Alya Reeve: Busting suicide myths

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Over 38,000 Americans die by suicide every year. Nearly 1 million individuals attempt suicide yearly. Millions more have thoughts of suicide. And, if we were to count the close family members and friends of all of those who have thought of, attempted, or completed suicide, it would equal the population.

And yet, because there are so many difficult feelings involved—often, anger, confusion, fear, isolation, and shame, among others—individuals and families are reluctant to share their experiences. For this reason, stigma and stereotypes about suicide persist. This article aims to bring issues of suicide to light and dispel some of common misconceptions.

True or False: Suicide doesn't affect people like me or people I know.

False. Suicide does not discriminate. All classes, genders, ages, and racial groups are affected. No medical or intellectual condition predicts someone's likelihood to attempt suicide.

Often, the person at risk of suicide is experiencing a seemingly insurmountable problem, such as losing financial security, important people, or a home. Life stresses are beyond the person's coping abilities. Sometimes substance abuse or a history of depression are involved. In other cases, a person has a disconnection from other people or few positive social relationships. And in some cases, people attempt suicide because they feel they are falling short or that there is pressure to be a different version of themselves. In all cases, the factors that predict someone's likelihood to attempt suicide are equal among all groups.

True or False: If someone I knew was thinking about suicide, I would know.

Both. The warning signs that someone will make a suicide attempt may be obvious, subtle, or hidden. Caring and compassionate attention to the person may yield a clue or clues that support and prevention are needed.

Attentive friends and family may notice an increase in a person's use of alcohol or drugs, drastic changes in mood, worsening depression, or a sense of loneliness or hopelessness. A person may make statements about feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless.

Sometimes the signs can be much more obvious. A person may appear preoccupied with death, take unnecessary risks, or exhibit self-destructive behavior. They may even threaten to hurt or kill themselves. Too often, people dismiss talk of suicide as a joke. If you hear this, it should always be taken seriously. At its most overt, people may even openly seek or show means to kill themselves.

It's worth noting here that a person can have a dark personality or enjoy spending time alone and not be at risk of suicide—their wellbeing is not dependent on others' interpretations of what makes someone well.

True or False: Talking about suicide with someone you feel is at risk makes their risk greater.

False. Ignoring someone's warning signs will not make the thoughts of suicide disappear, nor will talking with the person persuade them to act on those thoughts. Most often, it's best to be open and genuine. Starting a conversation with an open question, like "Do you ever wonder why we are alive?" allows the person to understand that you, too, sometimes wonder why we are alive. This is an indirect way to invite them to open up about their thoughts and feelings.

True or False: There's nothing I can do to help someone who is at risk of suicide.

False. Just talking about their feelings with a non-judgmental person could help someone to temporarily relieve the pressure to act on their thoughts of suicide. Having chronic, recurrent thoughts of suicide is something of a chronic condition. Just like other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure that have symptoms to be managed and recur, feeling suicidal and the impulse to act on those feelings wax and wane over time.

It's best to connect the person with a professional source of help. If a person is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or take them to the nearest Emergency Department. Nationally, you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or via Twitter @800273TALK. These sources of help are available 24 hours every day. Locally, you can call United Counseling Service at 802-442-5491.

To live is a struggle, but it is a creative and beautiful struggle. When we pay careful attention to each other and use crucial moments to approach each other with a helping hand, we have the greatest likelihood of preventing suicide among the people we love.

Dr. Alya Reeve has been the medical director at United Counseling Service since 2015 and has been a member of the medical staff at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center since 2017. The two organizations will host a Suicide Prevention Walk in the spring of 2019. Call 802-447-5019 to participate.


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