Before you’ve finished reading this paragraph, someone in the United States will attempt suicide.And by the time you’ve finished this page, it’s likely one person will have succeeded. In the next 24 hours, 123 Americans will be dead by their own hand.
Today in the United States, one person completes suicide every 12 minutes, with 25 more attempting it. It’s easy to assume your life will never be touched by suicide—and natural to be sure you’ll never feel the urge. That’s because, for the most part, we understand the risk factors for suicide: a history of depression or mental illness, problems with addiction or substance abuse, disability or illness—even bullying has been linked to suicides.
If none of this sounds like you, you might think you’re in the clear. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.
The thing is, suicide isn’t just about your health history. It can also be about who you are, as well as your current life circumstances. If you belong to any of the following groups, you’re statistically at a higher risk for suicide:
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SEPTEMBER 10th - WORLD SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY
There are three words we don’t say often enough – and I’m not talking about ‘I love you.’ In the six years I’ve spent wondering how – or if – I could have stopped my husband’s suicide, I’ve realized there was one question I didn’t ask often enough: Are you okay?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not attempting to oversimplify a despairingly complex topic, nor am I blaming myself for my husband’s decision to throw himself in front of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of this tragedy, I realized suicide prevention isn’t about hotlines and healthcare reform (although those topics should certainly be addressed). Suicide prevention is about knowing how to start a conversation with someone at risk.
Removing the stigma
I get it. It’s hard to talk about suicide. But avoiding hard conversations will never save lives. In fact, advocates for mental health agree that the first step in abolishing the stigma surrounding mental illness is to talk about it. Discussing these issues is the only way for us to realize that we’re all more alike than we are different. According to National Institute of Mental Health, one in four Americans experiences a mental health disorder every year. Additionally, nearly 7 percent of Americans reported experiencing a major depressive episode in 2016 alone. Even with number like this, those suffering may still feel incredibly alone – and hopelessly lost. That’s why starting an open, candid conversation is the best way to help a loved one suffering from mental illness or considering suicide.
What to say
How do you start what could potentially be the most important conversation of your loved one’s life?
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As a parent, you know the importance of having “the big talk” with your kids. But today, sex isn’t the only tough conversation your teens need you to lead. Whether you realize it or not, teens are confronted with complex issues like mental illness and suicide every day, and it’s taking its toll on our youth.
You know suicide rates are on the rise – particularly among teens. The suicide rate for teen girls alone has doubled since 2007, according to the CDC. This isn’t helped by the fact that mental illness and suicide are so difficult to understand – let alone to discuss with a teenager.
It’s something I never expected to talk to teens about, either. But after my husband, Bill, completed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train in 2012, I’ve made it my life’s mission to help those at risk for or considering suicide to find help. As parents, you’re on the front lines in helping your child get the information and resources he or she needs. These three conversations allow you to do just that.
“The talk” about depression
After years of trying understand the “why” behind my husband’s suicide, I’ve come to two very important conclusions. First, I may never understand exactly why someone would take their own life, because I’ll never understand exactly what reality looks like or feels like for that person. Secondly, suicide never happens in a vacuum. That’s why any discussion on suicide should address the “big picture” – all those elements that play into the decision to complete suicide. Depression isn’t just a risk factor for suicide, it’s a cause. The fact of the matter is that depression isn’t generally on the teenage radar; your child could be suffering without even knowing it. That could lead to slow self-esteem, thoughts of self-injury, suicide ideation and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Your child needs to know that depression is as real as diabetes or cancer – and that it can be treated.
“The talk” about mental illness
To this day, my husband’s parents can’t accept that their son completed suicide. Instead, they hold onto the idea that his death was an accident. As a society, we have carefully protected the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide. Bill’s life may have turned out quite differently had the idea of getting help for his mental illness (including addiction and depression) not been so shameful. That’s the terrible power of a stigma; it keeps those who need help from getting it. When we talk to our teens about mental illness, we give them permission to be human; to recognize when something “isn’t right” and to ask for help. Make sure your child knows that no matter how they feel, it’s okay (and even encouraged) to talk about it. Understanding that mental illness is just that – an illness—can also instill in your child a healthy sense of empathy, something that can save a life in itself.
“The talk” about suicide
As I’ve witnessed news report after news report detailing the suicide of a celebrity or a young person, I’m always alarmed by the level of detail paid to everything except what really matters – where someone can go if they feel at risk. This is where parents need to step in and offer their children the information and resources that aren’t being splashed across the news with every sad story. Talking about suicide shouldn’t be depressing. It should be filled with hope! It should be focused on help and support, not on statistics and shocking headlines. Your child should know that there is help available, and that you’re the first place to go when they need it.
Hopelessness is debilitating. So often, people live in sadness or contemplate suicide because they don’t know where to turn – or who to talk to. Sometimes, asking a simple question, like “Are you okay?” can open the door to a lifesaving conversation. Talking to your kids about suicide is important – it’s critical. But that doesn’t mean you should be doing all the talking. Your goal isn’t just to share information; it’s also to open the doors of uncensored communication. If your child can leave the conversation with just one takeaway, it’s that they can talk to you about anything, anytime.
My book, “R U OK: Teen Depression and Suicide” helps show parents and teens how to structure those important, lifesaving conversations. To request a copy, visit www.thegriefgirl.com.
by Kristi Hugstad
Each of us has attached ourselves to something or somebody, and when you lose that special thing or person, you grieve. Always. You can try to run from it all you want, but it will always find you and tackle you when you’re not looking. My blogs, along with my books, will give you the tools to help you learn to live with your new self as you journey through your grief.