The topic of suicide comes with a stigma that makes it taboo to discuss, but presently, professionals are attempting to teach people how to speak up to help save a life during the annual National Suicide Prevention Week, which began on Sunday and ends Saturday.
This week brings important dialogue into focus, which generates conversations to help those who don’t suffer from mental illness how to better understand what their loved one may be experiencing.
Dr. Nicole Quinlan, pediatric psychologist at Geisinger Medical Center, said it’s a hard topic to broach. Oftentimes the stigma attached to mental health causes the feeling that one won’t be well-received or will be judged if they share their struggles.
The general stigma is historical, Quinlan said, and goes back to the idea that people should “toughen up” and “get over things” rather than address that there may be underlying issues that may need to be treated by a medical professional.
Biologically, humans are programmed for survival and have a “do whatever it takes to stay alive” instinct, so for someone to experience the reverse of that may be unsettling.
“When we talk about suicide specifically, that stigma is there because for someone who has never felt that way, it would be hard to wrap your mind around why somebody would want to take their own life,” she said.
There’s also the internal struggle existing within the person suffering suicidal thoughts with the idea they will be burdening someone by talking to them about what they are feeling, because they know how difficult those thoughts are for them alone to manage.
Quinlan said, “For the person going through it, they’re not thoughts and feelings they want to have and they want to protect people they love from going through it.”
Negative reactions received in the past or behaviors/comments from other people can also create a fear or lack of understanding, she said. The emotional impact may shut a person down from ever opening up to someone in the future.
It’s important to make those suffering from mental illness feel safe and well-received if they open up about needing help, Quinlan said.
She stressed, “Say it not once, but always, especially to those you are worried about, that if there’s ever anything at all you want to talk about, I’m here, even if it’s just to listen and not pass judgment.”
Those who have themselves suffered from mental health issues should be open with loved ones they believe are struggling and let them know that they understand and they aren’t alone.
For those who haven’t experienced suicidal thoughts, it’s important for them to recognize they don’t quite understand what their loved one is going through and not try to relate. People are often compelled to want to fix things and solve the problems of those they love, but trying too hard to say they understand may be considered invalidating to the person’s feelings.
“Sometimes people can point out all of the reasons why life isn’t that bad or what the reasons are they can see that person live for, and that person in the moment doesn’t appreciate that,” Quinlan explained. “Jump away from that ‘fix it’ mentality and say ‘Hey, I hear what you’re saying and no matter what you feel about things, I care about you and I don’t want to lose you.”
Afraid to speak
A lot of people are also afraid to speak about suicide because they fear bringing up the topic will put the idea in their loved one’s head, which Quinlan said is absolutely not true. Starting the conversation won’t cause any harm.
“We know the people closest to us best. Parents know their children better than anyone, spouses know their partner better, and if they see changes they’re worried about — maybe they’re not taking care of themselves, not showing up for social events or work the way they used to, maybe making what seems like poor, reckless decisions that are unlike them, using substances more, not taking care of things they love anymore, making statements about not being around or ‘I’m not worried about school or work because it won’t matter soon.’ Those kind of things may seem small, but if anything in those areas seems off, I think that’s when it’s important to reach out to the person and say I’ve noticed these changes and I’m worried,” Quinlan said.
For those suffering suicidal thoughts who are afraid to speak to a loved one, hotlines exist that connect them with professionals who can help when they are in crisis. Some find it easier to speak to a stranger, Quinlan explained, and the hotlines provide 24-hour assistance for those in dire need.
The hotlines can help people better understand the resources available for seeking help, and Quinlan said it’s important for people to contact their primary care provider. There are times when people are feeling most hopeless and little things feel so insurmountable that the notion a doctor who could fix it could be hard for the person to see in that moment, but talking with a medical provider can help them view it from a medical perspective.
The National Suicide Prevention hotline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Those suffering suicidal thoughts can also text 741741 to reach a professional for assistance. Visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org to learn about additional resources.