Most people feel uncomfortable talking about suicide. It’s a subject we prefer to avoid. Occasionally it may find its way into a conversation, prompted by something we have read or heard on the news. But often the exchange is stilted and does little to clarify the situation.
“Did you read about the celebrity who killed himself?”
“Yeah! What’s that all about?”
“There’s this happy family photo taken the day before.”
“It’s kind of disturbing, don’t you think?”
“You never know what’s going on in another person’s mind.”
“You got that right.”
When I hear a comment about suicide it arouses my interest. It is personal and may leave me feeling unsettled. Often it comes with a challenge: ‘What would you know?’
It could have something to do with the many hours I have spent thinking, reading, studying, and writing about suicide since my son’s death in 2011.
When speaking to someone and the subject of suicide is introduced, I am faced with a choice – ‘to reveal or to conceal.’ Do I choose to share the knowledge and insights I have acquired, do I talk about how suicide has impacted me personally, or do I let the moment pass?
There are many factors that may influence this decision. It might be that the remark is somewhat flippant , insensitive, or ignorant. It might be that my emotional reserves are low and I don’t have the will to talk about it. It might be that the setting doesn’t allow for a meaningful conversation.
Peter Shmigel was the CEO of Lifeline Australia in 2017. He wrote,
“People across our society need the confidence and skills to speak openly about suicide, to remove the barriers such as shame and blame, and to encourage help-seeking.”Peter Shmigel
Many of us find ourselves at a loss for words when someone mentions suicide. As a concept, it is difficult to grasp. Why would anyone want to intentionally cause their own death? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least to someone with a healthy mind and a positive outlook on life.
If we are going to talk openly and honestly about suicide then we are going to have to learn about suicide, to undertake some basic training in suicide awareness.
Here are some pointers that will help:
(1) Get to know the facts:
Writing for The Fix, Melissa Blake, a freelance writer and blogger, says,
“Suicide is everywhere.”
Suicide is a global phenomenon. It occurs throughout the world affecting individuals of all nations, cultures, religions, genders and classes. According to the World Health Organization, every 40 seconds, a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world.
In 2018, Lithuania, Russia and Guyana had the highest suicide rates while the lowest suicide rates in the world were concentrated in the Caribbean Islands.
What about Australia?
- More than 3,000 Australians died by suicide in 2018
- Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between 15 and 44 years of age
- Young Australians are more likely to take their own life than die in motor vehicle accidents
(2) Ask yourself ‘Why would someone want to end their life?’
“Suicide is complex.”
When sporting personality and AFL great Danny Frawley drove his car off a country road and slammed into a tree causing his death there was a large outpouring of sorrow and grief. The shock and disbelief was shared by all who knew him. He was a likeable person who, it seems, was an inspiration to many.
Family and friends paid tribute to his endearing qualities. They said,
“He had a smile that would light up a room, an infectious laugh and an easy charm that made people feel good about themselves.”
In particular, they spoke of his courage in talking openly about his struggles with anxiety and depression. His wife, Anita, remembers him saying,
“Manning up in the past was to suffer in silence, manning up now is to put your hand up.”
It is important to honour a person’s life, particularly when their death is unexpected and tragic, as in the case of suicide.
However, at some point it is necessary to try to understand the why. Without a thoughtful consideration of all the facts surrounding a death we will never grow in our understanding of what leads a person to end their life.
During an extended conversation with Peter Zarris on his No Man Should Ever Walk Alone podcast, Frawley talked about some of the symptoms of mental illness. He said,
“Dramatic changes in mood and behaviour, that was me … Isolation … I actually craved it when I was going through my worst.”
Frawley also acknowledged the use of alcohol to self-medicate. He said,
“Alcohol was masking my issues and was a form of antidepressant for me. I felt good. I couldn’t unpack the sadness. But the downfall of that the next day, I felt doubly bad.”
A careful reading of the media reports pertaining to Frawley’s death reveal some of the risk factors and warning signs that accompany suicide.
- Mental health issues – anxiety and depression
- Alcohol and other substance use and abuse
- Sleep deprivation
- Work-related stress – burnout (related to the Essendon supplements saga)
- Lack of healthcare, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment
- Chose to end contact with his mental health support team – 8 months prior to death
- Stopped taking his prescribed medication
- Informed family and friends that he was fully recovered – feelings of invincibility
- Financial problems – due to a major investment opportunity failing
- Marriage difficulties – told his closest friends his marriage was over
- Being male – 75% of suicides in Australia are male
- Sudden deterioration in mental health
- Expressing a desire to be alone
- Re-connecting with his past – regular visits to his home town – to say ‘good-bye’
- not communicating to friends what he was thinking and feeling
- not showing up for a family celebration to mark his 56th birthday
Suicide is rarely the result of a single event or factor. Research shows that a wide range of biological, psychological and social factors are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
Therefore we need to exercise caution when explaining why someone died by suicide. We are never in possession of all the facts.
However, knowing the risk factors/knowing the warning signs, will enhance our understanding of suicide and allow us to discern when someone is potentially at risk.
(3) Learn the language of suicide
“Suicide is changing”
At least, how we talk about suicide is changing.
We can be thankful that in most countries suicide is no longer a criminal offence. That’s why it’s unhelpful to say someone ‘committed’ suicide.
The word ‘committed’ is associated with crime or pathology. People ‘commit murder,’ and mental health providers ‘commit’ people to inpatient settings. It is preferrable to say someone ‘died by suicide’ because it emphasises the death and avoids judgment.
‘Success’ is another word that should be avoided when talking about suicide. It is inappropriate to say someone ‘successfully’ ended their life. A suicide death is a tragedy not a success.
Until recently, people bereaved by suicide were often referred to as ‘suicide survivors.’ This is a clumsy term. What it suggests is that people who have lost someone they care about to suicide have survived the impact of their death. ‘Suicide-loss survivor’ is a more descriptive term and avoids any unnecessary confusion.
Words have power. They shape the way we think about things. Words matter when it comes to talking about suicide.
In a recent article ‘Let’s Talk About Suicide: Language Matters’ co-authors Jonathan Singer and Sean Erreger write,
“Words can construct a reality of hope and acceptance, or despair and rejection. And when we’re talking about suicide, those words can be a matter of life or death.”Jonathan Singer and Sean Erreger
Whenever we speak to someone who has made an attempt on their life avoid labeling their behaviours as ‘attention seeking.‘ Such language is dismissive of the person. Our focus must be on what are they trying to communicate by their actions.
It is often said that ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ But is it true? Are we justified in saying to someone that their pain is temporary? Sometimes the pathway to a life worth living is long and arduous. It is important to acknowledge the person’s pain as real and to commit to being there for them no matter how long it takes.
In all our exchanges with people at risk of suicide we are striving for a language that respects the dignity of the person, as well as inspires hope and solutions.
A person who is suicidal often feels like they’re holding on to a secret, and want desperately to share it with someone. Let us commit to being that person who is able to listen attentively and act wisely in difficult circumstances.