Let's Stop Fearing The Conversation of Suicide
The content below mentions suicide which may be difficult or triggering to some. If this is something you struggle with, please feel welcome to reach out.
If You Are In Immediate Need Of Help, Visit Crisis Services Canada Or Call 1-833-456-4566. Alternatively, Visit Ontario Mental Health Helpline Or Call 1-866-531-2600. If You Are In Crisis, Please Call 911 Or Go To Your Nearest Emergency Department For Assistance.
It’s a little strange to think about, but I spend the majority of time, both personally and professionally, discussing mental health, specifically, suicide. Often, I set up in public places to get work done (libraries, coffee shops, etc) when I need a break from my home office. Sometimes, when I take work calls in these spaces and I am openly speaking about suicide, I’ve started to notice how others can react. With some people, I catch a look of shock on their faces, while with others I almost see genuine curiosity and interest.
Either way, I recognize how taboo of a subject, how taboo of a word, Suicide still is. It holds a lot of weight.
When I was 11, I lost family to suicide. My parents were faced with the choice of either speaking to their children about what that meant, or choosing to glaze over it. They chose to face it. I’m forever grateful that they did because it broke open my desire and passion to shed light on a topic that often gets shamed.
So why do so many of us have so much fear around the conversation of suicide? My passion and my work are focused on normalizing this conversation. I want people to feel ready and confident to be able to hold a conversation where suicide may get brought up with someone who is struggling. So how to we get comfortable with the uncomfortable and talk about suicide?
We put so much fear around this conversation that it makes us hesitant to even ask someone if they are thinking of dying by suicide. The fear is so strong that we may even find ourselves in situations where we are attempting to ask but we dance around the question and use softer approaches. The reality is that asking someone if they are thinking of suicide is a hard question to ask.
I have a friend, she works in healthcare. Day to day, she is working one on one with patients in difficult situations. Naturally, connections develop with those patients. Trust is sometimes built and in some cases, those patients feel safe opening up to her. Although she is not a Social Worker or Crisis Worker by training, she has still found herself in situations where she has had to assess if suicide is a risk factor. This brought up an interesting topic of conversation between her and I awhile back when she told me this. I asked her how she deals with those situations, has she been trained on what to ask to assess for risk of suicide. Her answer was “No”. I continued by asking her, “So, how do you assess for risk of suicide, what do you ask”. She responded with, “I’ll often ask if they are thinking of hurting themselves”. This is where language can get tricky…
If you want to know if someone is thinking of suicide, your language needs to be clear and direct. This might sound simple enough but in reality it can look like this: “Are you thinking of killing yourself”, “Are you thinking of dying by suicide”, “Are you thinking of taking your life”. All three of these examples are clearcut ways to ask someone if they are thinking of suicide. If you are wondering how this differs from “Are you thinking of hurting yourself”, it’s in the words. Someone who is suicidal may not look at suicide as a means of hurting themselves, but instead as a means to ending their pain.
Since I can only speak to my own personal experience, I am going to attempt to shed some light on the above.
When I have found myself in that state of mind, when my brain goes to the deepest and darkest places it can, all I wanted to do is find a way to no longer feel the pain I was currently feeling. It completely engulfed you, it doesn’t leave much room (if any) for thinking outside of that pain. The state of mind is so fragile and can shift so quickly. There were moments that if someone had asked me “Are you thinking of hurting yourself”, my answer would have been “No”, but I was still suicidal. What I would have wanted to say was “No, I am already experiencing so much hurt that I am thinking of how I am going to relieve myself from this feeling”. On the flip-side, there were also moments that if someone had asked me that same question, my answer would have been “Yes”; reason being, although I had suicidal ideations, I wasn’t in a state of action with those thoughts. The hurt would have been more of an escape from reality, a brief distraction from thinking about suicide.
It’s a misconception that if someone mentions that they are thinking of suicide, that they are automatically suicidal. There is so much between someone having suicidal thoughts and being actively suicidal. Both need to be taken seriously. This is why it’s critical for us to learn how to get comfortable having the conversation of suicide. We need to learn how to create safe space for our friends, loved ones, whoever, to talk about suicide without our instinct being to shut down the conversation or immediately call 911.*
*It is critical to note that if you ask someone if they are thinking of dying by suicide, and they answer in the affirmative, additional questions should be asked to determine if this is an immediate crisis requiring a call to 911. There is so much more that needs to be added to this conversation and can be achieved by enrolling in a suicide intervention course such as Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) or safeTALK.*
If you take anything away from this, let it be that our words matter. Practice saying the words out loud. Begin to ‘normalize’ asking the question, “Are you thinking of killing yourself”. Let it be that if you suspect someone is struggling, reach out to them because when someone is ill, part of that illness is the inability to reach out. Give them a safe space to be heard. Don’t shy away from the conversation of suicide should it surface. Yes, it’s difficult, but if you can sit thru that discomfort with someone as they share something so vulnerable with you, you will be giving them exactly what they may need in that moment. Compassion, strength, connection.
There is a line I’ve come to love…
Your intuition is wise-trust it!
Something that came as a big reminder to me this week. Always trust your instincts.