September was National Suicide Prevention Month. It was also the month that my small, tight-knit school community lost a beautiful and loved young man to suicide. We’ve been talking and crying and comforting each other like this: that although there are many rational reasons that his suicide was like other suicides and this suicide is, yes, another statistic, and somehow this fact should make us feel better- it doesn’t. Because his suicide was unique. The 19 year-old who was a kind, funny, caring, smart, hopeful, football-obsessed graduated senior from my community, my children’s school, was OURS. We lost our young man.
Researchers have found that suicide rates are up. There were 11.8 deaths by suicide for youth between the ages of 15-19 in 2017, up from 8 per 100,000 in the year 2000. There are statistics claiming that suicide is the second leading cause of death in children today. Although that’s not substantiated by every source I reviewed, it is shocking.
Do you notice how HARD this is? To talk about, read about, think about. In the privacy of my therapy office, this is a conversation I have with adolescents multiple times a week. As a society, we have been very quiet. Why are adults stigmatizing suicide when teenagers are living and breathing and suffering from thoughts of it, making plans for it and preparing ways to complete it? Why do our families, schools, churches, youth organizations, teachers, therapists, and coaches struggle to confront the stigma of suicide?
Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” In the event of suicide, survivors of a loved one are vulnerable to both feeling stigmatized by others and experiencing an internal sense of stigma, showing up in the form of self shaming, isolating from others, or feeling guilty. Other forms of losing a loved one are associated with less or no stigma. Stigma complicates our grieving process and makes it harder to do the necessary work of integrating this loss into the fabric of our lives and memory. To my way of thinking, we place that mark of disgrace on the suicidal act because it is terrifying. We unconsciously stigmatize because it is horrific. If you have ever watched a mother talk about losing her son or daughter to suicide, you are helpless in the face of a vast, undefinable and unending suffering, and we are still figuring out how to be present for that.
Let’s walk together. In our families, friend groups, work groups, and school groups. Let’s not do this alone. Let’s encourage and companion each other and use our arms and our voices and our hearts to talk, think, and act on reducing the stigma of suicide. Here’s how.
Step one: Just ask. Asking about suicide is vital for suicide protection. In my office with teens, I always ask, when that person identifies with feeling depressed, this question word-for-word:
“Sometimes when people feel depressed, they have scary thoughts that happen to them. Have you been having thoughts of suicide?”
When I was a younger therapist, it felt invasive, somehow disrespectful to the strong proud person with me. But now I realize that hesitancy was my internalized message of the stigma placed on individuals with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
Step two: t can be really scary to hear someone is having thoughts of suicide. That fear can be followed by an intense urge to fix or change the situation, but research shows those struggling with suicidal thoughts respond positively to active listening when it’s used as the first step. Consider you’ve done something right to be the person who is being confided to! Active listening calms an upset person, and increases access to focus and clear thinking. This is the opposite of the distorted thought process an individual is having when they’re thinking of suicide or planning a suicide attempt.
Step three: Active listening creates respect and trust; responding appropriately saves lives. Mental health and medical professionals can determine what might be contributing to someone’s suicidal thoughts by assessing for risk factors and figuring out how severe suicidal ideation might be for your friend or family member. Suicide stigma can cause even a suicidal person to minimize or rationalize what’s going on for them. Don’t hesitate to recruit another person who is qualified to give support.
If you are looking for more support in becoming a StigmaFree community member, help is available. We want you to feel supported in a non-judgmental way, whether that’s with Restoring Relationships or any other local resource. Know that you are not alone!