**Trigger Warning** This piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it disturbing. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please contact your physician, go to your local ER, or call the suicide prevention hotline in your country. For the United States, you can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or message the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both programs provide free, confidential support 24/7.
As a firm believer that every hardship or disaster has at least one positive outcome, I feel the pandemic had several positive outcomes. We saw broader and more open discussion regarding mental health and wellness, the lessening of shame and embarrassment around seeking therapy and professional help, the creation of space and grace to speak openly about our mental health, more clear and frank discussions around substance use, and an increase in resources for both those seeking assistance and for those offering support. And yet, the unfortunate truth is that the stigma, shame, and unwillingness to discuss suicide remains. I am not saying progress is not being made; for example, the introduction of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (dial 988) was a clear step in the right direction, along with growing articles and discussions among mental health professionals and organizations, television ads bringing awareness and lessening the stigma, and the overall acknowledgement that suicide is a growing crisis.
My first direct experience with suicide was a friend, and I was about 16 years old. She mentioned suicide a lot, threatened suicide a lot, and to say I did not handle it well is an understatement. I had no idea what to do or say, nor did I have any resources to help me or help her. My second direct experience was a man that I was working for whose 13 year-old son had died by suicide. He started a conversation with me and I, again, did not handle it well. Not only was I not prepared to offer help to someone contemplating self-harm, I had nothing to offer to someone who had lost someone to suicide. Move ahead several decades — one of my best friends puts together a plan to take her life and I never saw it coming. A few years later, another dear friend dies by suicide and I did not see it coming.
Because talking about your feelings is difficult. Admitting you are struggling is difficult. Admitting you need help is difficult. Admitting that you are having thoughts of self-harm is sometimes almost impossible. And having someone admit these things to you and knowing what to do is also difficult. Your ability to share and listen could be the turning point for somebody, and your ability to provide resources could save someone’s life. So how do we strengthen these abilities? By doing them over and over.
The Data about Suicide
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2021, suicide numbers are on the rise, and even though the rate of suicide remains highest among middle-aged white men, the numbers are increasing among the young and minority populations. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for adults 18 to 24, and has risen 5% overall in people ages 25 to 44. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the US. In 2021, 48,183 Americans died by suicide and there were 1.70 million suicide attempts. I cannot imagine that the continued isolation and stress caused by COVID since 2021 has aided in these numbers going down in any way. I live in North Carolina, and at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, there have been nine student deaths in the past year, five of which were deemed suicides. And certain professionals have seen an increase in suicides, including the ones with whom I work: lawyers. The statistics are alarming — most people have heard or read some of the statistics, know the numbers are on the rise, know we have a crisis on our hands, and 94% surveyed in the US think suicide can be prevented.
Why We Don’t Talk about Suicide
So, why won’t we talk about suicide? Why are we nervous and ashamed to bring it up openly? Why do we avoid this mental health crisis more than others? I think it is safe to say that most of us do not like to talk about topics that cause anxiety, stress, embarrassment, pain, or sadness, and we certainly do not like to talk about anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. Suicide is a topic that causes some or all of these reactions in each of us.
The stigma around suicide and the disinclination to discuss it likely goes back your entire life. What do I remember about suicide from a young age? I remember being told that anyone who commits suicide cannot get into heaven, and they cannot be buried on church grounds. That concept alone was and is overwhelming and shocking to me. I remember hushed conversations about suicide that radiated shame and embarrassment. And even though that was several decades ago, it feels as if nothing has changed. The stigma is real. The word “suicide” is whispered still. We need to bring it into the light.
How to Start Talking about Suicide
We can start lessening the shame of needing assistance or having thoughts of self-harm by being open around this topic, and by providing people with the tools to identify a person potentially at risk or in crisis, along with the resources to get them professional help. Just knowing what to say, or being able to say anything is a huge step. We can have open discussions and start offering safe spaces filled with caring, support, and understanding rather than shame and embarrassment. This advice may seem overly simple, and I guess that is the point. The starting point is simple, let’s talk.
Share your stories. When we talk openly about something, it starts to lessen the taboo around it. Share experiences and provide a safe space for others to share theirs. Make sure that you are equipped to recognize signs of crisis and have resources available to offer help. Take a first aid mental health course or other training that offers resources and guidance on how to listen, what to say, and what to do if someone is in crises or showing signs of suicidal ideation. Share your stories and knowledge from the heart and without judgment, and listen to others in the same manner.
- IWIL Suicide Prevention Resource Guide
- Mental Health First Aid Courses
- S. News article re rising rates of suicides: https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2023-02-13/suicides-rise-again-in-the-us-increases-highest-among-minorities
- CDC Report https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/72/wr/mm7206a4.htm