Today's news of Anthony Bourdain's suicide, and earlier this week Kate Spade's death are tragic reminders that mental illness and suicide can affect anyone regardless of income or success. In addition, it speaks to the enormous impact that suicide has on loved ones - as partners, children, friends and family struggle with their loss. Suicide and mental health impacts not only the person struggling with mental illness, but many people in their lives (family, friends, coworkers).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and another quarter of a million Americans survive a suicide attempt annually. It is estimated that every suicide intimately affects at least six people; therefore, millions of Americans are impacted every year.
Suicide is most commonly associated with depression and alcoholism, but is also associated with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. It can be challenging to know the best ways to provide someone with support or even what action to take if he or she expresses suicidal thoughts.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a useful, five-step guide for friends and family members. The steps can also be helpful to provide support with other kinds of mental illness even if someone is not suicidal.
One of the most common myths regarding suicide is that talking or asking someone if they are suicidal puts the idea in their mind and, therefore, increases the likelihood they might attempt suicide. Research has shown the opposite to be true; asking someone if they are suicidal can reduce the likelihood that they will act on their thoughts. It also provides a valuable opportunity to start a conversation and identify the best way to provide help and support someone who is struggling with mental health issues.
If you suspect or are concerned about a loved one, friend or coworker, ASK them.
Keep them safe
If you are concerned someone is at imminent risk of harming themselves, it is important to take immediate action. If you are unsure how to help or if to intervene, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). They are available 24 hours every day of the year.
Another aspect of safety is ensuring the person does not have easy access to lethal means (firearms, large quantities of medications/pills). Firearms are used in 51% of suicides in the United States. Removing these items from the household and staying with the person greatly reduces the potential for the person to act on his or her thoughts.
Social support is strongly correlated with a reduction in suicidal thoughts and lowers the risk that a loved one acts on the thoughts and/or plans. Try approaching your loved one with compassion, empathy and curiosity. Tell them that you are listening without judgement and want to be there to support them.
Another commonly held myth is that suicide mostly occurs in adolescents. Although it is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15-24 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the risk for suicide increases with age. Celebrities such as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are reminders that suicide affects both men and women and people of all ages.
Knowing the warning signs can help you identify loved ones, friends or members of your community who might be at risk. Social isolation can also contribute to other mental health issues, so reaching out and connecting with people who may feel isolated can help provide them with valuable support regardless of whether they are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
HELP THEM CONNECT
Suicide is preventable. There are many resources available to provide support and treatment. If you are concerned that someone is at imminent risk of harm, immediately take him or her to the nearest hospital. If you are not with the person at the time, encourage him or her to go to the hospital or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
If the person is not in imminent danger, help connect them to support. Depression and other mental health disorders are highly treatable with psychotherapy and medication. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are two of the most effective and empirically informed models of treatment. Be mindful of assuming that someone will grow out depression or that the suicidal thoughts are passing. Instead take them seriously and help connect the person with resources, support and treatment.
Stay involved and connected with the person. Continue to provide non-judgmental support and communication. Let the person know that you are willing to talk and listen. Again, social support is an important part of preventing suicide and can reinforce to your loved one of how much you care.
It can be taxing and overwhelming to provide support to someone struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. Educating yourself about their mental illness and suicide can be incredibly helpful. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information and links to other sources. Recognize that you or other family members may also need support. It may be helpful to identify your own resources and support through your loved one's struggles.
For more individualized guidance or support, the clinicians at The Family Institute are available to help. For more information about our Mindfulness and Behavior Therapies program (including DBT) or our Cognitive Behavioral Therapies programs (for adolescents and adults), please visit our website or contact us.
Emily Klear, LMFT
The Family Institute at Northwestern University