Suicide has become a serious public health crisis in the United States, but we still don’t know how to talk about it.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with nearly 45,000 Americans taking their own lives each year. Even more shocking, suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth and young adults ages 15 to 24.
We know that there are many factors associated with suicide, from social isolation to a lack of access to mental health care to knowing someone who has died by suicide. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that experiences such as relationship problems, financial problems and substance use, among others, contributed to some instances of suicide.
As communicators we have to be able to talk about this taboo topic if we have any hope of preventing suicide, either in our work or in our personal lives. Everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide. And, the truth is, suicide is often preventable. Just by starting the conversation, providing support and directing help to those who need it, we can save lives.
Here are five things to remember when communicating about suicide:
- Despite what some may fear is the case, talking to teens about suicide does not make them more likely to attempt suicide. In fact, discussion brings the topic into the open and provides an opportunity for intervention.
- Suicide prevention efforts are more successful when they engage people with lived experience in prevention planning, treatment and community education. Individuals and organizations working in and communicating about suicide prevention can promote hope, support and resilience by sharing real-life stories.
- When I said everyone has a role to play, I meant it. The way media cover suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion, or positively by encouraging help-seeking, which is why guidelines suggest avoiding detailed descriptions of methods, not oversimplifying the causes that lead to a person taking their life, and avoiding photos of grieving loved ones, so as not to sensationalize the death.
- Talk openly about the causes of suicide, its warning signs, trends in rates, and services and supports that are available.
- Don’t use data or language that suggests suicide is inevitable or unsolvable. Instead, show that there is hope by focusing on effective ways to help, such as sharing inspiring stories of recovery, linking to services and supports, and encouraging people to take action.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is charged with leading public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation, which includes suicide prevention. This week, they are observing National Prevention Week, an annual health observance dedicated to increasing public awareness of, and action around, mental and/or substance use disorders. Today’s topic is suicide prevention. What better time to reach out to a friend or family member who you think might be struggling and ask how they are doing?
The more of us who speak openly and honestly about our struggles with mental health or just keeping up with life sometimes, the more comfortable these conversations become. By starting the conversation, listening without judgment, providing support and directing help to those who need it, together we can and will help prevent suicide and save lives.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.