Written by Paul Reich, Behavioral Health Program Manager
While headlines across the United States focus on the loss of life due to COVID-19, it is important to recognize that September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and September 6th to the 12th is Suicide Prevention Week. In 2018, over 48,000 Americans died by suicide, including almost 1,300 Coloradans. It remains the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 to 44.
During a pandemic, there are some in our community who are continuing to struggle, and who are fighting their own personal battle involving life or death. The pandemic, and our collective response to it, has in some cases exacerbated feelings of isolation, of hopelessness in the face of the virus, and, for some, lead to real economic and social consequences including job loss, economic insecurity, threatened loss of housing, food insecurity, and more. In the face of the pandemic, it is more important than ever to ask, “what can I do to help, how can I help stem the tide of suicide in our community?”
First, it is important to recognize that with physical distancing, quarantines and working from home, that social isolation has increased. All of us should ensure that we are regularly checking in with family members, friends, and community members and offering support as needed. We must also be willing to ask for help when we know that we are struggling ourselves.
Second, we need to recognize the warning signs for suicide even though our face-to-face interactions may be limited. These signs can include talking about death or suicide, talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live, giving away possessions, increased substance use, anger, withdrawal, and sudden mood changes. If you observe these behaviors, particularly if they are new, or have increased, or are in response to a painful event (such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, pet, or housing), you must step in and speak up.
If you observe one or more of these signs, the next step is to find the right words and reach out. It is important to talk openly about suicide, and to ask directly: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” These are not easy conversations. You can also call the support and crisis lines listed below to enlist their help in having these conversations. Listening to the reasons a person has for living and dying, helping them recognize that living is an option for them, and getting them resources that can help them are important components of that conversation.
Helping someone talk about their situation, helping them to identify their reasons for living, and letting them know that they are not alone, can be a tremendous relief for someone living with thoughts of suicide. In most cases, persons thinking of suicide do not want to die. They are seeking to end the pain that they feel, but ambivalence about dying is present for most people. Helping individuals talk about their pain is one way to help. The goal is not to fix their problems but to help them walk away from the decision to end their lives and to be safe.
For many, the fear of saying the wrong thing stops us from wanting to connect with someone experiencing severe emotional pain and who is considering suicide. But if someone is considering suicide, we must be willing to talk about suicide and to listen. Despite knowing this, it might seem overwhelming to you to take on this burden. In that case, professionals are available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and locally through The Center For Mental Health’s Crisis and Support Line (970-252-6220). Professionals can talk you through the options for helping someone.
In addition to these resources, you can also text HELP to 741741. Skilled and trained counselors are available 24/7 to talk, answer questions, and help you navigate these challenging situations.
To be better prepared to help individuals living with thoughts of suicide, consider taking a course in Mental Health First Aid or safeTALK from Tri-County Health Network. To help someone find a professional to talk to, consider our low or no cost teletherapy program, or locate a local therapist using our online guide. Information about these programs is available on our website at https://tchnetwork.org/behavioral_health-2 or by calling us at 970-708-7096.
You can help by connecting with individuals, offering them hope, and doing your part to spread the message that suicide is preventable, and recovery is possible. You are not alone.