Each year, nearly 50,000 individuals across the United States die by suicide and more than 1 million people attempt suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and an opportunity to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic, encourage mental health assistance and offer support to those at risk.
“Suicide is the most preventable form of death, and this week can help to make an immediate impact and positive change in the community,” said Meghan Francone, B.S. SLP/Aud., M.H.A., Director of Open Heart Advocates. “It’s important to bring awareness to suicide, as it impacts a large portion of our communities and loved ones.”
Risk factors and warning signs
Francone cautions against only becoming concerned if an individual “checks off” risk factors. Some people might have all biological, social and/or psychological risk factors and never consider suicide, whereas others experience one risk factor and choose to die by suicide.
“Suicide is not a respecter of persons and whether they are in a high-risk category or not,” Francone said. “It’s deadly and present in anybody. Anyone can be at risk for suicide.”
Francone says there are warning signs that trigger concern, including direct verbal, behavioral and situational clues. Statements like “I wish I was dead,” “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I’m going to end my life” are direct verbal warnings.
Any changes in a person’s typical behavior — negative or positive — could be a warning sign. Negative changes could include lack of interest, irritability, anger, anxiety, shame or humiliation, mood swings and drug or alcohol abuse or relapse. Positive changes could be tying up loose ends at work, mending relationships or giving away items.
Stressful situations, including unexpected loss of financial security, diagnosis of a serious or terminal illness, loss of a family member or a relationship, can also increase risk of suicide.
Prevention and talking about suicide
If you recognize warning signs in a loved one, Francone said it’s important to ask the suicide question without imparting any judgment. Directly ask them: “Are you thinking about ending your life?”
“Most individuals will be very forthcoming with you,” she explained. “From there, we need to listen to their problems. We need to be able to talk openly and freely to someone about suicide to lower their risk.”
In Moffat County, the most common method of death by suicide is by the use of a firearm. If someone owns a firearm and is having suicidal ideations, ask if they’d be willing to voluntarily store those firearms with a trusted family member or friend while their crisis passes.
“It’s important to increase time and distance between someone in crisis and their method,” Francone said.
Francone recommends individuals take evidence-based training in suicide prevention and intervention to help their friends, family members, neighbors and others they care about in their life. REPS (Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide) is a local organization that offers this type of training.
“This is a topic in our community many of us will have to personally face,” Francone said. “Just as we train for first aid and CPR and run fire drills at school, we need to train and prepare for suicides in the same way. We know if someone has a laceration, we apply deep pressure. If someone is so sad they do not want to live anymore, we need to be able to jump to action for that just as quickly.”
How COVID-19 affects suicide risk
While there’s little data yet on the impact COVID-19 has had on the national suicide rate, the pandemic has undoubtedly added various economic and emotional stressors to many, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Francone said social distancing and isolation are adding to the already-rural nature in which Moffat County residents live. Research shows those who are socially and physically isolated can be at higher risk for suicide.
“Unfortunately, this pandemic has created the perfect storm for our loved ones and community members,” she said.
What individuals can do, she said, is regularly check in on loved ones — specifically, frontline workers such as first responders, doctors, nurses and EMTs, as they have seen a large increase in intrinsic and external stressors. Don’t ignore or play down any suicidal behaviors, and if you believe a loved one is in crisis or at risk, encourage them to seek professional help.
“Please reach out when you see someone who needs help,” Francone concluded. “I challenge our community to not stay silent; not talking about suicide isn’t working. For the individuals who feel like there isn’t anybody to turn to, please know there is help out there, and there are people who want to help you.”