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Our suicide epidemic

Talking about suicide doesn’t create a suicidal person, but not talking about it will not stop one

Kirk J. Woodring, the chief clinical officer at the Brattleboro Retreat, co-authored the book Assessing the Risk: Suicidal Behavior in the Hospital Environment of Care.


In the past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its most recent data on suicide rates in the U.S. Sadly, this announcement was bookended by the deaths of two celebrities, designer Kate Spade and chef/television personality Anthony Bourdain.

The CDC data show that since 1999 suicides have increased in the U.S. by more than 25 percent. In the Northeast, matters are worse, with Maine up 27 percent; Massachusetts, 35 percent; New Hampshire, 48 percent; and Vermont, nearly 49 percent.

We’re already treading on difficult ground that can be made all the more treacherous when the national media cover suicides of the rich and famous.

When high-profile deaths by suicide occur, many of us are shocked and saddened. However, for those who may struggle with intrusive and unremitting thoughts of death by their own hand, these suicides can actually feel empowering.

“If someone as famous and successful as ‘X’ can follow through with this, then so can I,” is how their logic flows.

As a result, experts predict we’re likely to see a contagion effect of increased attempts following celebrity deaths by suicide.

* * *

It is essential that we recognize the warning signs of suicide. Risk factors — such as subtle changes of behavior in relationships (including on social media), changes in sleep, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable, recent deaths of loved ones (especially if those deaths were by suicide), or legal or financial challenges — should prompt us to ask direct questions.

Sometimes we need to assume that, in the presence of multiple risk factors, a person we are concerned about is absolutely having these thoughts. Rather than asking the yes-or-no question, “Are you thinking of suicide?” one might say, “Tell me about your thoughts of suicide.”

It’s amazing how freeing that statement is for someone contemplating a decision that continues to be associated with such profound stigma. Validating that someone might be having these thoughts, even if we’re not sure they are, may provide a person with a sense of relief and create an opportunity to talk more freely.

When someone does talk about suicide, encourage the conversation. Most suicides occur when people don’t talk.

Encouraging discussion, listening, and supporting mental health or medical intervention actually helps protect people from suicide. Stay with that person and call a suicide prevention hotline — for example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can connect a person to a local crisis team or, in cases where the person has the thoughts, means, and a plan to die by suicide, you can assist them to a hospital emergency department.

These actions help those experiencing suicidal thoughts to feel less isolated (and isolation is another risk factor). It’s important to remember that talking about suicide doesn’t create a suicidal person, but that not talking about it won’t stop someone who is.

Let’s all work to create a society where suicide is no longer an epidemic. Remember that most suicides can be prevented with early and frequent intervention by friends, family, colleagues, or acquaintances.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #463 (Wednesday, June 13, 2018). This story appeared on page D3.

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