COVID-19 has changed the world in so many ways for all of us. Those changes—like job or home loss or the loss of connection to family, friends, and community because of the need for social distancing—are leading to increased depression, anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness.
Adding these stressors to those already suffering from mental illness or addiction, and the reduced opportunity for in-person treatment, have many fearing that suicide rates may increase even more than they have been. It will be a while, however, before enough data is available to accurately make that assessment. The logic for a potential increase, however, cannot be denied, and we should be more focused than ever on finding ways, individually and as communities, to identify and reduce the circumstances that can lead to attempting suicide.
One of the most important things we can all do is cast off the stigma around suicide, in ourselves and the community. While much progress has been made, the suicide stigma is still widespread in our society, much to the harm of all those involved— those who take their own lives, those who attempt suicide but survive, and those who know someone who has died from or attempted suicide.
Common beliefs underlying the suicide stigma are:
- People who kill themselves are selfish or cowards
- Suicide attempt survivors are just wanting attention or “crying wolf”
- Talking about suicide with someone may encourage them to take their life
- Suicides often happen without warning
- Only those with a mental illness attempt suicide
- Having suicidal thoughts means that the person will always be driven to kill themselves
These beliefs, however, are simply not true and are damaging in a number of ways. Not only does the suicide stigma prevent those who need help from seeking it but, for survivors, it can negatively impact perceptions of self-worth, threatening healthy recoveries. So, whatever we can do to educate ourselves and our communities about the suicide stigma and its negative impacts is critical.
Suicidal thoughts arise when feeling unable to carry on in overwhelming circumstances. Recognizing this is not always easy, especially if someone suffers from a pre-existing condition like depression, anxiety, addiction, or another behavioral health condition. That’s why keeping a keen eye out for warning signs is critical.
Typical warning signs are:
- Expressing hopelessness, such as feelings of worthlessness, having no sense of purpose, indicating that things would be better if they were not here
- Making suicidal statements or expressing that they wish they were dead
- Not responding to communications from family and friends
- Overly focused on death or dying
- Increase in the use of drugs or alcohol
- Self-destructive or reckless behavior
- Abnormal mood swings
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Saying goodbye or giving away things in a way that seems final
- Obtaining items used to kill oneself
- Significant losses, such as financial or legal difficulties, relationship breakups, or academic failures
While having one or more of these signs does not always mean someone is about to attempt suicide, they often call for at least a conversation with the person experiencing them.
How to help
If you do observe suicidal warning signs in someone, there are a number of things you can and should do. Depending on the severity of the situation, some suggested steps to take are:
- Don’t downplay or ignore the situation
- Acknowledge that the person is having a rough time and ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide
- Offer to help find the necessary support and suggest they contact a mental health crisis center, suicide hotline, or existing or new mental health provider
- If the threat seems imminent, keep them safe and stay with them until a safer environment can be found, such as a crisis center.
- Listen, listen, listen to what they are saying and be there for them emotionally
- Stay connected—check-in on a regular basis, in person or by digital means
- Suggest ways to reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed, such as offering to assist with basic needs like grocery or pharmacy pick-ups, getting consistent exercise, establishing daily routines, and limiting exposure to social media and news
Through reducing suicidal stigma, understanding warning signs, and knowing how to help, we all can meaningfully contribute to reducing suicide attempts and ensuring healthy recoveries for all those affected. If you or a loved one need help, please contact us at our 24-hour Crisis Hotline at (518) 483-3261 or (518) 891-5535.