This month, we acknowledge Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Many of us who have known or heard of someone who died by suicide have asked ourselves how we, or someone, might have better recognized the risk and intervened in order to prevent the tragedy. This feeling may be amplified with the knowledge, according to a national study, that in 2020 more than 12 million American adults had serious thoughts of suicide, including three million who made a suicide plan, and more than one million people who attempted suicide. So, how do you recognize the signs of suicide risk?
Warning Signs for Suicide
- Painful feelings of depression, guilt, or shame
- Feelings of hopelessness, despair, or inability to escape an unbearable problem
- Intense feelings of anxiety or feeling overwhelmed
- Preoccupation with death, feelings of worthlessness, or being a burden to others
- Preparing for death, such as preparing a will or getting other affairs in order, giving away possessions, acquiring lethal means to harm oneself (e.g., buying a firearm, stockpiling pills or medications, internet searches for ways to die)
- A significant change in behavior, including withdrawal from friends/family, inability to function, decreased self-care.
Additional Risk Factors
- Increased drinking or substance use
- A history of previous suicidal behavior or attempts
- A history of diagnosed depression, PTSD, alcohol-use disorder, or other mental health condition
- Social factors: relationship loss, social isolation, being bullied
Action Step: Engaging Someone You Suspect Might Be at Risk for Suicide
While some of the above may sound familiar or make intuitive sense, the warning signs are not specific to suicide – that is, many of the attributes listed above are common to others going through some of life's most challenging difficulties and don't point specifically to suicide. To move from a place of concern and uncertainty to meaningful support, one must take the next step of caring engagement.
Talking About Suicide
Approaching someone in distress can evoke competing responses within us. On one hand, we may be inclined to construe someone's distress as a private matter and feel compelled to respect their privacy; on the other hand, we may be moved to offer comfort and support. Go with the latter. It's okay to acknowledge within yourself that there may be feelings of discomfort and even feelings of inadequacy in talking with someone who is hurting. Trust yourself to offer something meaningful. Here are some things to keep in mind as you take this step:
- Express your availability with your full attention and willingness to listen and understand.
- Actively listen to what the other person is saying and validate the person's feeling in your response. This is a way to convey understanding and empathy.
- Having a caring conversation can reduce a person's sense of isolation and increase their sense of hope.
- Asking or talking about suicide will not plant the idea in someone's head and raise the risk of suicide. It is more important to be direct about suicidal thoughts, plans, and behaviors.
- Convey that they are not alone, and that help is available; offer confident assurance that millions of others have been helped by mental health, medical, and other support resources.
Every DHS Employee is Well-Equipped to Enter a Conversation about Suicide
Within the past year, DHS and nearly every component and office has launched the DHS-Columbia Protocol App. If you have a government furnished mobile device, you'll find it already installed. The app is grounded on an evidence-based suicide risk assessment instrument and has been designed as a tool that anyone can use to gauge the risk of suicide in a coworker, friend, or family member. Using the app is simple. If you are concerned about someone you know and aren't sure how to ask about suicidal thoughts and what the next steps should be, open the app on your government-issued mobile phone (can also be downloaded for free from the app stores for either iPhone or Android-based mobile devices) and you'll be shown the questions to ask. The person's “yes" or “no" response guides the next question and factors into a risk calculation at the end (only up to six questions). Based on the risk score, various resource recommendations are provided, including the option to select component-specific Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) phone numbers. All phone numbers and crisis chat/text options are hyperlinked so that by simply tapping this option connects you to the resource – no looking up phone numbers or websites required!
Recent Development: Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
Just several weeks ago, the previously known Suicide Prevention Lifeline, now branded the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, was launched. The multi-digit toll-free number was simplified to 988 and its capabilities and capacity were expanded to be more responsive, via phone, text, or chat, to provide emotional support to persons in crisis. That's right – the Lifeline network, available 24/7 across the United States, is available to provide confidential assistance to someone who is distressed and not necessarily thinking about suicide. This federally funded support resource reflects the federal government's commitment to addressing the mental health crisis in America. Find out more at Lifeline (988lifeline.org)