Common Misconceptions About Suicide
The World Health Organization estimates that about million people die by suicide each year (World Health Organization, 2004). Understanding what drives people to take their own life is not easy for those who are not enmeshed in intolerable pain themselves; thus, myths and misconceptions tend to proliferate about this very final act. It is important to de-bunk these, however, if we would extend genuinely compassionate support — and bring down this terrible statistic.
The people who talk about it don’t do it
Fact: Research has shown that 75 — 80 per cent of all people who died by suicide and almost every person who attempted suicide made attempts to communicate to others in the weeks or months leading up to the attempt/suicide that they were in deep despair. Sometimes the only warning was in statements like, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone” or “I can’t see any way out” (Smith, M., Segal, J., & Robinson, L., 2012; Ainsworth, 2011). Unfortunately, because most suicidal people are ambivalent about dying, they may make such statements either in a joking manner or in some way which is not congruent with the seriousness of the situation — and they are not taken seriously. The person hearing the statement discounts or otherwise dismisses it.
Anyone that would kill themselves is just insane
Fact: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that, while 90 per cent of people who commit suicide suffer from one or more mental disorders (including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcoholism), only an estimated 10 per cent of suicidal people are actually psychotic or possessing delusional beliefs about reality (Smith et al, 2012; Florida Office of Drug Control, 2009). Many depressed people go about their daily business quite adequately. It is important for counsellors and support people to note, however, that the absence of craziness does not mean the absence of suicide risk.
If someone is going to kill himself, nothing can stop him/her
Fact: Even the most severely depressed person has intensely conflicting feelings about dying by suicide, and most waver in indecision until the very last moment. That ambivalence is shown by the fact that the person is still in the flesh. The fact that he or she is alive right now is proof that at least part of him or her still wants to live. As we have noted, there is another part that wants not death so much as the cessation of pain. The impulse to end it all is overpowering, but it does not last forever. Your job as a mental health practitioner working with an at-risk client is to strengthen the part of the person that wants to live, by helping them to understand that suicide applies a permanent solution to what is a temporary problem; other solutions can be found.
People who commit suicide were unwilling to seek help
Fact: Studies show that over half of the people who died by suicide sought medical help in the six months before their deaths. Statistics available for the elderly show that 80 per cent of seniors who suicide visited their general practitioner (G.P.) within 30 days; 40 per cent were seen within the previous week; and 20 per cent saw their G.P. on the same day as the suicide (The Statewide Office of Suicide Prevention, 2008).
Yes, it’s true that many depressed people who contemplate ending their pain through suicide are afraid that, by trying to get help, they will bring more pain on themselves in the form of criticism (such as being told that they are stupid, selfish, sinful, or manipulative), rejection, punishment (such as suspension from school or work), or involuntary commitment. But the slender hope to find a different solution will keep many pressing ahead despite these risks. By talking to you, a suicidal person is taking a huge risk, but it is a compliment to you, too. It is a statement that, somehow, you seem to be more caring, more capable of coping with adversity, or more able to protect the person’s confidentiality than others. It is a cry for help, and it is a positive, courageous thing that the person is doing in confiding in you about their suicidal urges.
Talking about suicide may give someone the idea to do it
Fact: A suicidal person doesn’t get morbid ideas by talking about suicide; the person already has them. The opposite is true; by bringing up the question and discussing it openly, you are showing the person that you have regard for them, that you take them seriously, and that you are willing to let them share their pain with you. By asking whether the person is suicidal, you are giving them the opportunity to release pent-up and painful feelings. Any discussion will help you to determine how far along the way to completion their plans are.
The problems weren’t enough to commit suicide over
Whoa! What allows you, as mental health helper — or anyone besides the suicidal person — to judge what is “enough” to kill oneself for? Remember, it is not how bad the problem is; it is how badly it is hurting the person who has it (Ainsworth, 2011). As human beings, we all have our strengths and growing edges. It is those edges — our “Achilles heels” — that function as the weak links in our chain of problem-solving. What is a nuisance factor to one person might be an overwhelming problem for someone else.
Improvement following a suicide/attempt means that the risk is over
Fact: Most suicides occur within days or weeks of “improvement” when the individual has the energy and motivation to actually follow through with his/her suicidal thoughts (Clayton, n.d.).
- Ainsworth, M. (2011). What can I do to help someone who may be suicidal? Metanoia.org. Retrieved on 26 March, 2012 from: hyperlink.
- Clayton, J. (undated). Suicide Prevention: Saving Lives One Community at a Time. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from: hyperlink.
- Florida Office of Drug Control. (2009). Understanding & Preventing Suicide: A Customizable PowerPoint Training. Florida Office of Drug Control. Statewide Office of Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council. Retrieved on 27 March, 2012 from: hyperlink.
- Smith, M., Segal, J., & Robinson, L. (2012). Suicide prevention: Spotting the signs and helping a suicidal person. Helpguide.org. Retrieved on 26 March, 2012 from: hyperlink.
- The Statewide Office of Suicide Prevention. (2008). 2008 Annual Report. Retrieved from: hyperlink.
- World Health Organization (2004). Suicide; huge but preventable public health problem, WHO (press release).
This post was adapted from the Mental Health Academy CPD course “Suicide Risk”. The overall aims of this course are to help you offer effective professional support to those who may be at risk for suicide, by being able to: Identify warning signs that someone may be suicidal; Assess their risk of suicide, and; Identify the most effective methods of response to client suicide risk.