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Mental Health Memo: Changing the Conversation Around Suicide

This month's author is Shane Hamilton, MBA, MSW, CSW-PIP.  Hamilton is the Director of Clinical Services at the Human Services Center. He has experience providing mental health services in the inpatient and outpatient setting to individuals of all ages.

Changing the Conversation Around Suicide

It can be said we’re all one significant event away from a mental health crisis. It could be a loved one passing away, losing a job, being involved in an accident, or a variety of other things that cause someone to experience symptoms of depression and thoughts of not wanting to be alive.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that between 20-25 percent of adults will experience symptoms of depression throughout the course of a year. In addition, about 11 percent of adults have thoughts of suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in South Dakota but is the leading cause among ages 10 to 19.

Think about that for a moment… How many people did you interact with today that may be experiencing significant mental health symptoms, such as depression and suicidal thoughts, without you even knowing it?

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It’s a time to raise awareness surrounding suicide and the impact it has on so many individuals. Suicide is a preventable health issue, and we can all do our part to help those that are suffering, whether it’s a family member, friend, co-worker, or random person we encounter on the street. Here are five ways you can help prevent suicide:

1.    Talk about Mental Health – The topic of mental health still carries a significant stigma. So often people are afraid to talk about it, let alone ask someone else if they are having thoughts of suicide. It’s important to normalize talking about emotions and mental health well-being. This in turn, makes it easier to ask for help when you or someone else is struggling. Asking someone if they are having thoughts of suicide does not give them the idea or make them “more suicidal.” It reinforces that it’s okay to talk about it and shows you care about them. Be the one to start the conversation.

2.    Know the warning signs – People having thoughts of suicide may demonstrate behaviors that are unusual for them. They may make specific comments about wanting to die or no longer be alive. They may talk about feeling hopeless and not having a reason to live. They may be withdrawn, have extreme mood swings, or sleep excessively or not enough. You may notice them acting agitated, behaving recklessly, or using increasing amounts of alcohol or drugs. Many suicide attempts occur when the person is under the influence of alcohol. Learn more about warning signs and training options at https://sdsuicideprevention.org/about-suicide/trainings/.

3.    Be present – One of the best ways to help someone struggling emotionally is to simply be there and be present in the moment with them. You don’t have to say “just the right thing.” It’s not your responsibility to “fix” the issue. You can provide them with social support and help them feel heard. It is also important to take care of yourself, as it can be scary or bring up difficult emotions for you.  Make sure you also reach out for help yourself. 

4.    Restrict access to lethal means – Take steps to restrict access to items someone can use to attempt suicide. Ensure medications, whether it’s prescription or over the counter, are stored in a secure location. Firearms should be locked in a gun safe, and ammunition stored in a separate location. Suicide attempts are often made with only minutes of preparation in response to a crisis. Temporarily reducing access to lethal means puts more time and distance between the crisis peak and the suicide attempt.

5.    Get help – Whether it’s for you or someone else, get help. Call local law enforcement if it’s an urgent matter. Call your doctor. Schedule an appointment with a therapist. Several outpatient mental health agencies have appointment time slots allotted for crises, even if you are a new patient. It doesn’t matter who you reach out to at first. What matters is that you get help. Call 211 for referral information if you don’t know who to call.

Creating awareness and increasing knowledge are essential in helping to change the conversation around suicide and mental health.

It all starts with a conversation. Be the one to start the conversation that could save someone’s life.

To learn more about resource options, visit dss.sd.gov and click on the Behavioral Health tab or visit sdsuicideprevention.org. If you need help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 or text “Help” to 741741.