September is suicide awareness month so I could not let this month pass without discussing such an important topic that has greatly affected my life. In some parts of society, mental health is still a taboo and unspoken topic while in others mental health has become trendy. Earlier this year, the suicides of well-known people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought suicide into more conversations. However, are such broadcasted events also normalizing and possibly glorifying a perceived negative behavior or tragedy. After Kate Spade’s death, it was reported that the US Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) experienced a 25% increase in calls. It was unclear if these calls were attempts, thoughts or otherwise but the clear increase cannot be ignored.
In 1987, Charles Thomas published Suicide as a Learned Behavior, presenting through social learning theory that society teaches us that suicide is an available response to stress. What are we teaching the younger generations during our discussions surrounding suicide? It has been reported that such high-profile suicides cause an international “contagion” effect. According to the CDC, between 1999-2016, suicide rates rose an overall 25%. This approximates that 16 of every 100,000 Americans will chose to end their life’s. In 2016 alone, almost 45,000 Americans committed suicide. In Michigan, there was a 30-40% increase, and there were 8 states with an over 40% increase. There is no clear answer or cause to these alarming rates; however, the CDC reports major contributors being money problems and relationship issues.
The negative stigma towards mental health, in this country, is very real. To put that into perspective; as of this year (2018) only 10 states….t e n…require suicide prevention training for health professionals. As a mental health professional, I find that statistic to be alarming as well as unacceptable! This leads me to believe that if professionals are not trained to handle suicidal ideations, intentions or attempts, then the average person is probably even more clueless!
There have been numerous times that I have had a friend or family member has disclosed, to me, their suicidal ideations and attempts. If I have been in this situation, it is likely that many of you have been as well. I hope by the time you are done with this post, that you are better equipped with appropriate resources should you or someone you know ever be in need. More than anything, I want to encourage everyone reading this to engage in supportive and non-judgmental conversations with your loved ones about your and their current states of mental health. Ask people how they’re feeling or what have they been thinking about, make a genuine inquiry about their wellbeing.
Black women, tend to have the lowest rates of suicide, but what about Black men? Alarmingly, Black men have been taking their own lives at much higher rates in recent years. One study found that between 2001 and 2010, the age range with the highest incident rate is surprisingly those from 25-34 years old. Why are young men, in the prime of their lives committing suicide at an alarming rate of 16.43 per 100k? Black men, talk to each other please. You are our fathers, brothers, husbands, etc. and we need you. I love you Black men!
Within the Black community, we can longer be naïve enough to think that suicide is “just a white people problem”. In reality, compared to national rates regarding suicidal thoughts, plans, attempts and related treatments, these rates for Black people are congruent with the national rates. It is important to acknowledge that there are many ethnicities within the Black race and there is research investigating such nuances.
So, what can you do if someone you know is having suicidal thoughts? Let me start by saying there is only so much you can do and that you are only responsible for yourself. If you know this person is in the process of actually following through with committing suicide, you should immediately call for emergency personnel; while doing so please stay with/or the phone with the person-try not to leave them alone! However, if the person is having thoughts or fantasies, you can certainly be a supportive listener or you could refer them to get services such as suicide hotlines, online therapist or going to speak to someone in person. When I say supportive listener, I would hope that you are not supporting their plans to do harm. However, normalizing their feelings, showing empathy and not judging or critiquing, are more beneficial. Again, the most helpful thing you can do if someone confides in you with thoughts of ending their life is to get them professional help! I like to end the conversation with a reminder of love, reasons to live and a promise to follow up with them very soon, maybe in a few hours, maybe in the morning.
Protective factors are characteristics that reduce the likelihood of poor mental health or strengths that help people maintain positive mental health and resilience. What are some protective factors that researchers have been able to identify? First, effective mental health services. I cannot stress the importance of getting help! You do not have to be “crazy” to seek services. A lot of people do not have a friend or loved one like me to talk to, so they would likely need to look for a therapist/counselor in their area or online. Another factor is having a strong connection to others; loved ones, community members and/or social involvements. Notice it is connection, not simply attendance. Get to know the people in your social circles and create genuine bonds if the vibe is real. Lastly, having efficient problem-solving skills is another strength and protective factor. This relates heavily to how you respond to stressful situations. People that quickly succumb to pressure likely lack critical thinking to figure a way out, or cannot get past the stress to begin figuring things out. Among Black people, some of the most valued protective factors identified included participation in organized religion, connection to their Black identity and heritage, as well as having emotional and social support.
However, there are also risk factors for suicide. These are things that might cause someone to be even more likely to follow through with possible thoughts of self-harm. A few of the most significant risk factors include prior suicide attempts, alcohol and drug (ab)use, mood and anxiety disorders as well as having access to lethal objects or ways to commit lethal harm. If someone you know has been having suicidal thoughts as well as any of those risk factors, you may want to check in on them. It may be intrusive, but asking uncomfortable questions could lead to the help someone needs or the motivation to get help. If you do not feel up to having such a conversation, be prepared with resources you can give your loved one. You could even help them by going with them or dialing the number for them. We know that Black people are less likely to seek or receive mental health or psychiatric services. We also know that such services are necessary. It’s okay to get help, we all need it. Sending love to everyone reading this!
Below are a few free + confidential resources. There are hotlines, chat lines, text options. You have no excuse to not get help!
National Suicide hotlines
text HOME to 741741 for free crisis support
Visit TalkSpace if you would like to try text or video chat counseling services