Content Warning: This article discusses suicide but we believe difficult conversations around how best to discuss mental health in respectful and non-stigmatizing ways is important. If you are in a life threatening situation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline +1 (800) 273-8255, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or use these resources to get immediate help.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and, this year, it’s more important than ever to break stigma and share resources. Because of COVID-19, researchers around the world have raised a red flag for increased mental health challenges influenced by social isolation, uncertainty about the future, unemployment, and barriers to healthcare. In addition to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more prevalent feelings of suicidal ideation in the U.S.
Specifically, the study found that one in four young adults (aged 18-24) had seriously considered suicide in June 2020. Essential workers, unpaid adult caretakers, and BIPOC-identifying people also had higher percentages of suicidal ideation than the general population. One hypothesis is that this increase might be caused by intense feelings of responsibility mixed with a lack of control over our lives. You have to make things work, but everything feels like it’s working against you. Where you once had hope for opportunity, there’s now more restrictions or obstacles. Additionally, factors such as financial instability, lack of social support, and exposure to various forms of abuse play a significant role in suicidal thoughts and ideation.
If you’ve had suicidal ideation during months of lockdown, this CDC research is an important reminder that you’re not alone. There are many people who understand what it feels like to have suicidal ideation and, importantly, there is help and support available.
For those needing emergency assistance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends calling 911 immediately. When struggling with suicidal thoughts or distress, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255). Anyone who is uncomfortable talking on the phone can text “NAMI” to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line. Help is available, and you deserve the support you need to get through difficult thoughts and feelings.
If you’re close to someone suffering from suicidal ideation, NAMI says that speaking bluntly about suicide will more often heal rather than hurt. It is a misconception that talking about suicide will make someone more likely to feel suicidal. Instead, it can provide relief that there’s a safe space and non-judgmental person to discuss the topic. If the person you’re supporting doesn’t feel suicidal, speaking about suicide often has the positive effect of reinforcing that things are not as dire as one may consider them.
Overall, we need to take away the shame and break through secrecy that can lead to serious suicide attempts. We need to openly ask ourselves and each other. It’s perfectly acceptable to say the words: “Have you ever thought of harming yourself or trying to take your own life?” A straightforward question asked with empathetic curiosity, and not fear-based judgement, could be the first step towards improving someone’s quality of life. Or even saving it.
Can a Therapist Help?
The short answer is, “yes.” According to an analysis of forty observational studies, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have a good chance of reducing suicidal ideation. These approaches help us develop skills for emotional regulation, identify triggers and discover moments when our brains are playing tricks on us. Like going to the gym and working with a trainer, we can get mentally stronger and emotionally more resilient when we speak with a trained licensed professional about our struggles.
Interestingly, both of these therapeutic approaches were found to be effective for individual, group, in-person, and online settings. No matter what the environment, it’s worth giving therapy a shot if you’re not feeling well or considering harming yourself. In fact, as little as one week of therapy was shown to reduce suicide risk. It is, however, important that you feel connected to your therapist and comfortable telling them exactly how you feel. Your therapist shouldn’t judge your thoughts, feelings, or behavior. Being able to express yourself freely will lead to the greatest improvements.
This said, anyone going to therapy for suicidal ideation should be aware that mental health professionals have a “duty to warn” if a client says they have a desire to kill themselves, plan of action, and access to the things they need to carry out that plan. This duty to warn is one of the only breaches to therapist-client confidentiality but should never stop clients from being truthful about their mental health.
If you’re in therapy and anxious about disclosing your suicidal ideation, try to remember that duty to warn is an ethical obligation that’s in place to help clients and not cause further harm. Your therapist will be able to assess the difference between a serious plan and more abstract thoughts or feelings. If your plan is, in fact, serious, then warning your loved ones or a medical facility are necessary steps taken out of care for your safety and well-being.
The Role of Community
To help spread awareness during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, NAMI encourages people to post key resources so that the information reaches a wider audience. We can all do our part to break the stigma around these feelings and make sure everyone knows there’s always someone they can call.
The suggested resources (which you should feel free to share on social media) include:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (@800273TALK) offers free, confidential crisis counseling 24/7/365 — and you don’t have to be in crisis to call. #SPM20 #NotAlone
- @CrisisTextLine is free 24/7 mental health support at your fingertips. Text “NAMI” to 741741 for help. #SPM20 #NotAlone
- Crisis episodes related to mental illness can be incredibly difficult. To help navigate through them, NAMI created this downloadable guide available in English and Spanish: nami.org/crisisguide #SPM20 #NotAlone
Whether you post it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, or even LinkedIn, this information is important and valuable. You never know who might need it — and the life it could save. If you are in a life threatening situation, please call +1 (800) 273-8255 or use these resources to get immediate help.