Monday, September 10, 2012

5 Ways to Observe National Suicide Prevention Week

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we’re not alone” 
- Fred Rogers

It is National Suicide Prevention Week, so I thought this would be an appropriate topic and a great chance to jump up on a soapbox that I haven’t occupied in a long time. Suicide is part of the human condition and it is mentionable (see, I just mentioned it). Not only is suicide mentionable, it is important to talk about it. When we don’t talk about suicide, when we deny its existence, or when we believe it is something that only happens to other people, then we further isolate those struggling between life and death, we increase the stigma around suicide, and we create a culture that is hostile to help-seeking for suicidal thoughts. Perhaps it is the pervasive myths about suicide (many erroneously believe that talking about suicide will make someone think about killing themselves, or that asking someone about suicide will make them kill themselves) that make suicide such a difficult topic of conversation. Or perhaps it is the fear that if we talk about suicide we’ll have to acknowledge the severe psychological pain that many people endure. Whatever the reason, I think the good that comes from talking about suicide outweighs the discomfort. In general, I believe our world would be a more compassionate place to live if we were able to speak honestly about difficult things. Suicide certainly falls into that category.

Suicide prevention is a national priority. Over the past two decades there have been great innovations in evaluating suicide prevention work, increased support for suicide prevention efforts, and legislation providing for suicide prevention resources and personnel. Nevertheless, suicide rates haven’t changed much. I think its going to take a shift in our culture, to one that’s more empathetic, to bring about real change. Happily, there are so many little things that each of us can do to create a community that promotes life and prevents suicide. Here are some ideas for ways that you could make your own contribution to suicide prevention this week:

1. Seek to understand suicide

A common response to suicide is thinking, “I just don’t get it. Why would anyone decide to kill themselves? It doesn’t make sense.” For someone who hasn’t considered suicide, it can be hard to imagine how you could find yourself in a place where ending your life seems like the best or only option. I’ve always found it useful to read about a topic I don’t understand, especially when the reading includes personal stories. Reading someone’s story helps to put you in their shoes and develop empathy for their situation. Here are a few books I would recommend to better understand suicide:

  • November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide by George Howe Colt
  • Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jameson
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

2. Protect yourself from suicide

It is nearly impossible to make it through life (or into your 30’s) without being affected by suicide and most of us will contemplate (or have contemplated) suicide at some point, if only for a fleeting moment.  More than anything, working on a suicide hotline helped me appreciate how we are all at risk of suicide. The differences between me and folks considering suicide at the other end of the line were relatively small: a major loss, a change in brain chemistry, a desperate situation. We can’t prevent thoughts of suicide, but we can strengthen our connection to life. The difference between choosing life and choosing death is closely related to one’s connection to life. Here’s a quick, life promoting exercise:

  1. Take few moments to write down all of the things that make life worthwhile.
  2. Review your list and circle a few of the most important items.
  3. For each of the circled items, write down one thing you can do to spend more time on or increase your involvement in that item.  Commit to doing that!
Whether it’s making more time for friends and family, developing a craft, or engaging in a healthy lifestyle, you will be strengthening your connection to life and protecting yourself from suicide.

3. Send some love to your local suicide prevention center

There is a special group of people who make themselves available 24/7 to those who need to talk, and they’ll be there for you if you ever need them. The staff and volunteers who answer crisis and suicide hotlines have incredibly rewarding jobs, but the work can also be emotionally taxing and appreciation is often scarce. Why not take a moment to let these good folks know how much you value what they do for your community?

Go here to find a local suicide prevention center.

4. Talk about suicide

Many of us have been intimately affected by suicide. It takes a lot of courage, but sharing your story helps to give a fact to suicide and begins to breakdown the barriers and stigma around it. Try sharing your story with someone you trust. Or you can share it anonymously at the Lifeline Gallery (and witness other's stories while you're there).

5. Ask about suicide

Giving someone permission to talk about thoughts of suicide is one of the most compassionate things you can do. If you are worried about someone, if your gut tells you a friend is in emotional pain or in a dark, desperate place, play it safe and ask about suicide, openly and honestly. Here’s a useful formula:

  1. Express care and concern: “I’m feeling worried about you...
  2. Share what you observe: “You haven’t been yourself lately and it seems like you’re really down...”
  3. Ask directly: “Are you thinking about suicide?”

If the answer is, “Yes,” be prepared with local resources or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and suggest contacting them together. Otherwise, let your friend talk and just listen without judgement.

If none of these ideas speak to you, here are some more. Wishing you an honest and gentle National Suicide Prevention Week!  

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