How To Support Someone Who Is Suicidal (Reading Time: 5 minutes)
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and social media has been alight with posts and infographics, specifically on September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day.
This month, we acknowledge and honour those that have taken their own lives by talking about prevention. Though the statistics are staggering, suicide is 100% preventable.
This month, I explore how you can support loved ones that may be having suicidal thoughts. We can all play a role in changing this rising epidemic.
Below are some of the staggering statistics from CAMH (www.camh.ca):
About 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide—that’s almost 11 suicides a day affecting people of all ages and backgrounds.
On a per-capita basis, suicide rates in Canada are on a downward trend. They peaked in 1983 at 15.1 deaths per 100,000 people (compared to 11.0 per 100,000 in 2016).
In Ontario about 2% of adults and 14% of high-school students report having seriously contemplated suicide in the past year.
4% of high-school students report having attempted suicide.
In 2016, suicide accounted for 19% of deaths among youth aged 10 to 14, 29% among youth aged 15 to 19, and 23% among young adults aged 20-24.
More than 75% of suicides involve men, but women attempt suicide 3 to 4 times more often.
More than half of suicides involve people aged 45 or older.
After accidents, it is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24.
First Nations youth die by suicide about 5 to 6 times more often than non-Aboriginal youth.
Suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average.
As a trained professional and years of experience as a mental health therapist, I have become well versed in the skills to assess risk. The following is not intended to serve as training to assess risk in someone, rather it is meant to raise awareness of the warning signs associated with suicide and provide an overview of how a professional approaches suicide.
When a professional hears that someone is #suicidal, there are some factors that we immediately start to examine.
First is to identify if someone is having suicidal thoughts. Someone may express feelings of hopelessness or sadness. As a professional, I may ask outright if an individual is having thoughts of suicide or harming themselves. This is the first question to assess what level of risk there is. People tend to be surprisingly honest around these questions. I have learned in my practice not to shy away from the ‘s’ word and ask directly. Sometimes these thoughts can be fleeting and attributed to things being easier if someone just ‘weren’t here’ rather than actually wanting to end their life. However, these are still serious and should be addressed and explored.
Next is to assess the level of risk by understanding when the person most recently had these thoughts. Are they current or were they in the past? When professionals are asking about suicide, we are looking to determine #imminence, thus the necessity to understand where the person currently is. This is what distinguishes the need to report, or the obligation to act.
If there are recent or pervasive thoughts then I may explore whether the person has conceived a plan, and the lethality of that plan. As a professional this allows me to determine imminence and the level of action required immediately in the moment. If there is a current plan, with high lethality and the timing of the plan is imminent, then there is a professional obligation to act. Acting may include contacting emergency services such as police or ambulance, accompanying an individual to the emergency department, or supporting them in calling 911 on their own and expressing what they are currently experiencing.
We would also want to understand if there has been any history of attempts. This is important to understand as it can speak to chronicity of the thoughts/feelings and signal that things could be deteriorating and the need to intervene is higher. As a professional, I assess the history of attempts as part of current risk.
These are just the first few steps toward assessing risk and they are by no means exhaustive, nor enough to properly assess without more conversation and professional training. However, this is meant as a way to identify some of the factors that one can look for with regard to an individual that may be presenting with feelings of low mood or hopelessness.
‘So, what can I do…?’
If someone expresses any thoughts of hopelessness or wanting to take their own life, the first step is to just listen. Let them express what is going on for them and provide an open mind and an empathetic ear. You don’t need to be the person to do the therapeutic work, but by listening you’re giving them space to express themselves which may mean more to them than you know. Should you hear the person speak to any of the above and you have concerns, share your concern about their safety and that you would like to connect them with the right people that can help. Never promise someone that you will not say anything to anyone. Rather, let them know that you support and care about them and that if they express that they want to harm themselves, that you would be there to support them in getting the help that they need to get through their distress.
If you are experiencing feelings of hopelessness or distress or are experiencing thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or take your life, you are not alone and there are supports out there for you. Connect with a distress line, someone you trust, a doctor or other health professional, an adult or teacher, call 911, or make an appointment to see a therapist. You are important and suicide may feel like the only solution at times, but there is a way through everything and there are people who want to help.
Visit www.suicideprevention.ca for resources and contact repository for centres across Canada available to help.