Suicide Prevention: How to Support a Loved One
Suicide can be a frightening topic to broach, but breaking through the myths surrounding suicide and learning how to talk to your loved one about suicide are essential to keeping your loved one safe. If you are worried about a family member, taking the next steps toward suicide prevention could help you save a life.
When someone you love struggles with a mental health disorder, fear often becomes a central part of your life. You fear the impact their illness will have on their future. You fear that their symptoms will increase in severity. You fear for their safety and ability to live a healthy, productive life. But one of the greatest fears families often face is one that typically goes unspoken: the fear your loved one will die by suicide.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34 and the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States. And the numbers are growing. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, “the overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014,” with the highest increases seen in middle-aged adults. Yet, suicide remains a largely taboo issue, something families are scared to talk about due to stigma, shame, the pain of verbalizing your deepest fears, and simply not knowing what to say.
But suicide prevention—both on a national and individual level—must begin with talking. We must be able to have honest conversations in order to break through the myths surrounding suicide and understand how to help our family members in times of crisis. These conversations may be painful and our instinct may be to pull away, but they are essential to safeguarding the lives of those we love.
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Breaking Through Myths
To speak about suicide honestly, we must first understand its reality. Unfortunately, the silence surrounding suicide helps to perpetuate damaging myths that act as barriers to suicide prevention. Peeling back these myths to reveal the truth about suicide is imperative to fostering the knowledge and compassion that effective suicide prevention demands.
Myth #1: People Who Die by Suicide are Selfish
For people who have never experienced suicidal ideation, it can be difficult to understand the impetus to take one’s own life. Too often, suicide is imagined to be a selfish act or a sign that someone does not care enough about their family to stay alive. But in reality, suicide is the product of unbearable despair and hopelessness which make suicide appear to be the only way out. Through the distorted lens of depressive thinking, suicidal people often believe that they are a burden on their loved ones and that their death will bring relief.
Myth #2: People Who Talk About Suicide Won’t Do It
One of the most pervasive and damaging misconceptions about suicide is that those who talk about it are seeking attention and won’t go through with the act. In reality, most people who die by suicide give clues or signs of their intentions, whether in explicit or subtle ways. Do not ignore someone if they indicate that they want to end their own life.
Myth #3: If Someone Wants to Kill Themselves, Nothing Will Stop Them
The idea that suicidal ideation makes suicide inevitable is a profoundly dangerous myth, as it suggests there is no hope of effective intervention. In fact, suicidal impulses are typically fleeting rather than chronic, sometimes lasting mere minutes; one landmark study found that more than half of people who survived self-inflicted gun shots “reported having suicidal thoughts for less than 24 hours.” Most people who commit suicide remain conflicted about their decision up until the very end. Their true desire is usually not for death, but for an end to pain, and if they are given an alternative to suicide they will often take it.
Myth #4: People Who Die by Suicide Won’t Seek Help
Research indicates that approximately half of people who die by suicide have sought professional help in the last six months. Most people who consider suicide are desperately looking for a way out and will accept help if it is offered.
Talking to Your Loved One About Suicide
Talking to your family member about suicide can be a deeply painful and frightening process. In fact, many people avoid the topic altogether because they don’t know what to say or because the topic is too overwhelming to address. But you need to be able to discuss suicide in order to break through the isolation and hopelessness suicidal people typically experience.
If you believe your loved one may be thinking about suicide, choose a calm, private place and share your concerns:
- Ask them how they are feeling.
- Tell them that you love them and ask how you can support them.
- Tell them that they are not alone.
- Let them know that they are important to you.
- Listen with compassion and accept their honesty.
- Don’t turn the conversation into an argument.
- Don’t blame yourself.
- Believe them.
You don’t have to understand exactly what your family member is going through. You don’t have to know the right thing to say. In fact, there is no one right thing to say. What’s important is letting them know that you are there for them and giving them a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings without fear. Be a soft place to land.
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The Next Steps in Suicide Prevention
If you believe your loved one is in imminent danger, call a crisis line for guidance to talk about what you can do to keep them safe. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is an invaluable resource for both people who are considering suicide as well as friends and family of people experiencing suicidal ideation. If your family member is in need of acute care, a short, hospital-based psychiatric hold is typically implemented in order to keep them safe in the immediate term.
However, perhaps the most important thing you can do for someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts is to guide them toward the help they need in order to find lasting relief from their pain. It is estimated that 90% of people who die by suicide are suffering from a mental illness, and that mental illness needs to be treated in order to remove the psychiatric distress that is driving the suicidal impulse. Furthermore, that treatment must go beyond short-term containment in order to nurture long-term healing. As Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a non-profit group devoted to suicide prevention, notes, “Hospitalization alone will not and does not prevent suicide. It takes time for medication and therapy to take effect and for recovery to begin.”
Residential mental health treatment programs can be ideal spaces to start the journey toward true healing. Unlike hospital-based programs, residential can offer comprehensive care within a serene, intimate setting. Using in-depth psychological assessments, highly trained clinicians are able to gain a complete picture of your loved one’s mental health and craft an individualized treatment plan to address the full scope of their needs. Using an innovative mix of pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and holistic therapies, your family member can gain the insight, skills, and inner stability needed to make meaningful change. The residential environment allows for the duration, intensity, and quality of care necessary to find rapid relief from suffering and find solutions to psychiatric distress.
The pain that drives people toward suicide is real and it is crushing. By educating yourself about suicide prevention methods, creating a safe place to talk about suicidal thoughts, and opening up the path toward effective treatment, you can help guide your loved one out of the darkness toward a more joyful future.
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs, and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.
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