The news of two incredibly talented people’s recent passing due to suicide really struck a cord with me. Not because I knew them or because I’m in awe that people unfortunately die from suicide, but rather because as a therapist it’s something I come across so often. I suppose the shock came because I’ve isolated my work and clients so much from the rest of the world, as if they are not really part of it. Sounds crazy, right? I don’t mean this in a negative way but I think I often have attempted to separate some of the hard realities of the world from my escape into entertainment, fashion and design. I’ve always looked at designers like Kate Spade and cultural investigators like Anthony Bourdain as almost above human, like they almost exist to me in some fantasy world free from pain. I know that isn’t true, but I suppose it's hard sometimes to believe it, even for me as a therapist. I am unfortunately very familiar with this topic. It’s perhaps the one of the most challenging parts of my job, if not the most anxiety producing. Suicide is an inevitable theme as a therapist as it’s much more common than most people would assume. A lot of that is because suicide has for a long time been very shamed and misunderstood in our society. As a beginning therapist I really didn’t think it was possible for so many people to have had these thoughts of dying at least once in their lives. I quickly realized that suicide is often the last resort, a negative coping mechanism people turn to. It's an attempt to escape the feeling of being overwhelmed and out of options. And if you learn one thing from reading this post, it's that people want to end their pain first and foremost, not necessarily their life. 

A few common misconceptions about suicide worth mentioning:

No. 1: Suicide is the most selfish thing you can do...

I hear this so often and on some level I understand why people feel this way. I know it’s coming from a place of being hurt and possibly feeling betrayed. But I would like to offer another idea. What if someone’s pain becomes bigger than what they can control. What if the pain becomes unbearable? I by no means support people committing suicide but I have enough empathy to understand that it’s the pain people are trying to get rid of and the impact that pain has on their ability to maintain their relationships, responsibilities and their perception of their stressors.

No. 2: They just want attention...

Yes, perhaps they do. And perhaps they really need it. Suicide tends to be what most people consider a last resort option and that means that the other things they have tried to do to remedy the pain just aren’t working. Perhaps instead of shaming the need for attention we view it as a brave attempt at asking for help. Let’s praise the people who “act out” for acknowledging that some struggles are better won with the support of a friend, family member, classmate, neighbor, or therapist.

No. 3: But won’t talking about it just make it worse?

This is actually not true. Talking about the problems and pain a person feels is actually one of the most effective tools in suicide prevention. Often developing a solid rapport with someone who they feel will listen and have empathy is the most powerful thing. I’ve had so many clients tell me they feel there is nobody who can understand, nobody who cares about them and creating a safe place to explore their thoughts is often very clarifying for someone struggling with these thoughts. In every suicide case I see, I always create a safety plan that includes another safe person the client feels comfortable with, who can know about the plan and be able to ask some basic questions and offer support when I’m not there. Being able to ask about it can help save lives and will not make a person more likely to do it, which is a common misconception. 

No. 4: Having suicidal thoughts means people will kill themselves...

Having these thoughts are much more common and widespread than we tend to want to realize. But having the thoughts is not necessarily an indicator that someone is likely to attempt ending their life. It’s honestly a great opportunity to explore help. Being able to process the thoughts without shame will often help reduce the chance a person acts on them. I have known many clients who have thoughts but have never created an actual plan or had intent to carry it out. Most of the time people already have other thoughts that will likely prevent them taking the next step and creating a plan and they can be very helpful for people to utilize in a safety plan. Acknowledging the thoughts is a big step and an indicator someone could really benefit from mental health services. 

No. 5: People who cut/self-harm are trying to commit suicide...

Yes, some people do cut themselves or self-harm (via burning, scrapping, scratching, hitting themselves) with an intent to die, however, that is not typically the case. Most people, kids/teens typically, self-harm to release pain without the intent of dying. Often it's a way to turn emotional feelings into physical ones, so it's tangible and thus more manigable for them. Sometimes it's more normalized to manage a physical wound than withstand extremely sad feelings. I tend to identify it as an unsafe self-soothing mechanism. Similar to other painful experiences like massages, cracking knuckles and intense exercise, but are safe. I often tell parents that pain can feel good sometimes. Obviously, cutting yourself is not the same as stretching your legs but rather a more extreme version in the same vain.  

What to do

The point of this post is to help educate about suicide in the hopes that as our society becomes more knowledgeable we will hopefully recognize and address the problem in a more empathetic way. People who struggle with suicide want to end the pain, not their lives and need help. Most insurance plans offer mental health services and so if it’s available to you or a loved one, that’s a good place to start. In more emergent situations, call the suicide prevention hotline, this is the national number in the United States, 1-800-273-8255, however, most cities and states will also have a local one too. There are also specific resources for teens, a national hotline in the United States 310-855-4673 or via text 839863. There are also resources for LGBTQ youth 1-866-488-7386. If someone has a plan to hurt themselves or already has started, call 911 immediately.

As a therapist, I am not expected to stop a client from committing suicide, but I am expected to help manage it. And you as a friend, family member, teacher, co-worker, or partner are also not responsible for stopping someone from hurting themselves, but you do have an opportunity. Something as simple as asking them if they are okay or having thoughts about hurting themselves is one of the most effective ways of showing support. Remember that people don’t necessarily want to end their lives when they have thoughts of suicide, but rather end the pain they are in. Being open minded and having compassion, even if you don’t fully understand, could save a life! 

"We carry these things inside us, 
that no one else can see. 
They hold us down like anchors, 
they drown us out at sea."

 -Chelsea Smile by Bring Me the Horizon


1 comment

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