More than 2800 people take their own lives in Australia each year, while as many as 65,000 attempt suicide, and hundreds of thousands more are affected by the ongoing results of these actions. Yet there is little open conversation about suicide, and a lingering stigma makes it hard for those who are struggling to reach out and get help. For the sake of those around you who may be silently suffering, here are five things to know about suicide, and how to help people who struggle with suicidal behaviour.
Note: This article is intended to raise awareness about suicide, but may be upsetting for those currently dealing with mental health problems. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Asking Someone About Suicide Ideation Won't "Put The Idea In Their Head"
One of the biggest barriers to open communication about suicide ideation is the idea that bringing it up with someone who may be struggling is a bad idea, as it might 'put the idea in their head'. However as BeyondBlue points out, giving a suicidal person someone to talk to is more likely to help them think through their options or reconsider their previous convictions.
In our news and media saturated landscape, it's hard to escape mention of suicide, whether it's in TV shows and movies or in news articles of real life cases. With this in mind, it's much more helpful for someone who's at risk to have a conversation about suicide with a close friend than it is to explore it solely through glamorised media representation.
So if you notice warning signs in your friends or family, it's best to reach out and have a conversation, or if you're not a close friend, talk to someone who might be better placed to help. For more information on warning signs to look out for, check here, and you can also read through BeyondBlue's guide for having a conversation about suicide here.
Even if the person in question isn't ready to have a conversation about suicide at that moment, it's extremely valuable for them to know you are someone they can have a calm, non-judgmental conversation with if they feel they're at risk.
Suicidal Behaviour Is Not Just 'Attention Seeking'
Often threats and attempts of suicide and self-harm are written off as 'attention seeking' behaviour, but this way of interpreting these behaviours can be detrimental to someone who's at risk.
This kind of thinking needs to be re-framed when dealing with someone exhibiting suicidal and self-destructive behaviours. It's very likely they are in fact seeking attention, but that doesn't mean that their threat is an empty one. More often it means that they are feeling isolated or alone, which is itself a big risk factor for suicide.
Instead of treating a person who is threatening suicide or self harm like a child who is having a tantrum, instead ask yourself why they might be seeking attention in this way. Instead of judging them for being attention seeking, make an effort to be there for them, have a real conversation and remind them that people in their life do care about them. Again, if you don't feel well-placed to provide support for them in this way, talk to someone who might be better able to help them.
Suicide Ideation Takes Many Different Forms
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about suicide is that the only people who are at risk are the people who directly think about taking their own life. In reality, suicide ideation takes many forms, and even the most minor of them should be treated carefully.
Personally I had always thought my own journey with depression never neared the risk of suicide, but through my treatment have begun to notice how this creeps up on me in small ways. It doesn't have to be overt, even saying things like "I just want to sleep and never have to wake up" or "I don't want to deal with life anymore" are types of suicide ideation. These thoughts are usually less serious than suicide ideation that involves planning, for example, but left unchecked one can often grow into the other without you even realising.
Of course no one really wants to think they're at risk of suicide - I know people who have described similar behaviours to me, and then complained that their therapists categorised them as suicide ideation. However the more we can recognise these thoughts in both ourselves and others, the better placed we are to reduce risk when it's more manageable.
People On Anti-Depressants Can Still Be At Risk Of Suicide
With all the wonders of modern medicine, it's tempting to think that one little pill will cure all that ails us, and that people who are on anti-depressants will no longer be a suicide risk. Unfortunately even modern medicine isn't perfect, and some anti-depressants will even increase the risk of suicide within the initial few months of taking them.
Antidepressants are important, often lifesaving drugs, but there is a cost for their effectiveness. The medications are dispensed with a fact sheet listing a whole host of potential side effects, many of which will probably be experienced at some point.
Even after the first few months on anti-depressants, medication is not a silver bullet. Sometimes drugs will stop working out of the blue due to built up tolerances, and suicide ideation can also return when weaning off drugs. Even outside of these events, not even the strongest drugs will help if a traumatic event or difficult circumstances pushes them to consider suicide.
Even if your friends are taking anti-depressants to manage their mental health, remember to check in on them regularly, and not dismiss the warning signs if they appear.
Suicide Is Not A Selfish Act
People who take their lives don't do so to spite other people. Those who commit suicide don't even want to die - it happens when someone is at a point in their lives when they can't see any other option open to them. In fact many people who are considering suicide see themselves as a burden on other people's lives, and mistakenly believe that everyone would be better off without them.
Many people also believe suicide is always a rational decision, made by someone who has carefully weighed up the options. However what many don't know is that things beyond an individual's control can also influence suicide risk, such as your brain chemistry. While scientists don't quite know yet how it functions, certain chemical differences have been found in the brains of suicide victims.
This is why responses to suicidal thinking like "you've got so much going for you" or "think about your friends and family" can be counter-productive, as they are more likely to create guilt than make the person re-consider their situation.
I certainly have never considered myself a suicide risk - I have a great, well-paid job, a fantastic team, a loving family and a stable home. By all rational measures my life is great. Yet one day this year I still woke up, failed to find a reason to get out of bed, and lay in the dark trying to think of the easiest way to end my life.
For those who haven't experienced these thoughts or feelings, it's a hard thing to explain. They can even feel intrusive, like a stranger's voice in your head. They can't be reasoned away.
Thankfully I have a strong support network and, since I opened up about my mental health, I've found a number of trusted friends I can talk to when I'm at my worst. In my experience once you can get away from the overwhelming conversation in your head and talk things through calmly with someone close to you, the feelings de-escalate surprisingly quickly.
This is why we need more of these conversations to be happening around the world. Talking about suicide shouldn't be taboo - it could save someone's life. Next time you notice a friend acting strangely or posting odd Facebook statuses, make the effort to reach out and make sure they're okay.
September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. This year's theme is "Working Together To Prevent Suicide" and focuses on building awareness of suicide prevention and how we can all work together to support those who may be at risk of suicide. To find out more visit World Suicide Prevention Day.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support or someone to talk to, contact the Lifeline Australia hotline at 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service at 1300 65 94 67 or the Kids Helpline (for ages 5-25) at 1800 55 1800.