Victims of abuse are at higher risk.
We can’t prevent suicide if we don’t talk about it. So, let’s have an honest conversation about the fact that those of us who have experienced the pain of being abandoned, abused, neglected, sold, or treated in anyway that made us feel unloved and unworthy of love, are at a much higher risk of suicide.
According to Dr. Daniel J. Pilowsky of Mailman School of Public Health, adolescents involved with foster care are about four times more likely to have attempted suicide than adolescents never placed in foster care. This probably comes as no great surprise to anyone who has ever been in foster care.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5 to 15-year-olds in the general population. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “teenagers experience strong feelings of stress, confusion, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, and other fears.” If teens in the general population experience those feelings, imagine the exponential magnification of those feelings by the factors of abandonment, neglect, and abuse that preceded time in the foster care system—a system of living with strangers (hopefully well-meaning, but strangers, nevertheless).
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that every 40 seconds someone commits suicide in the US. This is a national tragedy, which is particularly poignant because it’s often foreseeable and preventable.
Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders. The challenge is that many current and former foster kids don’t seek help. This unwillingness to talk about depression and suicidal thoughts can be rooted in various issues including, but not limited to, being unaware that no or low-cost services are available and accessible, an inherent feeling of hopelessness that there is anything that can make life any better, a feeling of being unworthy of receiving help, or the stigma and shame that can accompany thoughts of suicide.
Many of us have been touched by suicide. This is, in fact, one of the factors that increases our risk of suicide. Once someone in our life has taken their life that person’s action becomes an option in the back of our minds should the pain simply get beyond what we can bear. For people who had a parent who suicided when the person was young, there can be an additional underlying sense that it is their destiny to repeat that tragic family history. In addition to childhood abuse and knowing someone who suicided, other risk factors include previous suicide attempts, family history of mental health conditions, mental health diagnosis, and substance abuse.
Know the signs
There are many signs that a person may be contemplating taking his or her own life. The more signs you identify, the higher the risk is that the person will actually attempt suicide.
The top three signs are:
- Threatening to hurt or kill oneself
- Looking for ways to suicide, including seeking pills, weapons, or other means
- Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide WON’T MAKE IT GO AWAY
A person who is actively planning suicide may:
- speak of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside
- give verbal hints like, “I won’t be a problem for you much longer, Nothing matters, It’s no use, and I won’t see you again.”
- put his or her affairs in order, for example, give away favorite possessions, clean his or her room, throw away important belongings, etc.
- become suddenly better after a period of depression—often because the decision has been made
- have hallucinations or bizarre thoughts
Some of the many other warning signs can include:
- Rage, anger, seeking revenge
- Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities
- Feeling trapped as though there’s no way out
- Increasing alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawing from social interaction
- Anxiety and agitation
- Unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
- Dramatic changes in mood
- No reason for living or sense of purpose for life
- Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Mental health condition (risk increases exponentially with multiple diagnosis)
- Change in eating or sleeping habits
- Stressful life event
- Prolonged stress
- Experiencing seemingly unbearable emotional distress
- Serious or chronic health problems
- Chronic pain
- Head injury
- Reactions that are out of proportion to the situation
- Persistent boredom
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, etc.
Things to do
Take every reference to suicide seriously, even those made in a seemingly joking way.
Ask the person directly if he or she is considering suicide. The experts say that you will not drive a person to consider suicide if they are not contemplating it. But if the person is thinking about it, asking the direct question gives the person permission to have an honest conversation. That freedom, in itself, may relieve some of the pressure the person may be feeling. If you’re uncomfortable asking the question, you may consider saying something like, “if what you have been through happened to me, I’d probably feel hurt and angry. I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt like ending your life.”
Mental health treatment can prevent suicide. The first thing to do when you believe that someone is in imminent risk of suicide is to help the high risk person get appropriate mental health treatment. A good therapist gives the person a safe space to express his or her thoughts and feelings accompanied by non-rejecting and non-judgmental responses. Although the person may resist by saying they’ve tried it before and it didn’t help or there’s nothing anyone can do or say to make their situation any better, do not give up. Explain that every therapist is a different person with a unique perspective, and cannot be dismissed until having been given a fair chance.
Don’t leave the person alone. If you have to go, take the person with you or find someone else to stay with the person, but do not leave him or her alone. Doing so, would give the person the space to commit the act. Sometimes it helps to simply put some distance between the person and the opportunity to end his or her life. For example, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that medication packaged in individual “blister” packaging is helping in avoiding suicide attempts in that it slows the person down to popping one pill out of the packaging at a time rather than giving him or her the possibility of ingesting an entire bottle of pills.
Make a contract with the person. For example, say something like, “please promise me that you won’t try to take your life before talking to a therapist or seeing your doctor.” In one case, a therapist who specialized in treating patients with suicidal ideation told of a patient who had called into a suicide prevention hotline. In the course of conversation, the patient mentioned having a big-screen TV. When the hotline operator had tried all she knew to try seemingly to no avail, she simply said, “If you do decide to take your life, may I have your TV?” The result was that the caller’s emotions were redirected away from self-harm toward anger toward the operator and a desire to live to keep his TV in his possession.
Know what NOT to say
Never dismiss or minimize the person’s feelings as absurd or ridiculous. For example, don’t say, “That’s crazy, you’re just overreacting. Your situation not that bad.”
Never tell someone that they should not feel a certain way. In fact, you may want to eliminate “should feel” from your speech. For example, don’t say things like, “you shouldn’t feel sad. Lots of people have it worse than you do.”
Depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and myriad other mental and physical conditions are treatable. It’s important to look at mental health challenges the same way that we would look at physical health challenges. People get sick with a cold or the flu, etc., they seek treatment, and they get over it. Other people deal with chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, which aren’t easily dismissed with treatment. Still, they are easily treated with medication, dietary change, and exercise so that the person can face life with a hopeful attitude and a sense of purpose.
The same is true for mental health issues. There are those bouts of depression, etc., like those caused by a tragedy, a loss, or some other sudden, dramatic change, which can be treated and recovered from by creating a new normal and moving toward it. Then there are those chronic conditions that must be treated on an ongoing basis like bi-polar, schizophrenia, etc. Like chronic physical conditions, chronic mental conditions can be managed with medication, a healthy diet, plenty of fresh water, regular sleep routines, exercise, and talk therapy. Just like there is no shame in seeing a doctor and taking medicine for diabetes, there is no shame in seeing a mental health professional, taking medicine, and making other changes to best manage a mental health condition.
If you or someone you know are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1800-273 TALK (8255). For additional information, go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org. Know that you or your friend are not alone. Many people have considered ending their lives. The thought is more common than most people would imagine. Yet most people aren’t comfortable in discussing it. Let’s use this blog to start a dialogue with those in our lives who had a rough childhood or who have gone through traumatic loss. Sometimes the person considering suicide needs only to know that someone cares.
Rhonda Sciortino, author of Successful Survivors and the 8 character traits of survivors and how you can attain them, used the coping skills from an abusive childhood to achieve real success which she measures by good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial prosperity. Through her writing, speaking, and media appearances, she shares how others can use the obstacles in their lives as stepping stones to their real success.