Image credit: Rehab Center Parus [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.[/caption]I was waiting to turn left at a red light. I had just got done visiting my mother in the hospital and was driving myself home, feeling overwhelmed and anxious because of the situation. Before the light turned green, I had a sudden flash of a thought burst through my mind. “What if I just drove into the light pole and crashed my car?” The light changed, I shook off the thought that seemingly came into my mind out of nowhere, and slowly and safely drove back home. After I got home I tried to process exactly how that thought popped into my mind. While the situation was a stressful one, it certainly didn’t feel like a hopeless one, and I didn’t think I was feeling depressed. Why in the world would I have a thought about crashing my car? Why would I have even the most passing thought about wanting to end it all? In 2016, the most recent year with collected data, there were 44,965 recorded suicides in the United States, and the suicide rate per 100,000 people is currently at the highest mark in the last 28 years. Suicide is now ranked as the tenth leading cause of death in the US, and is shockingly the second leading cause of death for people age 15 - 24 and third leading cause of death for children age 10 to 14. On average, there are 123 suicides per day here in the US. And yet, despite all this data, despite the fact that seemingly every single one of us has been touched by suicide in one way or another, the stigma associated with it continues to result in a silence, discomfort, and avoidance directly leading to more and more deaths. The time has come to put an end to the silence. The time has come to be willing to be uncomfortable. The time has come to end the avoidance. The time has come to talk about suicide. If we ever hope to put an end to suicide in our families, our parishes, our communities, and our world, we have to talk about it. As a marriage and family therapist, I find that I’m talking about suicide on a daily basis. I sit and ask people about their suicidal thoughts, help them see the difference between passive and active suicidal ideation, and help people get into the hospital as a means of saving their lives when it becomes necessary. And it’s with that experience in mind that I want to share a couple of lessons about suicide that you can hopefully carry with you into your day-to-day lives so you can become an advocate for those who are suffering. First, we have to clear up a myth: talking about suicide does not plant the idea of suicide in someone’s head and lead to them taking their own life. Many people assume that bringing up suicide might lead someone to it; however, research shows this couldn’t be further from the truth. If someone is considering suicide, rest assured they have been thinking about it constantly, so you bringing it up doesn’t plant the idea but actually brings about relief, because it gets the topic out in the open. So many people carrying around suicidal thoughts feel isolated, alone, and trapped because they fear the response they will get if they open up. This feeling of isolation only furthers the helplessness and hopelessness that leads people to take their lives. On the flip side, if someone hasn’t been contemplating suicide, asking about it doesn’t put their lives in danger either. Typically, they’ll let you know it isn’t something they have been thinking, and the conversations moves forward with an understanding of how serious you are taking the situation, an understanding of exactly how much you care. So, how do we ask the question? If we have a loved one who seems depressed to the point we are worried about their safety, what do we say? The best advice I can give is to be direct. If you are concerned for the safety of someone you love, ask the question in the least ambiguous terms you can think of. Something as direct as, “Have you been thinking about wanting to kill yourself?” while seemingly abrasive and insensitive, may actually be the best way to ask the question precisely because it gets right to the point. Asking questions like, “Are you feeling safe?” or “Have you been thinking about hurting yourself lately?” skirts around the issue and may lead to your loved one feeling like you’re too afraid to be with them in their darkest hour. Finally, because I’m guessing you’re asking the same question I find myself asking, yes, you should even talk about suicide with your children. While we may choose different language to convey our point, it’s still important to have these discussions as early as you think might be appropriate precisely because (as mentioned before) suicide is third leading cause of death for children age 10 to 14. With younger kids, parents might bring the topic up by talking about feelings of sadness that we all have from time to time and discussing how sometimes people can feel so sad that they wish they could just disappear and not come back. This then leads to exploring how our family is always there to help whenever we might feel this way, and that even though sadness can feel like it’s going to last forever, it almost always gets better. With slightly older kids, it’s extremely important to ask about their friends at school: “Has anyone you know at school talked about wanting to kill themselves?” or “Is there anyone you know at school who has tried to take their own life?” And in today’s world of constantly being logged onto the internet, another valuable question is: “Have you ever searched online about ways to kill yourself?” or “Have you ever seen someone on social media or YouTube talk about suicide?” Of course these are all judgment calls that only a parent can make, knowing their child’s developmental level. And it’s important to remember these are just jumping-off points for conversations that share the truth about depression and suicide in our lives. The deeper conversations have to happen, conversations that show there will be support from the family no matter what, conversations that show that feelings can be openly discussed in the family without stigma. It’s absolutely uncomfortable. It’s something none of us want to deal with. But the time has come where it is imperative that we start talking about suicide. It’s the only way to put an end to the pain.
Copyright 2019 Tommy Tighe
Copyright 2019 Tommy Tighe
About the Author
Tommy is a Catholic husband, father of four boys, and the author of The Catholic Hipster Handbook (available now!).