Causes, Warning Signs, Prevention
Suicide is a significant cause of death in Canada that annually exceeds deaths due to motor vehicle accidents and crime. Many nations’ governments spend vast amounts of money on safer roads, but very little on suicide awareness and prevention, or on educating people about how to make healthy life choices.
Attempts at suicide, and suicidal thoughts or feelings are usually a symptom indicating that a person is not coping, often as a result of some event or series of events that they find overwhelmingly traumatic or distressing. Sometimes, the events will pass, their impact can be lessened, and their overwhelming nature will gradually fade. But this is not always the case.
People have thoughts of suicide when the problems in their lives exceed their ability to cope with them and it is often more about escaping the pain they are in than actually dying – they cannot see any other options.
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of stigma surrounding the subject of suicide and because of this, the suicidal person does not always reach out for help, or get the help he or she needs.
In order to work through the stigma, here are a number of frequently asked questions to help raise awareness and dispel some of the common myths about suicide:
Why do people attempt suicide?
People usually attempt suicide to block unbearable emotional pain, which can be caused by a wide variety of problems. It is important to note also that it is not necessarily the problems that will bring a person to thoughts of suicide, but rather how they perceive the problem. It is often a cry for help. Persons attempting suicide are so distressed that they are unable to see that they have other options. We can help prevent a tragedy by encouraging the person at risk to talk by listening without judgement. People with thoughts of suicide usually feel terribly isolated and may not think there is anyone to whom they can turn.
In the vast majority of cases, persons at risk would choose differently if they were not in great distress and were able to evaluate their options objectively. Most suicidal people give indications that they are in distress in the hope that they will be helped, because they are intent on stopping their emotional pain, not on dying.
Does talking about suicide encourage it?
Talking about the feelings surrounding suicide promotes understanding and can greatly reduce the immediate distress of a suicidal person. In particular, it is okay to ask someone if she or he is considering suicide, if you suspect that the person is not coping. If the individual is feeling suicidal, it can come as a great relief to see that someone else has some insight into how he or she feels.
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 that you don’t want to live anymore?”
The most appropriate way to raise the subject will depend upon the situation and how comfortable people feel. It is also important to take the person’s overall response into consideration when interpreting her or his answer, since a person in distress may initially say “no” even if they mean “yes.” A person who is not feeling suicidal will usually be able to give a comfortable “no” answer, and will often continue by mentioning about specific reasons he or she has for living. It can also be helpful to ask what individuals what they would do if they ever were in a situation where they were seriously considering killing themselves, in case they become suicidal at some point in the future, or if they are suicidal but do not initially feel comfortable about telling you.
What 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 of time, their 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 that 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.
However, it is important to be aware of the Warning Signs of Suicide (presented by the American Association of Suicidology):
The presence of one or more of these warning signs are not a guarantee that a person is suicidal. The only way to know for sure is to ask him or her. It is not about the events that occur, but rather about a person’s reaction to the event that might bring a person to thoughts of suicide.
Why is it so important to talk about suicide?
Suicide has traditionally been a taboo topic in western society, which has led to further alienation and only made the problem worse. We could go a long way to reducing the suicide rate by removing the social stigma associated with suicide, and by telling people that it is okay to feel the way they do. Giving people permission to talk about how they feel will help reduce their feelings of isolation and distress. As they begin to see other options, the immediate risk of suicide often decreases.
What can I do if I’m concerned about someone?
There are usually people a person at risk can turn to for help – if you know someone is feeling suicidal, or feel suicidal yourself, seek out people who could help, for example, by dialling the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888 or by calling 1-800-SUICIDE.
People at risk for suicide, like all of us, need love, understanding and care. Asking about suicide gives persons at risk permission to feel the way they do, which in turn, reduces their isolation. If they are feeling suicidal, they may see that someone else is beginning to have an understanding of 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 what they are feeling.
Enquire about the plan. Planning a suicide is similar to planning a trip – a well thought-out plan usually indicates a higher risk. Ask the person at risk if she or he would be willing to let you disable the plan by taking away and weapons or medications until further help and supports are in place.
Try to contract a safeplan. Establish a plan with the persons at risk indicating what they can do to stay safe. Ask them to promise that they will stay safe – that if they feel like suicide again, they won’t do anything until they can contact either you, or someone else that can support them. Take them seriously, and refer them to 1-888-494-3888 or 1-800-SUICIDE.
Ask if they have had prior suicidal behaviour. People with previous attempts are more likely to attempt suicide again. Knowing there have been prior attempts will help you better assess the severity of the situation.
If they will not promise to stay safe, you cannot disable the plan, you suspect they may have already taken something, or they appear to be at high risk and won’t talk, the next course of action is to get them to a hospital’s emergency department.
Do not try to “rescue” them or to take their responsibilities on board yourself. Do not attempt heroics by handling the situation on your own. You can be most helpful by referring them to others 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. Do not carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.
How do Crisis Lines work?
Different services vary in what they offer, but in general you can call and speak anonymously to a crisis intervention worker about problems or issues in a non-threatening non-judgmental way. 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.
Our 24-hour crisis lines work in partnership with Mental Health and Addiction Services and their crisis teams. Our Crisis Intervention Workers can connect callers to these teams if further help is required. You do not have to wait until the deepest point of crisis or until you have life-threatening problem before you seek help. We also have access to a resource database.
Vancouver Island Crisis Line: 24-hour telephone service to talk over any concern, including suicide. You may also call to get more information on resources Island wide. It is an anonymous and confidential service.