Friday, August 24, 2012

Myths about Suicide

So, I'm going to be taking part in the annual Out of the Darkness walk to support the American Society for Suicide Prevention in about a month's time. Suicide is an issue close to my heart, both personally and professionally. There's a good body of research on the subject, yet many myths persist--not only among the general public, but among health professionals (and even mental health professionals) who should know better. Following are those I've heard most often.

1. A person who talks about feeling suicidal isn't likely to actually commit suicide--ie, "If they talk about it, they won't really do it." I'm really not certain where this one got started, though I guess it might have something to do with the idea that talking about suicide is just 'blowing off steam,' or a manipulative gesture to get attention. Regardless, imagine applying this line of reasoning to something more mundane: for instance, imagine saying, "Someone who talks about wanting an ice cream cone isn't likely to actually go to Ben and Jerry's." That's pretty obviously BS, right? The same goes for discussions of suicidality. Any communication of suicidal feelings, thoughts or intent deserves to be taken seriously.

2. Don't bring up the topic of suicide with someone who's depressed--you don't want to give them the idea. Speaking as someone who's been there, if a person is severely depressed, there's a damn good chance the idea has occurred to them already. I've yet to meet a depressed person who, when asked about suicidality, replied: "Holy shit, you mean you can kill yourself? Like, that's a thing?" If you're worried that someone is thinking of hurting themselves, ask. Better to ask and get an answer--even if the answer is yes, and even if it's painful to hear--than to miss a chance to help someone who needs it.

3. Once someone decides to kill themselves, there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Suicide is preventable. The majority of people who commit suicide are suffering from a psychiatric illness. Hospitalization to stabilize the acute crisis and ongoing psychiatric care to adequately treat the underlying illness can almost always resolve the suicidal feelings. In other words, once suicidal does not mean always suicidal.

4. Only older white men (or the poor, or teenagers, or whomever) commit suicide. While there are some groups at higher risk for suicide than others, every race, gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity and sexual orientation is touched by suicide. Saying things like "young women don't kill themselves" is not only stupid, it's dangerous.

5. Most suicides occur without any warning. There's no way to anticipate or prevent them. No to the first assertion and no to the second as well. The majority of suicidal people DO offer clues to their intentions, though they may be subtle. For instance, a patient in a deep depression may suddenly appear to feel better despite not having had adequate treatment--the sense of peace may have come as a result of the decision to commit suicide. A depressed friend may start giving you her prized possessions, saying she doesn't need them anymore. A family member may say, "You won't have to be bothered with me much longer." Again--going back to myth #2--if someone makes statements like this and you're concerned they may be harboring suicidal thoughts, ASK and EXPRESS YOUR CONCERN.

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