The beginning of September marks Suicide Prevention Week, giving us a focused opportunity to learn and think compassionately about suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide), suicide attempts, and those we have lost. In the spirit of compassion, I wanted to take a moment to highlight some numbers and then, move in for a close-up view of “humanity behind suicide” to hopefully help us engage a little more personally, bravely, and effectively in prevention efforts.
In the way of numbers, suicide is one of the most common forms of death in the US, marking it as a major public health crisis. While it is the 10th leading cause of death overall, it is the 2nd leading cause in the 10-34 age range, and 4th in the 35-44 age range (CDC, 2019). These numbers translate to nearly 47,500 lives lost each year, making it extremely likely that you or someone you know has been impacted by suicide.
When we encounter someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, it can be very difficult or even intimidating to talk about. And yet, it is actually getting closer to the “humanity behind suicide” that can help us be more comfortable and willing participants in prevention efforts. In my years as a therapist on a college campus, I went through suicide prevention training countless times. However, it was the students I had the privilege of helping who made the training more “human.” I’m hoping some of what I learned may help you also as we work to keep our students safe. (Details generalized or altered to protect student privacy.)
- The majority of students I worked with did not necessarily want to die, but they couldn’t see how to keep living. This wording may sound like semantics, but it’s not. One of the primary influences behind suicide is a sense of hopelessness that one’s situation cannot or will not change. Understanding that some people are thinking about dying because they are struggling to keep on living can help us focus our efforts on hope, seeking solutions, and encouraging the person to pause their planning. Any space we can put between the crisis they are experiencing and the act of suicide is a space where a life can be saved.
- The majority of students I worked with experienced thoughts of suicide temporarily. While some individuals do experience chronic or long-term suicidal ideation, many people who have a suicidal crisis do so only “in a crisis.” In the way of a shortlist, I saw students who had strong thoughts (or even plans) for suicide as the result of an extreme lack of sleep, the need for mental health medication due to undiagnosed depression, a recent breakup, overwhelming substance use, and academic difficulties. Thankfully, these were very preventable deaths, and each was resolved when solutions were found and the psychological pain was reduced.
- Of course, not all suicidal ideation is easily solved and not all suicides are prevented. Tragically, we do lose people despite all our best efforts and interventions. However, no matter how severe or pervasive the situation is, the strategies that have been shown to be most effective do not change. People want to be known. People want to reduce the pain they are experiencing. And, people want to feel valued, and have agency and purpose. Through any number of excellent suicide prevention programs, we can learn strategies to help people feel as though they are worthy to be listened to, connected to others who care, and can help and reduce their pain.
During this week focused on suicide prevention, may we all gather our knowledge, understanding, and our humanity to help others find the hope to keep living.
Suicide Prevention Programs, Resources, & Links
Partners in Prevention Campus Programs:
September 6, 2022. By Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. www.annerulo.com. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo