September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

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“The only person who could answer that question is not here. And even if he were, I’m not sure he’d be able to tell you.”

I’m preempting your question. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I want to talk a bit about suicide. I know from experience that most of you want to ask me, “Do you have any idea why?”

You have my answer.

How could there possibly be one simple answer versus multiple answers (stresses), accumulating and combining with various risk factors into a complex web of mental health challenges?

The lost loved one, no matter his or her age, lived a varied, complex life. This one moment does not define the person. This one action should not be the only or final memory you retain of my loved one.

We’re curious about why but in a very narrow, after-the-fact and pointless way.

If someone states that he or she wants to die, what is your response?

This is the time to be inquisitive, to be empathetic, to listen and focus on being completely non-judgmental — difficult but valuable skills to hone.

Don’t laugh it off. Don’t ignore. Don’t move on. Recognize it. Pursue it. Would you ignore or laugh off someone experiencing heart attack symptoms?

Mindspring Mental Health Alliance (formerly NAMI Greater Des Moines) provides credit-card-sized cards addressing “Suicide Warning Signs” and “Is Someone at Risk for Suicide?” Below is the REACT model and warning signs shared by Mindspring.

REACT: Recognize the signs, Express concern, Ask the question, Care enough to keep the person safe, Text or call a number.

Recognize the signs of emotional suffering. Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself.  Suicide warning signs include buying a gun, searching methods online, talking about feeling hopeless or trapped, talking about being a burden to others, drinking or taking drugs, being reckless, sleeping too much or not enough, withdrawing, demonstrating changes in personality or poor work performance, changed relationships and giving possessions away.

Be aware that “risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased and if it seems related to a painful event, loss or change.”

Express concern, offer support and listen non-judgmentally. Don’t tell the person how to feel. Be present. Sit with the person. Truly hear.

Ask the question directly — in private — and remain calm.

  • “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
  • “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
  • If the answer is, “Yes,” ask:
    • “Have you decided how you are going to kill yourself?”
    • “Have you decided when you would do it?”
    • “Have you collected the things you need to carry out your plan?”

Asking directly won’t put the idea into the person’s head. Start the conversation. Listen.

Don’t minimize what the person is telling you. It’s obviously a big deal to the person — saying it’s not a big deal isn’t helpful. Don’t give advice.

Keep the person away from drugs, alcohol, firearms or other items that could be used to conduct the plan.

Care enough to keep the person safe. Don’t leave the person alone. Don’t use guilt or threats to try to prevent suicide.

Acknowledge the person’s feelings. Take the person and what is being said seriously.

Tell the person you care and want to help. Let the person know that her/his life matters to you.

Share that you’ve found that talking helps and you’re there to listen and support him/her.
Convey that struggling with life’s challenges is normal. The world and navigating through it are complex and painful.

Text or call a number for support. Get help. The Suicide Prevention website offers a lifeline chat, or you may call 1-800-273-8255. You can also call 911 for transportation to professional help.

Stay with the person.

If you’ve talked to a therapist in the past and it’s helped you — share that with the person.
Ensure that the person knows you’re a safe person to talk with, and remind him/her that a professional can be tremendously helpful in getting through this. Acknowledge that having these feelings now doesn’t mean that the person will always have them.

Thank the person for sharing such personal thoughts with you. Let the person know that you valued the conversation and the trust put in you.

Follow up with the person after the crisis has passed to ask how she/he is doing.

If you are the person struggling, please reach out. We humans can be stupid, unaware and clueless. Please reach out to friends or family, your therapist, call a crisis/prevention number, text, live chat, call 911 or go to an emergency room for help.

It may be hard to recognize it while in the storm, but it’s temporary. You’re not alone. Others care even if we can have periods of not showing it as well as we should. Help is available. Your challenges are real, but with support, positive solutions can be found.

Commit to a plan that you’ll activate if you’re having suicide ideation — steps in place to reach out for help. It could be calling 1-800-273-8255 or going to an emergency room — whatever your agreed upon plan is with your loved ones.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that “if someone can get through the intense, and short, moment of active suicidal crisis, chances are they will not die by suicide.” And “most people who survive a suicide attempt (85% to 95%) go on to engage in life.”

Below are some resources available both nationally and across Iowa—you’re not alone:

  • If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or call 911 immediately. Lifeline chat is available at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access a trained counselor from the Crisis Text Line.
  • All Iowans may call the crisis line phone number 855-581-8111, access live chat at the YourLifeIowa website, or text a message to 855-895-8398.

If you would like to purchase Mindspring Crisis cards for your family, friends, neighbors, fellow employees, clients or others, please visit the website. In the center-lower portion of the homepage, there is a link to the three crisis cards – Do’s and Don’ts in a Mental Health Crisis, Suicide Prevention and Compassionate Communication.

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