Reviewed by: Maria Correa, Performance Improvement Specialist, and Donna Shanor, LCSW, LCDC
Written by: Lauryn Gerard
While significant progress has been made in terms of raising awareness around the importance of mental health care, there is still so much more we can do. The stigma that continues to surround mental illness and suicide often gets in the way of people asking for help when they need it most. Over the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Today, nearly 800,000 people lose their lives to suicide each year. And in Austin alone, we lose one person to suicide nearly every three days.
Here at UT Health Austin, Integrated Behavioral Health services are incorporated into clinical care and providers are trained on how to best support patients during times in which mental health may be affecting their overall well-being. While there is always room for improvement in the healthcare setting, the same is to be said for the non-clinical setting where people spend a majority of their time. We can all help prevent suicide by changing the conversation around mental health. And what better way to begin than by addressing common myths surrounding suicide?
MYTH: People affected by suicide have an untreated mental health condition.
While mental health and suicide are often associated, this is not true of everyone. Research suggests that 46% of people who die by suicide have a known mental health condition, meaning over half of suicide victims do not have a diagnoseable mental health disorder. Other factors may also put a person at risk of suicide. Life stressors and recent or impending crises, such as a devastating health diagnosis, loss of a loved one, trauma, sexual abuse, or legal persecution, are also associated with suicidal thoughts and attempts. It is also worth noting that not all people with a mental health condition have suicidal thoughts.
Risk factors for suicide may include:
- A family history of suicide
- Substance use, which can worsen suicidal thoughts
- Intoxication (more than one-third of people who die from suicide are under the influence of alcohol at the time of death)
- Access to firearms
- A serious or chronic medical illness
- Gender (although more women than men attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to die by suicide)
- A history of trauma or abuse
- Prolonged stress
- A recent tragedy or loss
MYTH: Most suicide attempts occur suddenly, without warning.
64% of Americans who attempt suicide visit a healthcare professional in the month before their attempt, and verbal and behavioral warning signs typically precede most suicide attempts. While healthcare providers and their staff are in a unique position in which they can ask sensitive questions to assess how a patient is feeling, many individuals may only display warning signs to those closest to them. It’s important that we all learn to recognize the warning signs associated with suicide.
Warning signs associated with suicide may include:
- Increased alcohol and drug use
- Aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and community
- Dramatic mood swings
- Impulsive or reckless behavior
- Collecting and saving pills or purchasing a weapon
- Giving away possessions
- Tying up loose ends, such as organizing personal papers or paying off debts
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
MYTH: People who die by suicide are selfish.
Many individuals with suicidal thoughts are often suffering from a mental health condition or a life event that is causing them immense pain. Managing symptoms of hopelessness and helplessness can be extremely difficult to do on one’s own, and many suicide victims are simply seeking relief from their pain and suffering rather than choosing to indirectly hurt others. The way in which the brain and body react to certain mental health conditions and life stressors can be very complex, and it’s crucial that we help those who may be suffering reach professional help as soon as possible.
If someone tells you they are experiencing suicidal ideation (whether directly or indirectly, on social media or in person), always take it seriously and never assume this is a cry for attention.
Tips on how to approach an individual who may be at risk of suicide:
- Reassure this person that they can confide in you
- Remind this person that you are there for them emotionally and that they should not feel shame or guilt about their feelings
- Remove potentially lethal items from this person’s access
- Do not try to tell someone to think about how their actions could hurt their loved ones
- Do not promise to keep anyone’s suicidal thoughts confidential; they should know that if their life is in danger, you will seek help
MYTH: Talking about suicide will only encourage suicidal thoughts or actions.
Due to the stigma surrounding suicide, people often feel afraid to speak out about what they are feeling. Talking about suicide not only reduces the stigma, but also encourages at-risk individuals to seek help, rethink their options, and share their story with others. We can all benefit from communicating openly and honestly about suicide.
Ways to discuss suicide during a potential crisis:
- Be open and honest
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
- Calmly ask simple and direct questions, such as “Can I help you call your psychiatrist?”
- If there are multiple people around, have one person speak at a time
- Express support and concern
- Don’t argue, threaten, or raise your voice
- Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong
- If you’re nervous, try not to fidget or pace
- Be patient
You are never helpless in a suicide crisis situation. We can all make a difference and work towards a safer community for everyone.
If you believe someone is in immediate danger, seek help immediately. Do not leave that person alone and call 9-1-1.
The following lifelines are available by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
- Call: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
- Spanish language line: 1-888-628-9454
- Online Lifeline Crisis Chat (free and confidential)
Trans Lifeline (run by and for trans people):
- Call: 1-877-565-8860
Trevor Project (LGBTQ+):
If you are feeling overwhelmed with sadness, depression, or anxiety related to COVID-19, reach out to:
- Call: 1-800-985-5990
- Text: Send TalkWithUs to 66746