This is a time dedicated for people touched personally or professionally by suicide to unite efforts in raising awareness about prevention.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide is the second leading cause of death in Americans aged 15-34. Whether due to short term crisis, underlying mental illness, or some other combination of factors, the AFSP reports that death by suicide happens when someone’s “stressors exceed (their) current coping abilities.” The impact of the event has a measurable ripple effect; it is estimated that 115 others are exposed to one person death by suicide, with varying degrees of mental health repercussions.
As mental health clinicians, odds are that we will encounter some form of suicidality or grief from suicide loss in our work with clients. As not only a therapist, but a survivor of suicide loss myself, here are some important things I’ve learned about suicide prevention treatment:
This may seem simple, but I can’t stress enough the value of allowing for a safe, non-judgmental space when a person is considering a suicidal act. Even when it may feel personally overwhelming or hopeless, remember that just the act of providing someone a place to go with their pain can bring a huge amount of relief and room to feel better.
In many cases, the urge to die can and will pass: helping a person stay alive by utilizing coping skills and using these research backed action steps can remind them of hope for the future and afford them the time to let the feelings pass.
The AFSP published other stories of hope and recovery to read or share with others on their site.
It can be extremely helpful to be able to conceptualize how close to death a person actually is – for both you and your client. Do they actually just need to verbalize that they’ve been having these thoughts? Do you need to call mobile crisis? It is imperative to know what stage of intention your client is at to provide effective care.
The Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale is a highly respected, simple tool that does not require specific qualifications or training to use.
A stigma persists that talking about suicide directly will increase the suicidality of an individual. Here is where it is important that we draw some distinctions: “Contagion” is defined by AFSP as “a phenomenon whereby susceptible persons are influenced towards suicidal behavior through knowledge of another person’s suicidal acts.” This is specific to all forms of media, including journalism reporting, TV shows, social media channels, etc. and refers to terms used and details given that have been shown to increase rates of suicide.
As mental health professionals, we also want to use responsible language when discussing suicidal ideation. Being clear and direct goes a long way in showing a client that you are able to handle their intense emotions. In contrast, speaking in vague euphemisms is a way we participate in avoidance, increasing fear and reinforcing the shamefulness of the feeling. As J.K. Rowling so aptly wrote: “Fear of a name increases fear of a thing.” Try to use direct phrases like “want to die” rather than “want to escape” for example.
See this article for helpful vocabulary.
If you are using social media to connect with clients or promote your business, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has created an excellent toolkit to use regarding engaging suicidal clients via direct messaging or commenting on posts. Read it here.
As a suicide loss survivor, I can tell you the hardest lesson to learn is this: you are not responsible for another person deciding to die by suicide.
You are responsible for providing ethical and compassionate care, being knowledgeable about all aspects of suicide prevention and addressing suicidality bravely when you see it. Beyond that, a person’s actions will, ultimately, be up to them.
“Postvention” is the area of study and resources specifically for those who have lost a client or loved one to suicide. Turning tragedy into meaning, it may be inspiring to know that it is suicide loss survivors who have had the most influence championing national government policies, funding and awareness about suicide prevention. Grassroots organizations created out of grief have transformed attitudes toward suicide prevention and made this topic part of the cultural conversation.
Suicide has been said to be a death by isolation; simply by talking about it we offer an antidote to isolation: community. Raising awareness helps to create a community that heals instead of stigmatizes.
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