What You Need to Know About Suicide
Did you watch Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle this week? I’ve heard and read many comments expressing shock that someone in Meghan’s position could have had thoughts of suicide. She’s beautiful, married to an actual prince, mother to a new baby, doesn’t have to worry about money… her life is perfect; how on earth could she have felt things were so terrible that she wanted to die? Like all mental health issues, suicide carries a great deal of stigma and shame, and is widely misunderstood. This week we’re putting to bed five myths about suicide.
MYTH #1: There aren’t usually any signs before a person attempts suicide.
Our very most basic instinct is survival. It’s therefore unlikely that a person who’s thinking about suicide will show no signs, as their survival instinct kicks and screams and tries to be heard. Researchers believe spontaneous suicide is really quite uncommon. All too often in the aftermath of a death by suicide people recognize signs were present in hindsight. If you’re noticing changes in a person’s behaviour, mood, attitude… even something that just seems “off” that you can’t quite put your finger on: don’t be afraid to ask about suicide. Even if you’re not sure suicide is on the table, err on the side of caution by exploring whether it’s a possibility before making assumptions. If someone was clutching their chest and gasping for air we wouldn’t assume they’re probably just experiencing heartburn; we’d recognize the signs as what could be a heart attack and ensure appropriate professional help is accessed, to be on the safe side. We need to recognize suicide’s very real threat to life and take all potential signs seriously.
MYTH #2: Suicide is rare and only a “certain type of person” is affected.
Every day in Canada an average of ten people die by suicide (source: Government of Canada). Sometimes on the outside looking in, we make assumptions about a person’s mental wellness based on somewhat superfluous factors like how much money they have, their job, their position in society, their family life or how we think we’d feel if we were living their life. Anyone can have thoughts of suicide. Research shows having access to effective supports – in the form of both professional help and family/friend support – can play a giant role in whether a person acts on those thoughts.
MYTH #3: If someone says they’re thinking about suicide, they’re probably not serious.
One particularly horrible misconception about suicide is that if someone was really thinking about it, they wouldn’t talk about it – they’d just do it. We know stigma is a huge (often cited as the very biggest) barrier to accessing help. Talking openly about stigma and reaching out for help if you need it is exactly what we want to encourage! If someone opens up to you about their thoughts of suicide, know that it’s taken a great deal of courage to do so. Be sensitive and take them very seriously. Connect them with additional help and stay in touch with them to provide ongoing support throughout those next steps.
MYTH #4: Don’t ask a person about suicide because you might plant the idea in their head.
Have you heard this one before? If you think about it for a minute, it just doesn’t make sense – yet this is a widely believed idea about suicide that often holds people back from asking about it when they suspect a person might be struggling. Simply put, human beings are not that impressionable. The “old school” recommendation around suicide intervention was to use vague language when asking about it, like Are you thinking of hurting/harming yourself?. We now know that it’s vital to ask about suicide in a way that invites an open, honest response. This means asking the question directly – Are you thinking of suicide? – so there’s no room for misinterpretation. Suicide is a health-related emergency. An emergency is no time to mince words or tiptoe around the subject. Asking so directly also communicates that we’re comfortable talking about suicide openly.
MYTH #5: If you’re not a trained mental health professional, there’s not much you can do to help.
It’s widely understood that (physical) first aid and CPR training saves lives. Every member of the public is capable of intervening and helping to prevent deaths by suicide. Many programs like the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mental Health First Aid training are now being offered virtually, making it easier than ever to get comfortable talking about mental health and connect a person who’s struggling with meaningful support. Remember, people don’t die by suicide because they want to; they’re experiencing such tremendous psychological pain that they’ve lost hope in being able to go on living. They feel they’ve exhausted all of their options and because of the survival instinct, suicide is a very last resort. Presenting them with other options you can be the life raft they’re been looking for.
A great tool every member of the public should arm themselves with is the Lifeline Canada app. Lifeline gives you access to a list of each province and territory’s mental health crisis lines in addition to a great deal of other resources and information related to suicide and mental health. Find it in the app store or visit www.thelifelinecanada.ca. Sign up for a Mental Health First Aid course and talk openly about mental health, including crisis and emergencies like suicide, within your family, social and workplace circles. Be ready, willing and able to take on the role of a support person for someone who’s struggling. Someone’s life just might depend on it.
Stay well, my friends. See you next week.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.