What Everyone Gets Wrong About Suicide
You might have an image in your mind of the type of person who's at risk for suicide—here's why that image is probably completely inaccurate.
As someone who has contemplated suicide myself, it has always amazed me how little people truly understand about depression, mental health, and suicidal behavior. This is even more surprising when you stop to consider that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 48,000 people died by suicide in 2018—and numbers are on the rise.
We asked mental health professionals to help set the record straight about what suicide is and isn’t, what a suicidal person might be going through, and the best way to approach them.
Assumption: If a person is determined to end their life, there is nothing you can do
Why that’s wrong: Some people think that suicidal people can reach a stage where they’re “too far gone.” Not true. “Because suicide is such a drastic step and goes against our fundamental urge toward self-preservation, most suicidal people are not 100 percent sure of themselves,” says psychiatrist Adam Rosenblatt, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Havre De Grace, Maryland. “Part of them wants to die and part of them believes there may be hope, or wants to go on living, or at least realizes the terrible consequences for their friends and family if they were to kill themselves. That is the part we are trying to reach.”
Really, what they are looking for in suicide is a way out—a way to stop feeling such immense pain. It is never too late to extend your hand and help them find a safer solution. (Here are 12 ways to help someone with depression.)
Assumption: Asking a suicidal person to talk about it will just push them over the edge
Why that’s wrong: Suicide is a very sensitive subject, so it’s natural to be afraid that something you say may only make matters worse. In reality, the opposite is true. “They may actually be grateful to have an opportunity to confess this to a helpful person,” says Dr. Rosenblatt. “The best way to find out if someone is having suicidal thoughts is to ask. Just come out and say something like, ‘I’ve been very worried about you. You seem so despondent. I don’t want anything to happen to you. I need to ask if you have been having any thoughts that life is not worth living, or even thoughts of hurting herself? I want to help you feel better.'”
Someone who is suicidal is likely waiting and hoping for someone to reach out to them. (See how one man successfully talked a stranger out of ending his life.)
Assumption: A person who is talking about suicide just wants attention
Why that’s wrong: This is a dangerous assumption because it often leads to inappropriate actions, such as insulting or ridiculing a person who is genuinely suicidal. It also invalidates that person’s feelings, as if they don’t count. But if someone is showing signs of depression or even suicidal thoughts, then it’s because he or she needs attention and medical and emotional support.
Jeff Nalin, PsyD, clinical psychologist and founder and executive director at Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center, notes, “Ignoring the red flags is dangerous because most of the time, those who completed suicide had, in fact, mentioned their plans or feelings to someone beforehand.”
Assumption: Suicide is wrong because it is selfish
Why that’s wrong: “Selfishness” is one of the biggest misconceptions about suicide. Parents, especially, are considered selfish if they threaten to end their own lives because they’d be leaving their children behind. Here’s why that doesn’t ring true: “During this time, rational thought is elusive,” says Dr. Nalin. “Suicidal individuals genuinely believe that their loved ones will be better off without them. Reacting to expressions of suicide with an angry or dismissive attitude will only encourage people in need of help to keep their feelings to themselves.”
Assumption: Someone who is self-harming is suicidal
Why that’s wrong: Self-harm is, by definition, not a suicidal act, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). Self-harm is a type of coping mechanism people use to deal with extraordinary emotional pain because they don’t know what else to do. It is about creating the illusion of control, or a form of shame or self-punishment. I speak from first-hand experience, as self-harm is something I grappled with for almost a decade. This isn’t to say, though, that self-harm should not be taken seriously. Left alone, a person who practices self-harm could eventually become suicidal.
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Assumption: If someone is suicidal, it will be obvious
Why that’s wrong: A relative told me once about a woman at her workplace who always appeared anxious and depressed. One day, this woman came into work and seemed much more even-keeled and relaxed than usual. Her demeanor had completely changed. “Maybe things are starting to get better,” my relative thought. Later that morning, the woman took her own life. The staff was shocked. She had seemed to be better. But the truth is, suicidal people can be skilled at hiding their true intentions. “While the signs aren’t always obvious,” Dr. Nalin says, “the facts show that eight out of 10 people who died by suicide had provided clues and warning signs.” (Take a look at these 13 suicide warning signs you might miss.)
Assumption: Only certain types of people die by suicide
Why that’s wrong: Suicide doesn’t only happen to people of a certain class, age range, gender, or race. “Suicide doesn’t discriminate,” Dr. Nalin says. “It affects any race, gender, and socioeconomic status, which is why it’s important for individuals to understand the far-reaching effects of suicide and realize that no one is immune.” (Watch for the common words and phrases that suggest someone is depressed.)
Assumption: If someone close to you ends their life, it could be your fault
Why that’s wrong: There are many complex factors that go into the decision to end one’s life. Maybe you did a lot to help your friend. Maybe you could have done more. But the one thing that is certain is that there is no single person who is solely responsible for someone else’s suicide. In the end, it is that person’s decision.
Assumption: Suicidal thoughts are the same as suicidal actions
Why that’s wrong: If someone is brave enough to voice suicidal thoughts, that is actually a good indicator that he or she wants to avoid suicide. Think about it: If a person really wanted to die, they might not talk about it. “Most people who end their life do not truly want to die,” Dr. Nalin says. “A fine line exists between the expressed pain and the actual motivation to complete the act. But with the right support and options,” he adds, “suicidal people can see that they can access real solutions and coping mechanisms to help them heal and uncover a life worth living.”
Assumption: You can’t help someone who is suicidal if you’ve never felt that way yourself
Why that’s wrong: While it is true that it is harder to empathize with a person when you haven’t ever felt similar thoughts, it doesn’t mean that you are incapable of helping. You can’t say you know what it feels like, but you can say that you’re there to listen and to try. You can help give the suicidal person the courage to seek professional help. Speaking from personal experience, just having someone say “I’m here for you” is a huge relief. Next, read on for more myths about mental health that need to be set straight.
If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.