The popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why has brought the subject of suicide, particularly child and youth suicide, into broader awareness and interest among the general public. While it is certainly positive that the conversation has extended beyond mental health professionals, the series is not without controversy.
Some people who have been paying attention to this tragic subject all along object that the series makes suicide appear inevitable and unpreventable, and tends to depict adults involved in the lives of youth as clueless. Regardless of what one believes about the series, the time is right for a rational discussion of what we know about suicide among youth and how we can move forward in preventing it.
Unfortunately, there is still much to be learned about suicide, and predicting and preventing it cannot be simplified into a single test or interview format. We can, however, leverage our current knowledge, and a good place to start is to look at some commonly held beliefs and compare them to the realities of suicide.
Myth: There is no way to stop a person who really wants to kill themselves.
Reality: The wish to die has been shown through a wide body of research to be highly changeable and unstable. The vast majority of people with suicidal thoughts, or even specific plans, will eventually change their minds about their wish to die. We also know that most people who survive suicide attempts are glad to be alive. There is a great deal of value in keeping lethal methods of suicide (such as firearms) away from a person with suicidal thoughts until they feel differently about the wish to die and are more willing to engage professional help.
Myth: Asking about suicide could actually put the idea into a person’s mind and make them more likely to do it.
Reality: This myth has been widely debunked. Asking a person who is not thinking of suicide about their intentions will not make a previously unconsidered option suddenly seem like an option. While some suicidal people will not honestly disclose a plan even if they are directly asked, many will, and this could save their lives.
When asking about suicidal intentions, the language needs to be clear and unambiguous. For example, there may be a temptation to tone down the language by asking a person if they “are thinking of hurting themselves.” The fact is that hurting oneself is different than killing oneself. If you have reason to believe that a person could be considering suicide, the question should be “are you thinking of suicide?” This clear question is more likely to provoke a straightforward answer.
Myth: People who die by suicide have almost always given hints or clues about their intentions.
Reality: Studies show that about 34% of people who die by suicide told someone about their intentions, and this is with the benefit of hindsight. This means that 66% did not disclose their intentions. These statistics further highlight the need to ask about people’s intentions if we are concerned about them.
Myth: Since there is so much we don’t know, what’s the point in asking?
Reality: While this is far from an exact science, there are some risk factors that could indicate that a person is at high risk to attempt suicide. They include, but are not limited to:
- Current intent/thoughts of suicide
- Having a specific plan, particularly a plan that is highly lethal
- Mental health diagnosis or drug or alcohol use/abuse
- Previous attempts or threats, particularly if an attempt caused bodily harm
- Cognitively immature and impulsive
- Little or no supervision for a child
- Having access to a weapon (particularly a firearm)
- Victim of abuse or bullying
- Poor social connections/poor trust in adults
- Past violent or aggressive behavior
- Having a close family member who died by suicide
Myth: People who state that they are suicidal are usually just seeking attention.
Reality: People who make suicidal statements or who have several risk factors for suicide are almost always in a great deal of emotional pain, and they are seeking relief from it. Minimizing this pain by calling it “attention seeking” only serves to make their suffering worse, and in doing so increases their risk.
It is SaintA policy and practice that any suicidal statement must be seen as a call for help, and must be followed up by a competent mental health provider. All threats are taken seriously.
Any SaintA employee who has concerns about a client being suicidal needs to contact their supervisor or a member of the clinical services department to ensure timely attention. In addition, a class on suicide awareness and prevention titled “The Impact of Suicide on Youth and Families” is available for SaintA staff and interested community members twice each year. Watch our web site and social media channels for upcoming dates.
Source: The Impact of Suicide on Youth and Families: The Ones We Miss. NEW Partnership for Children and Families, University of Wisconsin Green Bay, revised 2014.
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