According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2017.

In May 2019, Capella University launched the #BreakTheStigma Campaign. Getting people to openly discuss suicide without stigma could be a key to reducing suicide rate. To keep the conversation going as 2019 National Suicide Prevention Week approaches, Capella faculty members Irene Nicolet, PhD, and Sherri McIntyre, PhD, talk about what is known about suicide and the efforts undertaken to prevent it.

Suicide Touches Everyone

The first thing to understand is that while there are demographics more at risk for suicide, the reality is that no population is immune from it. All genders, ages, ethnicities, income levels, and urban, suburban, and rural communities have incidences of suicide.

The stigma surrounding suicide could mean that it’s underreported. As McIntyre notes, “It wasn’t that long ago that no child under 14 was reported as a suicide, even if they were.” The reluctance to talk about suicide can have many roots, whether societal, familial, generational, or religious. An aversion to speaking openly about it is a common factor, and a harmful one.

Don’t Avoid the Discussion

Part of the reluctance to talk is the fear of putting the idea of suicide into someone’s head. “They already have the idea,” explains McIntyre. “If they say something that sounds suicidal, take them seriously. Most people who commit suicide do make comments suggesting they are considering suicide beforehand.”

If someone does sound suicidal, it’s important to acknowledge that and get them talking. Ideally, they would need medical or psychological intervention, but a layperson can say something as simple as, “You sound like you’re thinking about killing yourself. Did I hear that right?” When the person agrees, try to get them to help of some form. If they already have a therapist try to reach out to that person. If they don’t have a therapist, or the therapist isn’t available, a trip to the ER is the next best thing.

No matter what, says McIntyre, stay with them until they get help. “It can be uncomfortable and overwhelming, but staying with them until they’re in a safe place with professional help can help keep them safe and provide needed support.”

Another common response to talk of suicide is: “They’re just looking for attention.” McIntyre says that the contrary is likely true. “They may be in so much pain, they’re in despair,” she says. “One of the most common deeply felt parts of feeling suicidal is a feeling of hopelessness. It doesn’t feel like anything will ever get better. But most people don’t really want to die, they just want the pain to stop.”

Talking about it and encouraging the suicidal person to talk about it might help give them just that one moment where the hopelessness isn’t their entire life. “The stigma is huge,” McIntyre says. “We need to open it up and talk about it. We need to be able to talk about it as forthrightly as we talk about having a cold.”

Preventing Suicide Contagions

Nicolet has developed workshops for school districts, staff, parents, and students to deal not only with suicide but suicide contagion. She notes that while contagion itself is relatively rare, it’s most likely to happen with adolescents who identify closely with peers, which is why her focus is on schools.

“It’s become so much more of an immediate problem today than in past generations,” she says. “Before the Internet and social media, it took time for the news to spread. Teachers and parents had more time to prepare themselves and talk to their students and children. But today, the exposure is immediate. The youth very likely will find out that a peer has committed suicide before an adult can intervene. That interconnectedness can lead to contagion. Younger and younger children are being exposed to more complex concepts long before they’re ready to handle it.”

Nicolet works with teachers and administrators to give them tools, in the form of written letters to disseminate to parents and students, and talking points they can use for face-to-face conversations. “Educators appreciate having these tools,” she says. “They’re not mental health professionals, so we explain how and when to refer students to those professionals. Knowledge is power.”

Conversing Openly and Widely About Suicide

She notes that talking about suicide is important for everyone, not just someone who shows signs of being suicidal. Because some people don’t show signs, being upfront about the topic can give them an opening they may need. It’s also important to have conversations with their peers, so they have the tools to help them if they realize a friend or family member is struggling.

“So often after a suicide attempt, we hear that someone knew something, but didn’t know who to tell, or how to get someone involved,” she says. “We need to let them know that they’re doing the right thing by informing someone. They need—everyone needs—insistent permission: It’s OK to tell someone; it’s OK to want your friend to get help.”

In other words, breaking the silence can help break the stigma, and that just may help someone who’s in despair.

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