Over the last two weeks, six deaths by suicide have been brought to my attention through my work as a grief coach, an article I read, or through a close encounter with a friend.
One death is already one too many. Six in 15 days boggles the mind and pierces the heart.
Deaths by suicide resonate with me because two male cousins of mine chose to die by suicide in the prime of their youth. They left loved ones and family members in complete shock. For many years, no one ever spoke about these incidents because of the pain and the stigma.
It is only recently that my generation, and the one after us, has begun to talk about it and its implications. I’m grateful that the winds have changed.
Suicide cuts across all socioeconomic classes, genders and ages. The highest rates of deaths by suicide can be found in the 15-24 age range, both for males and females. It does not have a single cause, but certain factors like untreated depression or substance abuse can lead to higher risk, just as a strong social circle and family support provide protection.
According to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) website, there are several warning signs that friends and families need to look out for. These are:
Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself;
Looking for a way to kill oneself;
Talking about feeling hopeless or no purpose;
Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain;
Talking about being a burden to others;
Increased use of alcohol or drugs;
Acting anxious, agitated or reckless;
Sleeping too little or too much;
Withdrawing or feeling isolated;
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge; and
Displaying extreme mood swings.
When we talk about suicide, it’s very important to consider both risk factors, indicators that make it more likely for an individual to contemplate suicide and actually do it, and protective factors, characteristics that make a person less likely to do so.
Protective factors help promote resilience and connectedness with others during challenging times, making suicidal behaviors less likely.
Family mental health
A family history of mental health issues such as depression, mood and anxiety disorders and schizophrenia is an important risk factor to look out for. It is very important for families to openly discuss issues among themselves, and to consider the family’s mental health history. Putting a name to the illness reduces its power and enables future generations to be more proactive about their own mental health.
Hopelessness or a history of trauma or abuse increases the likelihood of engaging in suicidal behavior.
Alcohol or any form of substance abuse is another risk factor. A major illness may lead the person into deep depression. A recent job or financial loss, or the loss of a relationship, also qualifies as a risk factor.
The lack of social support and a pervading sense of isolation, along with the stigma of seeking help, can be pretty potent risk factors for suicidal behaviors.
Protective factors, on the other hand, can help lessen the risk. Foremost among these is a strong connection to family, plus community support.
Access to effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance use disorders is also of utmost importance. The Mental Health Act, which is now only a heartbeat away from being made into law, will enable these health services to reach many more citizens all over the country.
Another important protective factor is for the young person or adult to have good skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and handling problems in a nonviolent way. Young people need to find a safe and healthy outlet for anger and sadness—an art form, a sports activity, or a trusted, supportive and respected friend or mentor.
In the case of young people, withdrawal from their usual activities, changes in sleep patterns (increase or decrease), anger that seems out of context, or agitated or restless behavior beyond the usual are warning signs that something is going on.
Err on the side of caution
For us parents, family members, teachers or friends, it pays to be truly mindful of these signs. It will always be better to err on the side of caution, rather than to sweep things aside and later regret signs we might have missed.
What, then, are the best ways to respond when in doubt about your friend or loved one’s mental state? Here are a few things you can do.
First, connect with them and ask them if they are okay. Next, express your concern in a gentle and reassuring manner. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple SMS, a direct message, a phone call or a visit—a word said for the other party to change their thought patterns.
When they do open up, listen attentively and without judgment. Reflect back to them what they have shared, and make them feel that they’ve been heard. To know that one is being heard and understood by someone gives such a huge emotional boost to the one feeling depressed.
Tell them not to feel alone, and that you are there to help them. Let them know there are different ways to treat the sadness, and that you can guide them to the help they may need.
Educate yourself about suicide and share what you know. Always be mindful and pay attention. Take the time to observe and to listen, and whenever you are in doubt, stay and talk it out with the person concerned.
The feeling of being alone can be painful and overwhelming for some. But knowing there is someone who truly understands can spell the difference.