By Virginia Foxworth
September is Suicide Prevention Month in the United States. The Nassau County School Board passed an initiative recently to address suicide prevention in the school district. This training program for employees is a thoughtful way to combat the second leading cause of death for 15–24-year-olds in this country.
Suicide is incredibly complex and is rarely predicted by healthcare professionals, much less by the public. The complexity of the issue, compounded by social stigma, often leads us to ignore the problem. But to reduce the number of suicides in our community, we have to increase suicide education, to examine our own feelings about suicide and to understand cultural reluctance to learn more.
Here are several pieces of the suicide puzzle you should know:
Researchers estimate that almost 10 percent of our population seriously considers suicide at some point in life. The statistics indicate that probably every one of us knows someone who has seriously contemplated suicide.
Yet stigma surrounding mental health is alive and well. And almost nothing in the mental health field seems to suffer more stigma than suicide. As a result, people having suicidal thoughts are prone to keep them to themselves. Further, family members of suicidal loved ones feel helpless and don’t know where to get support.
A 2017 study evaluated the public’s opinions of suicidal people, and the most common descriptions were, “weak, crazy, and distressed.” The way people admittedly act toward suicidal individuals is to view them with disdain and avoid them. For an issue plaguing one in 10 people, the scope of stigma is staggering.
Researchers have identified key traits of suicidal people and their life circumstances.
Desperation is one caused by: death of a loved one, divorce, abuse, financial ruin, addiction, infidelity or the end of a career. These are all easily identifiable triggers to suicidal thoughts. Such situations are emotionally heavy but treatable.
Another important factor is that suicidal tendencies thrive in the absence of strong social connections. It’s easy to see how a life problem and isolation can overlap, compounding the situation.
Other factors are much harder to decipher. Mental health professionals evaluate some specific ones to determine if suicide is a threat. The clinical terms are hopelessness, burdensomeness, impulsivity, and familiarity with violence and depression.
Hopelessness is hard to pinpoint. The most common reports of hopelessness involve feelings of being overwhelmed or stuck. Sandwiched between an impossible situation and a lack of social support, it’s not hard to see how hopelessness can be the straw that breaks a back.
Burdensomeness is another term clinicians use. People can believe they are a burden if they don’t feel valued by those around them, if they have lost a sense of purpose, or if they are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or shame. Though burdensomeness is real in the mind of a person, it may not be reflected in the person’s life.
Another common trait is impulsivity. Impulsivity involves two specific components. The first is a tendency to experience immediate emotions with a blinding intensity. The second component of impulsivity is rash action. Instead of experiencing the intensity and shutting down, impulsivity responds by rashly acting on the emotional intensity.
The last component that can lead to suicide is familiarity with violence or an immature lack of fear of violence. These make teenagers and soldiers particularly at risk for suicide.
How many of us have felt like the problems we were facing couldn’t be solved? Who hasn’t wondered whether another person in the world understands how you feel? Without hope, without belonging, without perspective, without peace, in the face of overwhelming problems, with no one to turn to, suicide might seem like a reasonable solution for many.
The stigma facing people who are suicidal is an environmental poison we have the power to change. Suicide education is a way for our community to bring understanding to those who are hurting. Compassion is a conscious choice to override our own reactions to suicidal people.
Offering belonging and safety for a hurting person might save a life. You might be a hero.
The author is a a mental health professional practicing in Fernandina Beach at Blue Chair Sessions.