Suicide is difficult to talk about; it is emotionally charged, and still carries a great deal of associated shame and stigma. When persons who are feeling suicidal try to talk about their feelings of desperation, hopelessness and alienation, there is often no one there who can really hear their pain. We want to work to break down some of the barriers, so that people who are struggling feel more free to reach out, and are more likely to be met with understanding – and without judgement.

When someone is feeling like they want to end their life, it does not mean they are weak. It does not mean that they are seeking attention. What it does mean is that they feel as though their ability to cope has been overwhelmed. When someone feels suicidal, it usually means that they don’t see any way for things to get better, and the pain is just too much to bear. They may see no other option. There is a great deal of misinformation out there about suicide; here are some of the common myths:

Myth: People who talk about suicide won’t really do it.

Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide threats. Statements like “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,”—no matter how casually or jokingly said—may indicate serious suicidal feelings.

Myth: Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy.

Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They must be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing, but extreme distress and emotional pain are not necessarily signs of mental illness.

Myth: If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop them.

Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, wavering until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die. Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.

Myth: People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help.

Studies of suicide victims have shown that more than half had sought medical help in the six months prior to their deaths.

Myth: Talking about suicide may give someone the idea.

You don’t give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true—bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.

(Source: SAVE – Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, http://www.save.org/)

There are a few elements to helping someone. First, you have to notice that they might be struggling with thoughts of suicide. Here are some of the common signs:

Verbal

  • “You won’t have to worry about me much longer.”
  • “It’s not worth while getting up in the morning.”
  • “I’m going to kill myself.”
  • “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to keep going.”

Behavioral

  • Person isolates, doesn’t want to spend time with friends
  • Seems more angry/sad/anxious, cries easily
  • Takes risks, doesn’t seem to care what happens
  • Seems hopeless, like they have no future
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol.
  • Lack of attention to personal habits or appearance.
  • Change in sleeping/eating habits.
  • Giving away of important personal possessions
  • Preoccupation with death, including in art or writing
  • Presence of method, e.g. pills, gun, etc
  • Suddenly improves, seems happy after a long time of seeming sad/withdrawn

In addition, it can help to know that certain situations are risk factors, making it more likely that someone might be experiencing a crisis in which they contemplate ending their life. Here are some examples, though keep in mind that something that seems small to you could also throw someone into crisis:

  • Loss of loved one.
  • Failure at school/job/goal.
  • Major life change.
  • Mental illness
  • Alcoholism or drug abuse
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Family history of suicide
  • Terminal illness or chronic pain
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • History of trauma or abuse

If you observe clues that lead you to suspect someone may be suicidal it is important that you check it out in more detail. It can be difficult to acknowledge clues that seem to indicate that a person you know may be planning to kill her/himself. But it can be tragic to disregard them.

The following few steps are important to remember:

Trust yourself. Believe your suspicions. Say something like: “I see what you are doing and how much you must be hurting. I’m concerned about you. I want to talk. I want to hear what’s going on with you.”

Be a good listener. Communicate your concern for his/her well-being by offering to listen. Good listening is more than just listening quietly. It means demonstrating that you can be supportive without being judgmental. It means accepting their feelings as the truth for the person, no matter how irrational they might appear to you. It means that you are comfortable enough with your own feelings to set them aside and listen to his/hers.

Be direct. Talk about suicide and death openly. Ask the person specifically if they are thinking about suicide. It is a myth that if you talk with someone about his/her suicidal feelings this will “put the idea in their head”. If you are vague, the suicidal person will be vague, believing that it’s not okay to talk about these subjects. Avoiding feelings does not make them go away. But allowing people to say what is already on their minds can be the first step to ending their isolation.

Once you have opened up the conversation, it is important to assess the degree of risk. Here are some key questions you might ask:

  • Have you been thinking of taking your life? Do you have a plan?
  • Do you have the means available?
  • Have you ever attempted suicide in the past?
  • What has been keeping you alive so far?
  • How can I help you to keep yourself safe?

In situations where you have assessed a high degree of risk, it is essential that you get professional help. It is okay to be assertive. If they feel your concern and clarity, they are likely to respond to your support and direction. This does not mean that you are responsible for their lives. Your task is to prepare them for further support or professional counselling.

Remember

  • Stay with them or arrange for someone to be there.
  • Remove lethal weapons or other methods on hand.
  • Get help – don’t try to carry this responsibility alone.
  • Above all, have the courage to act. It is worth the risk of “overreacting” if it averts a tragedy.

If you feel like you want more training in having these discussions with someone who might be suicidal, consider taking an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop. We offer them, as do organizations in most areas.

For more info, including statistics on suicide in Canada, visit:
http://suicideprevention.ca/

These sites also have plenty of information about suicide in general, as well as prevention:

http://www.suicidology.org/
http://www.suicideinfo.ca/

For helpful links on specific mental health topics, please see our resource page on youthspace.ca/resources

This page has general info specific to suicide; if you are seeking information about another topic, please see youthspace.ca’s resource database:

Resource Database