about suicide may talk about having no reason to live. Depression – the number one cause of suicide – is often related to a sense of loss and hopelessness. Listen to the person to see how they talk about dealing with detrimental events piling up.
- A person may appear to be preparing for some kind of end or departure from routine. For example, a friend calls late at night to apologize for a rift that occurred years ago. A co-worker trains a colleague to do his job. Be on the alert if someone you know starts tying up loose ends.
- Your loved one might talk or joke about different methods to die by suicide or you may find out they are researching suicide. Take all talk of suicide seriously. Pay attention. Is this person dealing with many difficulties?
How You Can Respond
Ask the question: If you are concerned that your loved one may be thinking of suicide, the most important thing you can do is ask the question. It is not easy, but most of the time individuals in such great pain are relieved that another person is willing to talk about such a difficult subject. There is no evidence that talking about suicide will cause suicide. It often prevents it. A good way to start is by saying something like “I have noticed you have had a lot of very stressful events in your life lately. Sometimes people in your situation think of suicide. Are you thinking of suicide?”
Listen to keep them safe: Be prepared to listen to their story. Talk to your loved one in a warm, nonjudgmental way. Say you care and want to help and give assurance you will follow through with your support. Make sure you ask them if they have already done something to harm themselves or have made a specific plan. If they have already set a plan in motion, seek the support of emergency services (911).
Seek help: Remind the person they are not alone and reaching out shows courage. Many people have reached the same point in their lives but have managed to find their way back to a meaningful life. You and others are there to help and treatment for behavioral health is available and can be effective.
Most of us are not mental health professionals, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help a loved one who may be thinking of suicide. The most important thing you can do is to help your loved one get the care they need.
Wendy Martinez Farmer, LPC, is Crisis Solutions Lead at Beacon Health Options.
If you or your loved one is in a crisis and need help immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text MHA to 741741. These services are confidential, free and available to all.