September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness month, and it is crucial for us all to be aware of the signs and myths of suicide so that we can identify friends or family who may be at risk or when to ask for help ourselves. Suicide is a tragedy. It is devastating to family, friends, loved ones and the caregivers who are left behind. Sadly, too many, if not most of us, have experienced the impacts of suicide either directly or indirectly.
Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2020, 45,979 Americans died by suicide, and there were an estimated 1.20 million suicide attempts. On average, there are 130 suicides a day in the US. Globally, it accounts for 1.5 percent of all deaths and is the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds.
When someone dies by suicide, many often ask, “Why would they do this?” “Isn’t that a selfish way to handle their problems?” “Why didn’t they just get over what was bothering them?” It is difficult for those who have never experienced suicidal ideation or a suicide attempt to understand why people consider taking their own lives.
There is no singular reason why individuals would choose to die by their own hands. Many factors interact in complicated ways that culminate in death by suicide. Research into the causes of suicide suggests that one salient belief that individuals who die by suicide have is that they have no other way to end the pain they are currently experiencing. Even though there may be less lethal ways to end their pain, they have reached a state of being overwhelmed, which results in tunnel vision that hinders their ability to see other alternatives.
Individuals who have become suicidal exhibit increased isolation, believing they have become a burden to others and an acquired belief that they are capable of killing themselves. With swift attention and support, individuals who have become suicidal can be provided the help they need to overcome this particular struggle and develop healthy ways to manage and cope with their pain, stress, and emotional turmoil.
Suicide is not a choice of life or death. It is a struggle to not be consumed by darkness and a longing for the end of pain.
Understanding the Myths about Suicide
MYTH: Those who talk about suicide are not at risk of suicide.
FACT: Many mistakenly believe that those who wish to end their life will not tell anyone. In reality, the motives for suicide are complex and suicidal urges and thoughts may increase and decrease over time. The fluctuations in suicidal urges and thoughts can occur frequently and rapidly due to various factors. Those who talk about suicide may be reaching out for help, and even if they are not at imminent risk of suicide at that moment, they might become acutely suicidal a short time later. Any mention of suicide needs to be taken seriously.
MYTH: All suicidal people are depressed or mentally ill.
FACT: While it is true that most of those who die by suicide are depressed or have another mental health diagnosis, mental illness is not a prerequisite for suicide. Even when mental illness is one of the multiple factors that contribute to suicidal behaviors, it is not sufficient by itself to explain why a person is having thoughts of suicide or why someone has died by suicide. Further, international research into the causes of suicide by country shows a varying degree of association between suicide and mental illness, suggesting that in some countries, mental illness is not as commonly associated with suicidality as in other countries.
MYTH: Suicide occurs without warning.
FACT: Although there are identifiable warning signs for suicide (i.e., giving away one’s possessions and getting one’s affairs in order), they are often difficult to spot. Further, it’s often in hindsight when these warning signs are much more apparent and easy to see. While increasing awareness of warning signs and being proactive in identifying those at increased risk have been shown to dramatically reduce suicide rates and save lives, research reveals that health providers, including mental health providers and medical doctors, are no better than chance at predicting suicide. Regardless, there are warning signs that need to be taken seriously (see below for more information).
MYTH: Asking about suicide ‘plants’ the idea in someone’s head.
FACT: There is no evidence to suggest that asking someone if they are having thoughts of suicide will plant the idea in their head. In fact, the opposite is more likely. Research indicates that asking about suicide does not increase thoughts of suicide and actually reduces suicidal thinking.
MYTH: Suicidal people clearly want to die.
FACT: In short, suicidal people do not want to die. The most common identifiable thought pattern in those experiencing suicidal thoughts is ambivalence. The majority of people who are suicidal cycle between wanting to live and wanting to die.
MYTH: Suicidal behavior is motivated by attention-seeking.
FACT: Unfortunately, many who have made a suicide attempt and survived are judged to be attention-seeking. It is wrongly believed that they would have succeeded if they had been serious about killing themselves. Those who are suicidal are not attention-seeking; they are in need of attention. Every act or behavior that results in self-harm but not death is worthy of a compassionate response and should be taken seriously.
MYTH: Improvement in an emotional state means the risk for suicide is less.
FACT: Tragically, many friends and family members have lost loved ones to suicide after they had shown improvement in mood in the days leading up to their death. It appears that many who die by suicide were initially depressed and overwhelmed with pain and therefore did not have the energy or motivation to develop or carry out a suicide plan. However, as their emotions improved, energy and motivation returned, giving them the ability to plan and carry out a suicide plan.
MYTH: Thinking about suicide is rare.
FACT: Sadly, this statement is false. Research shows that a high percentage of adults report having had suicidal thoughts at some time in their life. Research shows that 20 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 have thought of taking their own life at some point in their life.
Suicidal Warning Signs to Remember
Warning signs that a loved one might be depressed and/or suicidal include:
- Talking about wanting to die.
- Discussing tremendous guilt or shame.
- Expressing that they feel like they are a burden to others.
- Engaging in self-harming behaviors, such as cutting.
- Distancing themselves emotionally from loved ones.
- A loss of interest in activities that once brought them joy, such as playing sports, participating in hobbies, and spending time with friends.
- Unpredictable changes in eating or sleeping habits often accompanied by neglecting personal hygiene.
- Displaying extreme mood swings.
- Making a plan or researching ways to die.
- Taking dangerous risks, such as driving extremely fast or engaging in unhealthy habits such as drug or alcohol use.
- A decline in school or work performance.
- Buying a gun or weapon.
- Asking questions associated with death and/or suicide.
- Giving away prized belongings.
If you or someone you know is exhibiting these warning signs, please get help as soon as possible.
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org for immediate assistance. The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.
Veterans Crisis Line
Call 988, then Press 1
In case of Emergency
Call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.