The history of suicide prevention in the United States is most noticeable in how we discuss it. Talking about it and talking through it rather than averting our gaze from this difficult subject is the pathway to better prevention, especially as we continue to learn about the healing mechanisms of trauma-informed therapy, storytelling, and community healing. In recent months, important public health initiatives have led to establishing 988 as the national suicide prevention lifeline number. This shorter, easy-to-remember number is an important step in preventing suicide and providing technical assistance and resources in an individual’s moment of pain.
Still, the U.S. is an individualistic society, and those that have endured experiences along the spectrum of suicidal thoughts, ideation, planning, or behaviors have long been forced to suffer in silence. 4% of U.S. adults report living with suicidal ideation (without a plan), however, more than half of those individuals never seek mental health services. In today’s blog, we will explore historical ways suicide has been addressed and stigmatized, the efforts being made to sound the alarms, and how to advocate for those living with this dark passenger.
Celebrating Suicide Prevention Awareness Month this September
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and it is our mission at THIRA Health to get the word out. As mental health services providers who often work with clients who are dealing with severe mental illness, suicide risk and preventing suicide are common themes in our intensive outpatient treatment program. We use trauma-informed therapy, techniques designed to increase protective factors, DBT skills, and our relationships with clients to ensure they know that they are cared for, well-resourced, empowered, and not alone.
A critical step in expanding suicide prevention efforts and mental health awareness is to get talking about how we can prevent people from acting on the urge to escape their pain before they have a chance to recover. On that note, if you are aware of suicidal thoughts in yourself or someone you love, please seek the care of a mental health therapist for a suicide risk assessment, or in the case of a more immediate crisis, please call the suicide prevention lifeline at 988 or go in person to your local emergency department.
A Timeline of Suicide Prevention and Language
While humankind has been around for centuries, formal suicide prevention efforts from a public health standpoint did not begin until the late 1950s. Nearly a decade later, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute of Health dedicated time and resources to studying suicide prevention, which garnered national attention from non-profits and politicians alike. It wasn’t until the 1990s that national initiatives were activated by suicide loss survivors, and the year 2001 when the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was founded by SAMHSA across 49 states.
The push for change in recognizing suicide as a national priority has been slow, and the language surrounding suicide has followed. Plagued with stigmatizing myths, stereotypes, and languages about those who die by suicide or loved ones that survived losing a loved one to suicide, it has been a winding journey to create empowering language, education, and justice for those who have been affected by suicide. Amid the COVID pandemic, Americans have consumed news sources reporting on skyrocketing cases of suicide, creating cultural scripts of how we view suicide and those that die by it. This can lead to glamorizing, sensationalizing, or desensitizing communities to suicide, which creates a greater risk of suicide at large.
Over the years, language around suicide has evolved from personal responsibility to a social crisis to reflect our attitudes surrounding mental health awareness and prevention. Word choices and phrasing such as “committed” suicide originates from the criminalization of suicide, similar to homicide or rape. Many ask why it matters how we say it, and it is because our language can unconsciously keep us tied to the stigmatizing origins of suicide. Other language that defines the outcome of suicidal actions with words such as “successful,” “unsuccessful,” and “completed” are all ways that we have described suicide as a choice and behavior rather than a deeply wounding consequence of socioemotional distress.
A Just Approach to Suicide Prevention
Suicide is one of the most common and difficult conversations for us to have with our loved ones. Even as trained mental health clinicians, the level of hurt, despair, or trauma that is shared with you when someone trusts you enough with their story can be alarming. Whether you’re struggling with suicidal ideation, have a loved one struggling with suicidal ideation, or have known or witnessed deaths by suicide that have felt impactful, the most important prerequisite to suicide prevention advocacy is taking care of yourself, too.
Put the person first
Recognize that suicide is a noun that describes a circumstance of (potential) death, not a person. An example would be “they are living with suicidal thoughts” or “they died by suicide.” People who have tried to die by suicide, in general, often experience issues of homelessness, racism, sexism, and other risk factors of discrimination, abuse, and harm. When we empathize with their story through a social lens, the concept of suicide becomes more about survival than a personality flaw.
Normalize mental health distress
Appreciate that the world around us is often difficult to live in; therefore, we all live along a continuum of success in how we cope with it. We all develop coping strategies (some positive and others negative) such as alcohol use, meditation, or gaming. While it may seem like a foreign idea, others’ minds and bodies develop contemplation of suicide as their attempt to cope. An important question to ponder is what function those thoughts are providing, and if there are ways to meet that need in other ways. Whether the thoughts are intrusive or intentional, we can reframe them into an important moment to exercise empathy that their psyche attempted to find a way out of their pain.
Reflect on your own biases, perceptions, or assumptions about suicide.
Knowing ourselves and our history with suicide is an important step in doing stigma work, and is something that can be discussed with your trauma-informed therapist. What internalized stigma might you hold about suicide (e.g., selfishness, autonomous choice, “they couldn’t be helped”)? Understanding and getting comfortable with potential bias or assumptions will help you help others dispel their own – after all, we have been socially conditioned to believe that this type of pain is a crime, not an illness.
Consider how messages of hope can be powerful.
Whether it be from survivors of suicide, family members who are called to challenge misinformation, or mental health workers who work to change unjust systems, these movements are all beacons of hope. Hope encourages us to change the world around us, creating a more sustainable place for us all to survive, strive, and (hopefully) thrive in together.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or is in an active crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Life Line at 9-8-8 or go in person to your local emergency department.