By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
As a society, we pay a lot of attention following a celebrity suicide, with ample coverage in the media, reminders about warning signs and tips on how to help those at risk, but the concern quickly fades from public consciousness. If we are serious about making progress on addressing the alarming rise in US suicide rates, we need a more sustainable strategy. For too long, we’ve tried to address the problem by focusing on individual risk factors. While this is important, it only contributes to our difficulty maintaining a wider perspective and fails to confront the problem in its true complexity. Thinking about this, I was heartened when I heard the theme of Monday’s World Suicide Prevention day: “Working together to prevent suicide.” In that theme we have the seeds of a different approach, one that starts with taking collective responsibility for the problem. But what would working together on suicide prevention really look like? How can each one of us get on board and contribute?
Let’s start with prevention. Dealing with depression, handling anxiety, addressing self-destructive behavior, and helping people manage intense emotions is something each of us can help with by paying attention to those around us and responding to them with empathy and compassion. We can all be more mindful of the opposite response and work on changing it. That would be judgement. How often have you heard someone say that a struggling individual is “just overreacting” to something, “they are just too sensitive” or “they need to pull themselves together?” People who experience depression and anxiety are sensitive. In fact, they are sensing the pain, stress, and trauma in the world around them and internalizing it. Our “individual responsibility” culture only adds to the feeling that it’s somehow their fault. Rather than judgment or advice, they need space to talk about what they are going through. They need to share the burden with another. “Working together” means making sure we are paying attention to and minding those spaces.
Within the places where people come together (families, schools, churches, community settings, and workplaces) we can work together to create climates of emotional responsiveness and wellness. We need to ask ourselves, is this place (school or workplace or anyplace I am) a place where people are treated equitably, non-judgmentally, with kindness, and compassion? Is it a place where it’s safe to talk about emotional vulnerability? Why or why not? Am I doing what I can as a leader or community member to make it more welcoming and supportive? We can also monitor our own responses to others. We all know how readily judgmental thoughts come. It can be helpful to notice those thoughts and take a moment to think about where they might be coming from. Not surprisingly, they often come from our own fears and vulnerabilities.
Access Institute takes this same preventative approach in our In-School Mental Health model. In addition to providing one-on-one play therapy to the children with the greatest needs (and yes, third and fourth graders do express suicidal ideation), our therapists are also asking teachers, principals, and social workers these same questions as we work together to create school environments where social and emotional well-being goes hand-in-hand with academic learning.
Next, we need to take seriously the harm caused by loneliness and social isolation. At Access Institute, we know that the relationship to our therapists can be a lifeline, so it’s a red flag when a depressed patient starts to withdraw. We want to understand where that impulse is coming from (“I don’t want to be a burden,” “there is no point,” “I’m broken”) and we respond by reaching out and working to contain the impulse, to provide more support, doing so in a way that meets the individual’s needs. We can apply the same principles in our social relationships. When an individual show signs of withdrawing from relationships, rather than assume that’s what they need, we can notice and inquire. While empathizing with the desire to be left alone, one can offer support and send the message that they are not alone in their struggles, that you and others are there for them. If you are supporting someone through an emotional crisis, it’s important to remember that you also are not alone, others are there to support you.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that emotional struggles take time to resolve. This is why at Access Institute we offer treatment for as long as someone needs it. There are no quick fixes. It’s important to hang in there with people for the long haul. This is one of the most powerful things you can offer to someone feeling hopeless, that you are not giving up. And the good news is that with time and the right kind of treatment, people do get better. That’s not something that someone feeling suicidal can know, but our knowing it for them can help them weather the storm.
I’m certain that by remembering and applying these principles with ourselves, with our friends and loved ones, and in our communities, we can make a big impact on the epidemic of suicide and in doing so, also help to build a more caring and compassionate universe.
To learn more about Access Institute and the services we provide, please visit accessinst.org.