Lifelines: Let’s Talk About Suicide
Written by Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC. Interim Crisis Coordinator and Clinical Supervisor at the Counseling CenterMay 15, 2023
It’s okay to talk about suicide; to talk is to prevent. And if there’s a single takeaway from today’s blog, it would be just that. This may feel counterintuitive, and it is easy to understand why conversations about suicide can feel frightening, and there is still plenty of work to be done around the stigma that surrounds it. So, we’ll start by dispelling some of the common myths attached to this difficult yet important subject matter. Understanding the facts about suicide can help reduce the harmful misconceptions that prevent people from getting help or that keep them from discussing the topic with loved ones.
MYTH: “Talking about suicidal thoughts will make it worse or encourage people to attempt it.”
In fact, the opposite is true. Ignoring the topic will not make the thoughts or urges go away. Alternatively, open and honest conversations can be a powerful and crucial tool for prevention, as well as a venue for support, hope, and motivation to seek help.
MYTH: “People are usually not serious, or they’re just being dramatic.”
Any talk or allusion to suicide should always be taken seriously. Most people that make an attempt have disclosed the desire in one way or another beforehand, and passing judgment or making assumptions on these statements can lead to undesirable consequences. Always take all talk of suicide seriously, and when in doubt, reach out for help on how to navigate the situation.
MYTH: "Only individuals with a mental health diagnosis are at risk of suicide."
Suicide, as with many other matters related to human emotion and behavior, is multifactorial and complex. Which means that in spite of the outdated misconceptions we may hold, suicide is neither a sign of personal failure nor evidence of mental illness but rather a combination of multiple circumstantial, environmental, biological, and psychological elements that come together, and it is rarely caused by a single factor. And while some diagnoses in mental health do carry a higher risk of suicidal behavior, the same is not true in the inverse. Meaning, people who die by suicide can have a mental health diagnosis that increases the likelihood of that happening, yet many who have attempted or died by suicide do not have a specific mental health diagnosis.
MYTH: “People who attempt suicide are selfish.”
Having the perception that one is a burden to loved ones can be a significant risk factor in suicide. Frequently, a driving factor is the misconception and the distorted belief that people around them will be “better off without them,” which reinforces the initial argument on why openly talking about these things can be a critical aspect in prevention.
MYTH: “Suicidal thoughts always lead to suicide attempts.”
Suicidal thoughts can be present in many ways, with varying degrees of intensity, frequency, and urgency. Having a thought does not automatically translate into action, and many people that have experienced them have never acted in response. However, it can often be a signal or reflection of emotional pain and should always be addressed with seriousness to prevent it from escalating or continuing.
MYTH: “Suicide is inevitable.”
Nothing about suicide is inherently inevitable. Suicidal thoughts are a symptom, just like any other. They can be treated, and they can improve over time. Help, resources, and interventions that target the causes for suicidal thoughts exist and are highly effective; this can range from crisis interventions to stop a single moment’s urge to long-term treatments that help create a life worth living.
MYTH: "Suicidal individuals will always exhibit warning signs."
The difficult reality is that sometimes this may not be as glaringly obvious as we may want it to be. In some cases, people may not display any observable warning signs, making it all the more important to be aware of any changes that break away from a person’s baseline and strive to keep open and non-judgmental communication with our loved ones.
With that said, there are some general signs that can indicate a person is struggling; this is especially true if they occur in a cluster. It is important to familiarize ourselves with some of the most common warning signs that can reflect someone is in need of support and open up these lines of conversations. And remember, these signs may vary from person to person, trust your instinct if you feel something is off.
- Drastic shifts in mood: extreme mood swings, increased irritability, seeming very agitated or anxious, displays of rage, or deep feelings of hopelessness
- Social withdrawal: Pulling away from friends, family, unusual isolation
- Changes in sleep patterns: Sleeping too much or too little (difference from usual behavior)
- Changes in academic or work performance: Difficulty concentrating, constant absences, or a sudden drop in grades
- Risky behavior: Substance use or increased use of drugs or alcohol, reckless driving, or any other activity that is considered dangerous and may put a person’s life at risk
- Increased talks of death or dying, statements related to wanting to “disappear” or “not being here,” talks about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live, talks about feeling trapped or with no option, expressions of unbearable emotional pain, talking about being a burden to others
- Changes in behavior: giving away important possessions, putting personal affairs in order, saying goodbye to friends and family
How do we support a loved one? Or engage in these conversations?
Discussing suicide can be challenging, yet it is essential to learn how to approach these conversations with ease and openness, as this can be a very real issue in many of our loved ones' lives. Here are some tips on how to get started:
- Shake the stigma and work towards being proactive. Reach out and ask how people are doing. If you observe concerning behaviors, express genuine worry and empathy.
- Don’t promise to keep suicidal thoughts a secret (as that may be in their worst interest) and seek professional help when needed. Offer to assist them in finding a mental health professional or connecting with resources; if you can, accompanying a loved one can make it easier.
- Stay connected and follow up. If there is cause for concern, check-in regularly, offer to do things together or engage in social activities to maintain a supportive relationship and foster a feeling of connection (which can be a good protective factor).
- Educate yourself. Learn about mental health and suicide prevention to be a better ally.
- Be direct, don’t be vague when addressing the topic, and don’t be scared to ask open-ended questions. We can express concern without judgment.
- Listen and validate. It is important to abstain from judgment and give space to express thoughts and feelings, emphasize that they are not alone.
- On a larger scale, you can always help advocate for more mental health resources. Work with student organizations or campus administration to increase the availability and visibility of mental health services. This can be as simple as promoting awareness and decreasing stigma to organizing events or workshops to educate others about mental health, suicide prevention, and available resources.
- Work for inclusivity. A big risk factor can sometimes be belonging to certain marginalized groups. For such reasons, cultivating an inclusive culture where everyone feels welcomed and supported - regardless of their background or circumstances - is an important way of increasing prevention efforts.
Last but not least, finding and creating hope (for ourselves or others) can be one of the single most important protective factors since suicidal ideation fuels from feelings of deep hopelessness. Therefore, it is essential for someone who is caught in that emotional turmoil to understand how that metaphorical veil of “doom and gloom” can be lifted, and hope does exist, regardless of how grim and overwhelming those emotions might seem. The right mental health support and resources can successfully help people manage the intensity of the distress, find meaning and purpose in life, and address the root causes that may be driving that sense of hopelessness.
Know and remember that your support and intervention can make a difference. Engage in tough conversations, listen with openness, curiosity, and without judgment, reach out to mental health professionals, and foster feelings of hope and resilience. Above all, reduce the stigma around suicide; let’s start by talking about it.
Jessica A. Jaramillo, LPC
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or behavior, please reach out for help. Your actions could save a life.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 988.
Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free 24/7
If someone appears to be in immediate risk:
Do not leave the person alone, stay with them.
Remove any lethal means.
Take the person to an emergency room or call 911.
Mental health campus resources:
Submit a concern or call 303-315-7306 for consultation