National Suicide Awareness Week: How to Save a Life

National Suicide Awareness week took place between Sept. 5 and 11. We saw yellow ribbons tied around trees in memory of people lost to suicide, candle light vigils, community rides, walks and runs.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, a group of suicide prevention agencies across the state, offered information on local events and resources for suicide prevention, education and treatment. Suicide is a public health problem, and it is preventable. This was the week we tried to bring it to national attention.

Why bother? According to the latest available statistics, there were 40,600 suicides nationwide or one death every 13 minutes. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all age groups, and the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15–24. Because we have many local agencies working hard to educate people about suicide prevention and intervention, the suicide rate in Massachusetts is one of the lowest in the country, 8.8 per 100,000. It is higher for men (14.4) than women (3.6), and higher among the elderly (8.2) than the young (6.4).

It is estimated that there are about 25 suicide attempts for every suicide death. About 1.1 million adults attempt suicide every year; that works out at 1 attempt every 30 seconds. Women attempt suicide three times more often than men, but men die from suicide more often than women.

About half of the suicide deaths are from firearms. And the states with the highest suicide rates are western states where firearms are more prevalent among the general population: Alaska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Almost everybody thinks about suicide at some point in his or her life. But why do some go on to act on their feelings?

Many risk factors have been identified: hopelessness, rage, recklessness, increased substance use, mood shifts, loss of purpose and feeling like there is no way out. Thomas Joiner, a theorist of suicide, put forth three basic conditions for suicide: intense psychological pain; a history of putting oneself at risk of injury that would enable someone to override their survival instinct and take their own life; and the feeling of being a burden on others, not fitting in or being socially estranged.

About half of suicides have been diagnosed with depression; many have other mental illnesses. But any real or anticipated event that would cause guilt, shame, despair, legal or financial problems or feelings of rejection or abandonment could trigger a suicidal reaction. The suicide of a friend or family member could also trigger suicidal thoughts.

What can you do when you suspect that someone you know may be suicidal? Act! And act quickly! Get help by calling a mental health professional or dial 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) if someone you know shows one or more of the following signs:

  • Threatens to hurt or kill him or herself or talks about hurting or killing him or herself
  • Looks for ways to kill him or herself such as buying a gun or pills or some other means
  • Talks or writes about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person

If you suspect a friend is thinking about suicide, ask them directly if they are. Asking about suicide will not bring it on. People are usually grateful to be able to talk about how they are feeling. Be non-judgemental. Don’t be shocked and don’t try to give advice (other than getting the person to call 1-800-273-8255). Just listen supportively. Most suicides want to live; they just want the pain to stop and they can’t think of any other way to make that happen. Don’t agree to not tell anyone: you should get help for the person if they are not willing to do it themselves.

What happens when you call the suicide hotline? A trained volunteer listens to you/the person who is suicidal and evaluates the extent of the risk involved. They will try to talk the person down, listening carefully and empathetically. If necessary, they will try to get the person to accept help, either by going to an ER themselves or by calling 911 so that they can be taken to a hospital and seen by a psychiatrist.

I am a suicide attempt survivor who found help in time to save my life. Now I give back by volunteering at Call2Talk, a crisis hotline in Framingham that serves the entire state (1-508-532-2255). There are agencies that serve special at-risk groups such as youth, LBGT youth, families and friends of people who have died by suicide and attempt survivors. You can find the contact information for these and other agencies by dialing 211 anywhere in Massachusetts.

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