Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, an initiative that first began in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention to create awareness about the ways suicide can be prevented.
While studies are underway for the effects of COVID-19 on suicide rates, historically, global crises such as the 1918 flu pandemic or the 2003 SARS outbreak saw huge spikes in its aftermath on suicide incidents. Part of the reason for this is the fact that isolation and loneliness are bad for our health, both physically and mentally. It’s been shown that a lack of social connection heightens health risk by the equivalent of smoking three quarters of a pack of cigarettes every day. Compounding the isolation and loneliness is the economic stress, where unemployment rates shot up near 15%, the highest levels since the great depression. History has told us that financial hardship and suicide rates are directly correlated, where big drops in the stock market have shown an increase in suicides. Experts are rightly concerned with the long-term mental health and suicide rates as a result of COVID-19.
It’s because of this that it’s all the more important for us to be aware of suicide risk factors in our colleagues, family or even friends.
Warning Signs of Suicide
- A person portraying hopelessness or speaking about no reason to live
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Discussing or thinking about death very often
- Using alcohol or drugs more often
- Changes in mood behavior
- Withdrawing from family or friends
- Feeling unbearable emotional or even physical pain
- Talking about feeling trapped and that there is no way out
- A person is wrapping affairs, such as making a will
Understanding the risk factors is important in helping us determine when to intervene and support. Here are five things you can do to help a colleague or loved one at risk of suicide:
Reach out to ask, “are you OK”?
Although our tendency is often avoidance out of fear of triggering or labeling someone, the best thing we can do is check in and show we care, says psychologist and vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Doreen Marshall.
“The very nature of someone struggling with suicide and depression, [is that] they’re not likely to reach out,” says Marshall. “They feel like a burden to others.”
Even if you can’t find the exact words to say. Reach out, as the demonstration that someone cares can make a big difference.
Ask about suicide
Suicide prevention experts say discussing suicide directly and compassionately with a person at risk is critical in helping prevent it.
You can ask a direct question, such as, “Have you ever had thoughts of suicide?”
Being direct, while difficult to do, is shown to get people to talk about it, and is a key form of prevention.
Listen, offer hope, and reserve judgment
One of the biggest things we can do is listen in an open-minded way and NOT be judgmental. Don’t feel as if you need to tell a person what to do. They’re most often looking to be heard and to have their feelings acknowledged.
Once we’ve listened and heard them, the next step is to offer hope. Saying things like, “I know how strong you are. I think we can get through this together.”
Help them make a safety plan
When you’ve recognized a person isn’t in immediate danger or risk of attempting suicide, it’s a perfect time to think about prevention.
Suicide prevention experts advise developing a safety plan, which has been shown to help reduce suicide risk. A safety plan includes making a list of the person’s triggers and warning signs of a pending crisis, people they feel comfortable confiding in for help and activities they can do to distract themselves during those times, such as going for a walk or reading a book.
Refer to care
Preventing a crisis from occurring involves getting your colleague/loved one/friend to professional help when you’ve assessed there is risk.
If someone you know is in crisis, they can contact:
- Call Canada Suicide Prevention Service 1-833-456-4566
- Text: 45645 (4pm – midnight)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line: Text “HELLO” to 741741 (24/7 access)