You hear it so many times: they knew the person was feeling troubled or upset but they never realized it was that bad, certainly not bad enough to commit suicide; it’s a shock to everyone. For most of us suicide is well outside our sphere of knowledge or understanding. When it touches lives it is almost inevitably followed by guilt. With hindsight people should have seen it coming, they can’t believe they didn’t pick up the warning signs. And there is also fear and confusion and rationalization. "Even if we’d known, what could we realistically have done to prevent it? If someone really wants to do it, they will do it. Plenty of people say they feel like checking out, but they don’t really mean it.
We shouldn’t beat ourselves up. If something is outside our experience it’s sometimes hard to accommodate the issue and suicide is a case in point. Having said that it’s worth considering that suicide claims the lives of around 40,000 Americans every year. You probably know, either directly or indirectly, of one or more suicides and I don’t just mean celebrities. I know of several. As a boy my friend’s brother took his own life and as an adult I was aware of several during my time in mental health services. As a father I helped comfort my daughter following the suicide of her friend. And I know friends and colleagues who have their own stories. So, whilst comparatively uncommon, the incidence of suicide is far from rare.
It’s true that suicides can appear to come completely out of the blue, but more often there are signs. I think we have to think of these signs along a kind of spectrum from 'no-signs' right through to 'overt signs'. Some signs are just a little too subtle to pick up on. Maybe the person drops a hint in conversation, or they just appear a bit subdued or a little tetchy. Most overt signs are out there for us to see or hear, if we're paying attention. Maybe they are an act of self-harm or maybe they are a clear statement of intent. In which case they should be taken as seriously as less overt statements.
People sometimes worry about a partner or close friend. They feel they’ve pick up a mood or perhaps some comments that trouble them, but they worry about asking. The main concern is that by asking someone if they feel suicidal they will sew a seed and perhaps encourage an attempt. It isn’t like that. If someone is in that situation they will be way ahead of your thinking. By asking ‘are you thinking about harming yourself’ or ‘are you thinking it isn’t worth carrying on’ you provide an opportunity for the person to disclose.
As a partner or family member you may already have information as to risk factors. For example a history of depression, mental illness or previous attempts are potential risk factors. Depression coupled with anxiety and panic attacks is another. Young people being bullied or at transition points in their life, such as leaving school or university. A life with chronic physical pain coupled with depression. Old age, job loss, addiction to drugs or alcohol, and even coming out of depression can all be risk factors.
Of course a risk factor is just that – a risk – not an inevitability. We need to tune into changes of mood and behavior as to how issues are affecting people in order to judge the extent of risk. Which brings me to the danger signs of suicide. There are several and every person is different. A planned suicide may well result in preparations. Maybe a will is updated. Personal possessions may be given away, or perhaps the person writes, paints or draws images that suggest despair. The content of talk is another sign. Some people may refer to the relief of leaving it all behind. Others highlight their sense of failure and worthlessness and focus on the negatives.
Young people are vulnerable to suicide. Parent support groups of youngsters who have taken their own lives reveal a common thread. These young people are often a little too mature for their age. They are responsible, caring and sensitive but they often see the world in black and white terms and are therefore vulnerable to what they see as injustice or insensitivity.
We can only do what we think is best. Even if your attempts don’t prevent a suicide there is some perhaps some comfort to be had from knowing you tried.
Published On: November 20, 2014