By DANITA LEBLANC | LCSW-BACS, LDH Office of Behavioral Health
Each death by suicide has a ripple effect throughout families and communities. Over the last 30 years, the suicide rate in the United States has continued to rise. In this country, 47,173 individuals died by suicide in 2017; that is 129 people per day. That same year, 720 individuals died by suicide in Louisiana.
Suicide is generally not on your radar until it affects you personally. Even when a family member or friend is showing warning signs, it can be difficult to talk about. Oftentimes small gestures can make a big difference.
Family, friends and co-workers often see that someone is in distress before professionals become aware of them. We can learn to be alert to the signs that someone might be thinking of suicide, we can learn how to ask about suicide, we can help keep someone safe, we can be there for them and we can learn how to connect them to help.
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
- Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
- Sudden improvement after having been depressed
Five action steps
We can all have a role in preventing suicide. The #BeThe1To campaign encourages these five action steps to prevent suicide.
- ASK: Ask directly about suicide in a way that sounds like you
want to know the answer. Studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they
are suicidal does not increase suicide or suicidal thoughts. Direct questions
like “Are you thinking about suicide?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
communicate in a supportive and non-judgmental way that you are open to talking
about suicide. You could also let them know what you see, hear, sense or learn
about them that provides you with clues that something isn’t right.
Example: Mary, I’ve noticed you seem distressed and have been keeping to yourself since your house flooded. Sometimes when people have had a traumatic experience like that, they think about suicide. Are you thinking about suicide?
Take them seriously. Listen while they talk about the situation causing them emotional pain. Also listen for any potential reasons they want to stay alive. Both are important. Do not impose your reasons for why they should want to live; help them focus on their reasons.
- KEEP THEM SAFE: Once we agree that suicide is the focus, we need to know a
few things about how to keep them safe. To figure out how to keep them safe, we
need to know more about the situation and their plan. Have they already done
anything to try and kill themselves? Have they thought about how they would
kill themselves? Is the plan detailed as to what, when and where? The more detailed
the plan is, the higher the severity of risk.
Reducing a person’s access to highly lethal means that they plan to use to kill themselves is an important part of suicide prevention. Keep the person safe by putting time and distance between the person and their chosen method. Over 40% of the time, the decision to act on thoughts of suicide and the act of suicide is less than 10 minutes.
- BE THERE: Support the person at risk of suicide. Stay with them or
help connect them to other support. Is there someone else in the person’s life
who is available, willing and able to help if needed? Being there could mean
being physically present or speaking with them on the phone, or any other way
that shows support. Actively listen to what they say and let them know you hear
them. Make sure you follow through on whatever you say you will do. Do not
commit to anything you are not willing to do.
- HELP THEM CONNECT: Help the person with thoughts of suicide connect with
ongoing supports that can help them establish a safety net for those moments
they find themselves in a crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) will connect you to the crisis call
center closest to you based on your area code. If texting is preferred, text to 741741; the website www.crisistextline.org has information
on what happens when the text is used. If it is an emergency, contact 911 or go
to the nearest emergency room.
Explore some possible supports with the person in crisis. Are they currently seeing a mental health professional? Have they in the past? Is this an option for them currently? Are there other mental health resources in the community that can help? Is there an Employee Assistance Program at the person’s workplace? In Louisiana, local governing entities responsible for behavioral health and developmental disability services may be able to help.
- FOLLOW UP: After your initial contact with the person experiencing thoughts of suicide and after you have connected them with the immediate support systems they need, follow up with them to see how they are doing. Leave a message, send a text or give them a call. The follow up step lets you check in with them to see if additional support is needed and conveys caring and concern to the person thinking about suicide. This contact can also contribute to increased feelings of connectedness.
If someone you know is struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Each of us can be the one to help.