Vail Valley Voices: Myths, warning signs of suicide
Vail, CO, Colorado
This is the third part of a series about suicide. If you or anyone you know is in crisis or in danger of attempting suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or the Samaritan Counseling Center at 970-926-8558. If you are a survivor needing support, call Heartbeat at 970-328-8500. If you would like to become involved in or make a donation to the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Coalition of Eagle County, call Elizabeth Myers at 970-926-8558.
There are quite a few obstacles along the path to preventing
suicide. The two most common ones are misinformation or no information – the myths surrounding it and the lack of awareness of the warning signs that are often present.
Also notable is the taboo associated with discussing suicide. Silence and denial seem all too often to be the norm. The social stigmas attached to the subject of suicide keep those in crisis from asking for help, and many survivors would rather their communities did not know the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved ones.
Those who are suffering believe they will be judged as weak, and those left behind often think the cause of death will be perceived as their fault or as some sort of failing on their part. Guilt and blame play a large role in furthering both the myths and the taboos associated with suicide. While understandable from a compassionate viewpoint, the consequences of this sweeping under the rug can be far-reaching and damaging.
We know depression underlies the majority of suicides, and occasionally, other forms of mental illness are at issue. Depression and mental illness are as real as physical illness or injury, and yet society still fails to give them the same credence.
A person suffering from chest pains, shortness of breath or a broken bone will seek treatment because there is a tangible, physical symptom they can point to that bears no perceived negative connotations about them as a person.
However, the kind of deep despair that characterizes depression is often mistakenly looked upon as some sort of weakness of character despite it being every bit as legitimate as heart disease, asthma or injury.
Many who have never experienced deep or clinical depression have a hard time validating it in others. They believe a hearty “Cheer up!” or a scolding “Snap out of it!” are all that’s needed. But just as one cannot will oneself out of physical illness, one cannot simply will oneself out of depression or mental illness. We would never dream of saying, “Get over it,” to someone having a heart attack, and yet there are those who mistakenly feel that is an appropriate response to someone in emotional pain.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older – about one in four adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people.”
These are not negligible figures, and one would think that the prevalence of sufferers would be enough to convince society to take mental illness seriously. Yet every year, more and more people go undiagnosed and untreated because of ignorance, lack of available resources or the ever-present fear of stigma.
And one of the tragic – and
preventable – consequences is suicide.
So if you are suffering from depression, know above all else that what you’re feeling is real and is legitimate and can be treated.
Let’s look at a few of the
common myths associated with suicide:
• If someone talks about suicide, they won’t actually do it.
False. Many people who die from suicide will give some sort of verbal warning first. You should always take threats of suicide
• If someone talks about suicide, they are just trying to get attention.
True and false. Many times, talking about suicide is most definitely a cry for help. Just because a person may be looking for the attention they may receive by talking about suicide doesn’t mean they are not seriously in crisis and may not attempt it. Very often, the attention they seek is very real help for something they are not able to handle on their own.
• Once someone makes up their mind to commit suicide, there is nothing anyone can do to stop them.
False. If an individual thinks life is not worth living, he or she is probably suffering from a deep form of depression. Depression is very often successfully treatable through psychotherapy and/or medication. There is an old but true adage that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Most people who talk about suicide don’t really want to die. They just want the pain and hopelessness they feel to end.
• If you bring up suicide to a person who is in crisis, you may actually plant the thought in their head.
False. Talking about suicide does not create suicidal thoughts that were not there to begin with. In fact, opening up the subject often reduces the level of anxiety the person feels and allows them to communicate their feelings about a subject they might never bring up themselves.
In addition, you may well gain very important insights to the person’s mental and emotional state that can guide you in helping them. Communication about crisis often leads to finding a solution, whereas silence only intensifies the feelings of hopelessness and isolation.
• Most suicides happen with no advance clues.
False. The majority of those who are suicidal show some warning signs.
So what are the possible warning signs?
The American Association of Suicidology created the “IS PATH WARM?” acronym-mnemonic in order for counselors to more clearly categorize and assess the major risk factors for suicide.
Ideation. Has the individual expressed the idea of suicide or death verbally or in writing? Have they sought out ways to end their life (i.e., seeking access to pills or firearms, etc.)? Has the person developed an unhealthy preoccupation with death or means of death (firearms, etc.)?
Substance abuse. Does the individual abuse alcohol or drugs, or have they shown a sharp increase in the use of either? Alcoholism and drug abuse are major factors in suicide rates.
Purposelessness. Does the individual express that they see no reason to go on living? Do they see no purpose in life? Have they lost interest in activities they used to enjoy?
Anxiety. Do they display or express feelings of anxiousness or agitation? Are they unable to sleep? Do they sleep all the time?
Trapped. Does the individual feel trapped, or do they express the belief that there is no way out of whatever their situation?
Hopelessness. Does the person feel as though there is nothing positive ahead for them in life? Is their view of themselves and their life relentlessly negative? Do they say things like “You’d be better off without me” or “I’d be better off dead”?
Withdrawal. Has the individual withdrawn from others? Has he or she isolated themselves from family, friends and society? Sometimes a suicidal person will stop communicating with others and start “putting their affairs in order” in anticipation of the end.
Anger. Does the person seem full of rage, uncontrolled anger or vengeance? Some suicides carry with them a “You’ll be sorry” or “See what you made me do?” motivation. Those signs are just as dangerous as utter despair and should be heeded.
Recklessness. Have their actions become reckless, or do they engage in dangerous or risky behavior, disregarding or without any thought of the consequences?
Mood change. Has the individual demonstrated or experienced dramatic mood changes?
Any of these warning signs may mean the person is at risk. Multiple warning signs should always be cause for concern.
Take people seriously when they express the desire to end their lives. Watch for the warning signs, and don’t just shrug them off as a phase. It is much better to pay too much attention than it is to ignore someone in need.
If you see yourself in these signs, don’t suffer in silence. There are many avenues for help, and you shouldn’t hesitate seeking them out.
You are not alone.
If you see these signs in others, reach out to the person in crisis, and let him or her know they are not alone. Encourage them to open up to you and to seek help.
If you need guidance in how to deal with someone you are concerned about, seek help yourself. The numbers listed at the beginning of this column are a good start.
Upcoming events for Suicide Prevention Week, Sunday through Sept. 11:
If you are interested in attending ASSIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), a two-day training program for caregivers at the Eagle Town Hall on Sept. 8 and 9, contact Meredith Van Ness at 970-949-9250. ASSIST is for anyone who wishes to develop skills to prevent the immediate risk of suicide. It is of particular value to teachers and counselors, but it is also helpful to individuals and family members who believe that someone in their life may be at risk of suicide.
And please join us for the fourth annual Heartbeat Balloon Launch at noon Wednesday at the Eagle County Main Campus Courtyard at 500 Broadway in Eagle. Heartbeat is a support group for survivors. “Families, Community Systems and Suicide” is the theme for the lunchtime event featuring keynote speakers, free pizza, educational booths and an annual balloon launch.
David Dillon is an Eagle resident.