WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE YOU KNOW MAY BE THINKING OF SUICIDE
BY WVUA 23 Digital Writer Sydney Melson
When a loved one is thinking of suicide, it can be difficult to know what to do. It can be even harder to know what to say. Dr. Bob McKinney, assistant professor in the college of community health sciences, has some advice for those who want to keep an eye out on their friends and family.
According to the Center for Disease Control, suicides have risen 25% between 1996 and 2016. In Alabama, suicides rose 21.9%.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, someone commits suicide every 12 minutes in the United States. There are over 1 million attempted suicides annually, the report states.
Words, Feelings and Actions
Though warning signs of an impending mental health crisis may be difficult to see, McKinney said there frequently are some. McKinney splits warning signs for suicide into three categories: words, feelings and actions.
“In the ‘words’ category, people who are at risk of suicide will overtly talk about it,” McKinney said. “They might mention to someone that they have thought about it or that they are currently thinking about it. They could say that they do not believe that they have anything to live for, that they are a burden to their family or friends, or that the world would be better off without them.”
McKinney also mentions people who express “words” warning signs may say they feel hopeless or trapped in a difficult circumstance. People with health conditions may talk about unbearable or persistent pain.
In the “feelings” category, McKinney said people who are at risk of suicide are frequently diagnosed with depression. They may experience periods of deep depression and sadness. Anxiety about a past, present or future situation or person is common.
Irrational anger is also common.
“Sometimes people will appear to be unusually angry at issues or people to a degree that is beyond what would be expected under typical circumstances,” he said.
McKinney said one of the most important things to look out for in the “feelings” category is a rapid improvement in their emotions.
“People may appear to get dramatically better very suddenly in the days or weeks that precede a suicide attempt,” he said.
“Actions” behavior typically includes increased alcohol or drug use, sleeping too much or too little and social isolation.
People also might stop doing activities they once enjoyed, such as church, hobbies or sports. People may also search ways to kill themselves online.
“Some of the more obvious activities that might precede an attempt include settling old debts, managing final affairs, giving away cherished personal items or even calling friends and family to say goodbye,” McKinney said.
What to say to a suicidal person
When we think of what to say to people who are in pain, McKinney said to keep in mind you don’t necessarily know what they are going through.
“Never say: ‘I understand.’ You do not understand. Never say: ‘It will be OK.’ It might not be OK. In fact, the person’s situation could actually get worse,” he said.
Instead, McKinney said to think of ways you can be authentically supportive. “I’m here for you. Tell me what I can do for you.”
If you suspect someone may be suicidal, McKinney said it’s best to be direct, and ask questions such as:
- Are you now or have you recently had thoughts of harming or killing yourself?
- Have you ever thought that everyone would be better off without you?
- Have you thought about when and where you would do it?
- Have you thought about how you would do it or developed a plan?
- Do you have the things that you would need to carry out your plan?
“One of the common misconceptions is that engaging in a conversation like this might actually plant the seed of suicide in someone’s mind,” McKinney said. “There is absolutely no evidence to support this; in fact, there is abundant evidence to suggest that just having this difficult conversation with a loved one can be a strong protective factor against suicide attempts.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also offers some important advice, such as avoid telling the person their feelings are “good” or “bad,” and allow the person to express their feelings without judgment.
Overall, McKinney said, it is important that you show attentiveness and care to the person you are worried about, because it is a powerful and positive influence for people in crisis.
Stress reduction strategies
McKinney offered some advice to reducing stress, especially during isolation: reduce your exposure to news and social media.
“The reports that come from news outlets can generate feelings of fatalism, hopelessness and sadness,” McKinney said. “Social media posts can, in contrast, be so incendiary that they generate anger, frustration and even hate.”
McKinney suggested to pick one or two reliable news sources, and only engage with them for a few minutes a day.
“For example, I listen to the news for about 15 minutes every morning, dividing that time between an international source and a local source,” he said.
McKinney recommends not looking at any forms of social media two hours before bedtime. He said he encourages more productive outlets, such as reading, learning a new hobby or playing games with family and friends.
Someone I know may be in immediate danger
If you are talking with someone over text, social media or on the phone and they are in an immediate crisis situation, McKinney said to take these steps:
- Try to get an address
- Try to keep the person engaged and talking
- Call 911 immediately
- Ask if there is somewhere that the person can go to be safe, perhaps with a family member or a close friend
Seeking mental health help
For those interested in seeking mental health help, McKinney recommends talking with a healthcare provider who knows you well. It could be a physician in family medicine, sports medicine, pediatrician or a nurse practitioner. They can help with a referral to a mental health clinician.
“Ask questions. Describe your feelings. Be candid. Ask for a referral to a mental health clinician,” McKinney said. You can receive help from a social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor or marriage and family therapist.
“Your primary care provider can help to steer you in the right direction,” McKinney said.
The Indian Rivers Mental Health Center and the Betty Shirley Clinic at University Medical Center offer mental health services in Tuscaloosa. The West Alabama Mental Health Center offers services for Choctaw, Greene, Hale, Marengo and Sumter counties.
If you fear someone may be in immediate danger, take them or encourage them to go to their local emergency room for assistance, or call for an ambulance.