The CDC reports that each year, 44,965 Americans die by suicide. For each death, 25 people attempt suicide. Firearms are responsible for the majority of suicides, and men commit suicide three-and-a-half times more often than women. Having a substance abuse problem increases the risk of suicide, even if by accident.
Although a shock to loved ones, suicide isn’t a random, irrational decision. It’s often a well thought out plan that has signs along the way. For instance, many who commit or attempt suicide have been depressed and have engaged in self-harm. In 2015, the CDC reported 505,507 people were treated in the hospital for injuries caused by self-harm.
On the other side of the coin, not all suicidal people self-harm or show signs of depression. Many hide their emotional pain for years until it culminates in suicidal ideation. By the time they decide to commit suicide, they’re adept at hiding their plans. In daily life, they disguise deep depression to play their roles convincingly until the end.
For example, many people planning to commit suicide make plans for the future, like visiting a college they’ve been accepted to or booking a family vacation. They’re also convincingly happy in the weeks and days before taking their life. This false veneer makes it hard to spot someone contemplating or planning suicide.
Like drug addiction, suicidal ideation can go undetected for years until it’s too late. A person can be addicted to street drugs and hide it from friends and family until they accidentally overdose, or pop a pill from the wrong source. Suicide follows the same pattern of invisibility.
Circumstances aren’t enough to change a suicidal person’s mind
The big question is why? Why would someone be suicidal if they recently got accepted into the college of their dreams? How could someone thinking of suicide seem to have the time of their life at a social function days before their death?
In the aftermath of a suicide, it’s apparent how much the person was loved. Although, like suicide prevention advocate Sue Klebold shares, love is not enough. Nor is a single incident of success, or a happy moment enough to bring someone out of a suicidal state.
Why? Why isn’t love or success or good times with friends enough? The source of suicidal ideation runs deep and has roots in accumulated emotional experiences that remain invisible to others. The desire to leave this life behind isn’t usually the result of one incident, but compounding experiences over time that have caused perceived irreversible damage. In other words, they see no other options to relieve their suffering, and they appear happy because they don’t want anyone to talk them out of their plans.
When you’ve never been suicidal, it’s difficult to understand how a person can seem happy despite their pain, but it’s normal. That happiness isn’t necessarily fake, either. Suicidal people can experience genuine, momentary happiness. Their interactions with friends and family right before their death that seemed real probably were. The problem is their desire to die is stronger than the fleeting moments of happiness.
You can save a life simply by listening
To make a difference for a suicidal person, you have to approach them as you would a hostage situation. You have to give them the space to share openly and listen without offering input. You can’t talk them out of it by using logic, trying to fix them, or by telling them why they should feel differently. Chances are, they’ve attempted to express their feelings in the past, but nobody was willing to listen. Depression, along with not being heard or understood, contributes greatly to suicidal thoughts.
You might not be able to tell if someone you know is suicidal, so the best way to make sure the people you love get the understanding they deserve is to treat everyone like their voice matters. Take the time to ask people how they’re doing and listen to everything they share. Don’t try to fix people, or get them to feel differently. Be a space for people to open up and share.
It’s inevitable that by being a space for people, they’ll open up to you about feelings that might make you uncomfortable. It’s important to allow them to share, even when you don’t understand. Be genuine and compassionate when you ask them to help you understand. You might save a life.