September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. The annual event was first organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and backed by the World Health Organization and is a global effort to raise awareness about mental health, specifically around suicide prevention.
In 2019, the US saw the loss of more than 47,500 people to suicide. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, suicide is second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34, and tenth leading cause overall.
Among Black Americans, suicide is highest among males, who die by suicide at a rate of 12.4 per 100,000 deaths. The rate among Black females was 2.9 per 100,000 deaths, in 2019. In the last 20 years, the nation has seen a steady rise in suicides across the board.
This year, the IASP deemed the day’s theme “Creating Hope Through Action.” Addressing this public health issue requires work on all levels, within ourselves, among friends and families, in communities, and beyond.
Where to Start and What to Say
In the last year, the world has experienced trauma at multilayered levels. Checking in on loved ones is often encouraged, but where can you start? And what do you say if someone says they are having thoughts of suicide?
The conversation may be tough to initiate, here are few tips on how to get started.
Encourage someone to express their thoughts, even if the thoughts are uncomfortable to hear.
Shutting our ears to what someone may be going through because it’s hard to process for us may not be helpful for the person dealing with them.
“Don’t talk the person out of how they’re feeling, because how they’re feeling is legitimate,” Sherry Davis Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, told The Huffington Post.
One of the first steps is to try and determine where they’re at in their thinking. Experts recommend asking if they have a plan to hurt themselves and if they’ve already taken steps towards the plan. You should also ask how frequently they’re having the thoughts.
Take It Seriously
“When someone tells you that they have suicidal thoughts, it is important to take them seriously, but it is also important to understand the nature of their thoughts in context,” Jessica Gold, assistant psychiatry professor at Washington University told The Post. “There is a difference in how imminent their risk of harm to themselves is based on the thoughts –– just having thoughts is not an imminent risk,” she explained.
Listen, without judgement, express empathy and try to help them reach out to professional help.
Helping the person actually get connected to help can be a heavy emotional and physical burden for someone experiencing suicidal ideation, help support them by asking if it would be helpful to them if you call therapists for appointments, you might also consider actually taking them to the appointment. Connecting them to the suicide prevention hotline or text line is also an option.
Watch Your Tone
Be mindful of how you ask questions. Tone matters, so try to ensure to hold back judgment if someone brings their thoughts to you.
Phrases like, “You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?” can take on a tone that might shut down a conversation before it gets started.
“It doesn’t sound like saying this would be dismissive, but it is,” Molock said. Saying something like that, especially with a particular tone, might send the message that you don’t want to have the conversation.
Other phrases to avoid: “But your life is so good.”; “You’re feeling this way again?”; “Suicide is wrong/bad/a sin.”; “You’re overreacting.”
“Reminding them of an arbitrary list of reasons is not going to make them all of the sudden feel better and more likely will feel minimizing their actual experience and they might feel worse…” Gold explained. Instead, “listen, empathize and validate their experience,” she added.
At the end of the day, the person is feeling what they feel, imposing our beliefs, downplaying their internal emotions, throwing previous suicide ideation in their face, can close the line of communication and invalidate their experience.
“While you may not be able to provide an immediate solution, offering support and letting the person know they matter to you and they make a difference in your life is really important for them,” Molock said.
Passive Suicide Ideation
It’s important to remember that someone experiencing thoughts of suicide or death may not always be in immediate crisis. They may be struggling with their mental health to the point that they may not want to be here anymore, but they have no plan in place, and have not made an attempt, but they also don’t feel like living anymore –– that gray area is called passive suicide ideation and it affects more people than you might think.
As stated previously, just because someone is having thoughts, does not put them at imminent risk of hurting themselves. You should try to listen, empathize, validate, and support in a way that’s helpful to the person.
Ask how you can be there for them, schedule check-ins, create opportunities for them to express what they’re going through, help support their journey to professional help, if they want that, are all ways that can be helpful.
To learn more about passive suicide ideation, click here.
If you or someone you know need immediate mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor. These additional resources are also available:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
The National Alliance on Mental Illness 1-800-950-6264
The Association of Black Psychologists 1-301-449-3082
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America 1-240-485-1001
For more mental health resources that cater to Black communities, click HERE.