It is a Tuesday morning, you turn on the TV and you see a report about somebody who died because of suicide. Suddenly, you realize everyone is talking about it. Some people are clearly expressing their compassion while others are saying horrible things like “I hope he goes to hell”, “she did it for attention” and “how did the church even accept to bury him?” You tell them that their words are cruel, they look at you contemptuously and say it’s their opinion which you should respect, right? Right. Oh, let’s not forget, we also joke about suicide sometimes, telling people to kill themselves when they say something we consider idiotic. But let’s get to the truth. Apart from those narratives, suicide is unfortunately another taboo subject we don’t talk about because it doesn’t affect us, and it never will. But that has to change, we need to break the silence and talk about it psychologically, morally etc., in ways that matter, in ways that raise our awareness and could hopefully save lives. Today, I want to do just that. I always wanted to write this post and I consider now as a good timing after the launch of the National Suicide Hotline in Lebanon, the wide popularity of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” which tackled the issue and because we’re near May, the Mental Health Awareness Month. You might ask who am I and why I am doing this? Good question. After all, I am not a psychologist nor a psychiatrist (hopefully someday I will be though) nor a social worker. However, the thing is: I think everyone can and needs to contribute to mental health awareness in order to reduce stigma surrounding mental health and particularly suicide. In this post, I will explore the facts and the myths about suicide and what we (non-professionals) can do to help.
Suicide is the act of ending one’s own life intentionally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), somebody dies because of suicide every 40 seconds. Doing the math, that is more than 2,000 deaths per day and nearly 800,000 deaths a year. Clearly, suicide is not as rare as we think it is. In fact, it is the 2nd leading cause of teenagers’ death worldwide, just behind accidental injuries. In Lebanon, 4 people attempt suicide each day and somebody dies every 2.5 days. But what exactly are the causes that push them to let go of their own lives?
Debunking Suicide Myths
- Myth #1: Suicide is sudden and unpredictable. FACT: There are almost always warning signs that somebody might take his/her own life.
- Myth #2: People who want to kill themselves will do it, there is no way to stop that. FACT: There are many ways to prevent suicide.
- Myth #3: People who talk about suicide won’t actually do it. FACT: Many of them actually attempt and sometimes succeed in killing themselves.
- Myth #4: People attempt suicide for attention. FACT: There are manu reasons for suicide but seeking attention is not one of them.
- Myth #5: People who attempt suicide and fail won’t try it again. FACT: Actually, past attempts are a serious indicator that somebody might try suicide again.
- Myth #6: Suicidal people will stay that way forever. FACT: People can have suicidal thoughts for some time but that can change, these thoughts can go away with help so they can lead fulfilling lives.
Causes of Suicide
Suicide is a complex issue, understanding it is hard, even for professionals. In fact, there is little evidence why people do it. However, we know that certain things are likely causes or at least make individuals more vulnerable to suicide:
- Trauma: Physical, sexual or emotional abuse especially during youth and childhood can lead individuals to have suicidal thoughts, even years later.
- Substance Abuse: That includes alcohol and drugs.
- Mental Illness: Most frequently depression but also others like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder.
- Social Isolation and having no or a very small number of close relationships
- Victim of Bullying: That’s why people who identify as LGBT are at a higher risk for suicide.
- Family History of Suicide and Self-Harm
- Low satisfaction at work or unemployment.
- Chronic feelings of hopelessness and despondency.
These are the long term causes of suicide. Additionally, there are many “triggers” for suicidal thoughts:
- Loss of a close relative or friend.
- Severe Health Problems: Things like terminal cancer diagnosis can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts.
- Anti-Depressants: Some people report having suicidal thoughts after taking anti-depressants for the first time.
Suicide is preventable and there are many things you can do if you feel like a person is contemplating suicide.
Notice the Warning Signs
You can notice the following things in people who are considering suicide:
- Participating in risky behaviors without taking in consideration the consequences.
- Change in their appetite (eating too much or too little)
- Substance Abuse (frequent use of Alcohol and Drugs)
- Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy.
- Talking or Writing about death, suicide, self-harm or in ways that make life seem as pointless or meaningless.
- Stockpiling tablets.
Do and Don’t
- Don’t judge.
- Don’t tell them they are being ridiculous or selfish or that they would go to hell if they killed themselves or that suicide is cowardly or that they don’t really have problems or that it could have been worse. I mean, yes, some people do have worse problems but how does that help the individual? It doesn’t, it just makes him/her feel unnecessarily even worse.
- Recommend professional help: Psychiatrists, Psychologists are highly skilled professionals and trained to deal with suicidal thoughts, you are not expected to know all the techniques like they do. You can for example offer to go with them for their first appointment. You can also mention success stories where people received help and got better.
- Do not be afraid of silence: You don’t have all the answers to all their questions and problems but simply being there and listening is helpful.
- Don’t change the topic when they bring it up.
- Be patient. Stick around. Talking to them once will not fix the issue but supporting them every day or whenever they need you will definitely help.
- Encourage them to exercise, do activities they enjoy, have fun, enjoy life!
- Make sure they have no access to tools like pills or guns that can be used for suicide.
Bonus — Stop saying “committed suicide” as if it was a crime. Use “died because of suicide” instead!
Suicide Hotlines are useful to deal with suicide. You can call them and talk to experts and volunteers who will help you deal with suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, NGO Embrace has recently launched one in Lebanon (NSPH)
13 Reasons Why
Netflix’s hit show “13 Reasons Why” is about Hannah Baker, a high school girl who died because of suicide. In 13 episodes, the show explores the reasons that pushed her to kill herself. It’s very intense and sad but brilliantly shows how small actions and words can impact people for better or for worse. The series is very engaging and efficiently starts hard conversations about suicide that need to happen. You might say it has its flaws; well, that’s correct but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless or that it misses the point. I highly recommend it.
If you want to learn more about suicide and mental health and ways to help, many resources are available:
- Embrace, Mental Health Resources
- Mind UK – How To Cope With Suicidal Feelings [PDF]
- Jed Foundation
- SAVE – Suicide Prevention
Suicide is a serious issue. Maybe you don’t know somebody who’s experiencing suicidal thoughts right now, but someday you might. So be prepared! You can start by not joking about suicide. Don’t tell people to kill themselves, seriously! With the help of society as a whole, governments and NGOs (such as Embrace and IDRAAC in Lebanon), we can raise awareness on mental health and suicide. That could save lives, I promise…let’s all be part of that!