Suicide: What to know and how to help

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Suicide has been in the news a lot lately. From well-known celebrities to innocent middle school students, the suicide epidemic is widespread and knows no boundaries. It touches people from all walks of life and does not discriminate based on age, race, class, or education level. And while a negative stigma often accompanies any news of the topic, it’s important to keep the conversation going.

One thing that family members of suicide victims often struggle with is the “why”. Even if they knew their loved one was depressed, they often have trouble comprehending the depths of that depression, especially if it’s not something they’ve personally experienced. Suicide can be difficult to explain, primarily because there isn’t a single cause. Although mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse often play a role, the root cause of a person’s suicide can be incredibly complex.

What to look for

If you’re worried that a family member or loved one could be suicidal, don’t ignore your feelings. While every person’s experience is different, there are some distinct warning signs. In fact, research shows that people who take their own life often display one or more of the following signs:

  • A noticeable change in behavior. This is an important sign to watch out for in people who have recently experienced loss or pain in their lives. Be on the lookout for rash decision-making, giving away possessions, purchasing a firearm, or even sleep issues, such as chronic fatigue, frequent napping or insomnia.
  • Extremely negative talk. People who display this warning sign often mention feeling hopeless or trapped. They may describe themselves as a burden to others and believe that the world would be better off without them.
  • Reckless behavior or an increase in drug or alcohol abuse. When people are hurting, they look for ways to numb their pain. If you believe your loved one is drinking more than usual or participating in activities that are harmless and out of character, take note.
  • Withdrawing from others. This telltale sign goes hand in hand with depression, and it can be an easy one to make excuses for. Still, it’s important to remember that pushing people away is often a cry for help.
  • Mood changes. Individuals who are suicidal may display a variety of moods, including anger, agitation, irritability, humiliation, depression or shame.
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions. In some instances, people may be predisposed to suicide based on their family history or health issues in their own life. Conditions like schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, traumatic brain injuries, bipolar disorder – as well as a history of depression – are all risk factors.

You can help

If you think your loved one may be contemplating suicide, don’t wait to do something. Start by initiating a conversation to express your concern and ask questions. Remember to be sensitive and compassionate and to create an environment where he or she is comfortable sharing. In some cases, a listening ear may be all that’s needed.

If your loved one admits to being suicidal, seek help immediately. Never leave him or her alone, and be sure to remove any firearms or prescriptions. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to speak with a crisis counselor 24 hours a day. If necessary, head to the nearest emergency room or mental health facility.

By talking openly about suicide and teaching others how to help, we can all make a difference and save lives.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.