In the United States, someone loses their life to suicide every eleven minutes. Despite suicide being a leading cause of death, for many people, talking about it is a scary and taboo topic.
To shine a light on this important but often undiscussed issue, I sat down with Brenda Ferber. Brenda has spent the last four years volunteering as a Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7, text-based crisis hotline. She is passionate about providing empathy in life’s darkest moments to end the stigma around mental illness and suicide.
Thoughts of Suicide Are Not Uncommon
Suicidality exists on a spectrum. Many people who think about suicide do not actually want to take their own life. When thoughts of suicide aren’t accompanied by any plan, this is called passive suicidal ideation. Studies estimate at least 10% of the population will experience it at some point in their lifetime.
Brenda shared that the majority of texters she interacts with think about suicide abstractly as an option for escaping their problems. This is a common response to stress. Only 1% of people who reach out to Crisis Text Line are considered at ‘imminent risk’ for suicide, meaning they have a plan to die by suicide, ability to carry out the plan, and intent to follow through with the plan in the immediate future.
Brenda believes that it is vital “to take the air out of the pressure cooker of the fear of suicide.” This can be done by validating and empathizing with someone’s thoughts of dying. She says not enough people have someone in their life willing to say, “It makes sense that you’re feeling that way, and I’m here for you”.
“To validate and empathize with someone who is really in a bad place hurts a little bit,” she shared. “It can make you feel sad and take on some of your loved one’s pain. Many people are hesitant to do that and would rather minimize the situation or point to the positives.” Yet to effectively support a struggling loved one, they need to not be shamed for their suicidality.
For individuals struggling, silence can become internalized shame.
Prevent Suicide: Ask Questions
Another crucial part of challenging the stigma around suicide is myth busting. Some people think that if they ask someone if they’re having thoughts of ending their life, this puts the idea into that person’s head.
However, research consistently shows that inquiring about suicidality actually reduces suicidal ideation. Not only this, but it increases the likelihood of that individual seeking mental health treatment.
What You Can Do To Prevent Suicide
It’s on all of us to prevent suicide. Here are three things you can do to make a difference:
- Learn how to talk about it. In this blog we use the phrase “die by suicide” instead of “commit suicide”. The use of the word “commit” comes from a time when suicide was a crime, leading to increased stigma.
Other helpful phrases to keep in your back pocket include using “suicide attempt” instead of “unsuccessful attempt” and “suicide death” instead of “successful attempt”.
Brenda also encourages parents to plug Crisis Text Line’s number (741-741) into their child’s phone and start an open dialogue surrounding suicidality. Brenda says this can be particularly helpful for low-income families who may not be able to access other mental health services.
- Gently and empathetically ask. If you’re worried someone you care about may be feeling suicidal, gently and non-judgmentally ask them if they are having any thoughts of dying.
If they are, ask them if they have a plan for how they would die by suicide? Then, ask if they have the means to carry out that plan. If this is the case, next ask if they have a timeframe in mind for when they would attempt suicide. If your loved one has a timeframe, it’s important to help them take steps to make a safety plan.
- Safety plan. Brenda emphasized that the number one way to prevent people from dying by suicide is to remove guns from the home, especially if anyone in the home has a history of mental illness. Guns are used in nearly 60% of all suicide deaths. Making it harder to access lethal means is an easy way to prevent suicide.
In addition to removing tools that could be used to die by suicide, safety planning can include utilizing crisis hotlines, following up with a therapist, ensuring the person feeling suicidal is not left alone, and helping your loved one identify reasons to keep fighting a little bit longer. Some people may need in-patient hospitalization to ensure their safety.
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Connect To Support
Feeling suicidal can be scary and overwhelming, but people struggling with suicidality can still go on to live full, amazing, happy lives. At the Viva Center, we’re here to help you get there. To get started, contact us at email@example.com.
About The Authors:
Faith Ferber is a clinician at The Viva Center in Washington, D.C. She supports client virtually who are based in DC, MD and VA. Faith specializes in working with couples, the LGBTQIA+ community, and applying a wide-range of modalities to meet clients where they are.