Understanding Suicide: Myths, Misconceptions, & How to Help

Sensitive Content Warning: This blog post is about suicide awareness and prevention.

If in immediate danger, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

By Carolyn Polakowski, LPC
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. While this is an important topic no matter the month, this is an opportunity to acknowledge those who have been impacted by suicide, raise awareness, and help connect individuals and families with resources and treatment options to help prevent suicide. 

I have spent much of my career working with clients who are experiencing crisis situations, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and supporting families who have lost someone to suicide. Working in local hospitals before, during, and after the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to support many people. It also allowed me to witness the increase in individuals with suicidal thoughts and many suicide attempts, including an increase in deaths by suicide over the past few years. 

There are many reasons for this uptick: The impacts of the pandemic were, and still are, widespread. New and more severe stressors became prevalent: isolation, loss of jobs/income, financial stress, and significantly decreased access to mental health and medical services. These impacts were widespread in adults but also greatly impacted the adolescent population, as many lost access to schools and therefore vital support.

Here’s some important info to help you gain more insight:

Debunking common misconceptions about suicide

  • “Talking about suicide increases the chances a person will act on it.”
    • This is not the case. Talking about suicide helps to reduce the stigma and fear about the topic and allows individuals and families options to seek help, rethink their options, and share their stories. Talking about suicide is not going to cause someone to take action; it most often will allow them to get help and support.
  • “People who talk about suicide are just seeking attention.”
    • Many people talk about their intentions before attempting suicide. They are reaching out for help because they are experiencing severe emotional pain. If someone you know mentions the desire to die by suicide, take them seriously and act immediately. 
  •  “Suicide can’t be prevented.”
    • Many people who are suicidal do not want to die; they are experiencing severe emotional pain. They often reach out because they want help. Suicidal thoughts are a symptom, just like any other, that can be treated and resolved.
  • “People who attempt suicide, or die by suicide, are selfish.”
    • Most individuals are not attempting suicide because they don’t want to live. Rather, they want to end their suffering and they feel helpless and hopeless to change their situation. They may even think they are helping family and friends by not being around anymore. 
  • “Suicide only affects people with a mental health condition.”
    • Many who are diagnosed with a mental health disorder never experience suicidal thoughts. And conversely not all people who attempt or die by suicide have a mental health disorder. Many things can impact a person’s decision including trauma, grief, and life events.

How do I support someone who is having suicidal thoughts?

Talk to them about it. It can be scary to talk about suicide, but it is so important. Ask the person how they are feeling and listen. You don’t have to “fix” what is happening; sometimes just being a listening and supportive ear can change everything. After listening, ask about support. If they aren’t connected to a counselor, offer to help with this. Help connect them with local and national crisis support hotlines staffed with trained professionals. Mostly, let them know they are loved and supported and that you aren’t afraid to be there for them.

Don’t avoid the topic. Take the person seriously. And stay away from platitudes such as: Life is hard, this will pass, just focus on the positive, etc.

What is the role of therapy and what options are there?

Suicide can be prevented if someone is able to get the right support and intervention. A therapist creates a safe space for the individual to talk about how they feel, and can also create a safety plan and discuss tough topics without being judgmental. As well, they can offer additional treatment options including intensive outpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs, inpatient hospitalization, and connection with psychiatric and medication management services. Therapists work hard to link their clients with support from the client’s family, friends, and community when possible.

What can you do to help, even if you don’t know someone who experiences suicidal ideations?

Help the effort to destigmatize talking about suicide and mental health in general. Educate yourself to understand why suicide occurs and advocate for mental health awareness in your own community. Visit websites like National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to find information on suicide, crisis hotlines, support groups, community resources, and mental health professionals. Be ready to be a supportive, helpful resource; you never know when your knowledge and support could make a crucial difference. 

If in immediate danger, call the suicide hotlines

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

The Trevor Lifeline (dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ youth in crisis): 1-866-488-7386

Trans Lifeline (peer support for transgender and questioning people): 1-877-330-6366

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1

Still have questions? Ask away.