To many among us, suicide seems like the shocking and inexplicable end we never saw coming for a family member, colleague, or friend. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Suicide is a public health problem – a tragic outcome that is preventable if we pay attention and intervene when warning signs surface. By recognizing the subtle signals of suicidal behavior, remaining vigilant, and offering support at the right time, we can save lives.
Each year more than 47,000 Americans die by suicide, and the national suicide rate has been rising steadily since 1999. One barrier to suicide prevention is the stigma, or negative beliefs, surrounding people with mental health needs. To reduce suicide, we must address stigma head on, and speak up when concerns arise.
Here are a few simple steps we can all take to reduce suicide in California:
First, be vigilant in keeping an eye out for the warning signs of suicide. Common warning signs include communicating a wish to die or plans to attempt suicide, expressing the experience of having thoughts of suicide that are intense, pervasive, or difficult to control, and giving away possessions. More warning signs are listed in the state’s suicide prevention plan, Striving for Zero.
If you observe such signs, ask your friend or relative a key question: Are you thinking of suicide or feeling like life is not worth living? Many of us shy away from such an inquiry, fearing it could put the idea of suicide in a loved one’s head. But the fact is those thoughts and feelings may already exist for people experiencing deep emotional pain. Communicating openly about suicide and compassionately asking about risk has been shown to be lifesaving. It encourages people who may feel isolated or are frightened to seek help, promotes a sense of belonging, and connects people to support.
The next priority is to assess whether the individual is at increased risk by determining if he or she has a specific plan or intent to act on thoughts of suicide. If the answer is yes, immediate action must be taken. Express compassion and provide assurances that assistance is readily available, including confidential resources offered by trained providers.
You can reach out for support by accessing the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This telephonic lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day to provide confidential support for people in distress, as well as crisis resources.
Following up after your initial conversation with a person at risk is essential. Call, text, or visit and demonstrate your support, while asking questions about the person’s condition and need for additional help.
Despite the persistent myths that surround suicide, all of us play a role in preventing loss of life. It may take a bit of time and a commitment to remain vigilant for warning signs among relatives, colleagues, and friends. But lives can be saved.