It is common and understandable to avoid talking about a topic like suicide. People sometimes fear they’ll plant a deadly seed in the mind of a depressed friend or child just by using the word.
But silence can be deadly. Studies show that talking about suicidal thoughts reduces the risk of a young person acting on those thoughts.
Young people who feel hopeless, who sometimes see themselves as a “burden” to loved ones, often fail to realize how profoundly their deaths will burden those they leave behind.
Youth suicides can leave families more profoundly shaken than other forms of loss, says Susan Casias, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation who has worked on Native suicide prevention efforts for more than a decade.
“Grief after a suicide is more intense,” the licensed social worker says. “You want to know why – why?”
Casias says she has seen that question torment people.
The loved ones suicide victims leave behind can also experience shame, blame and ostracism at the very time they most need friends’ and neighbors’ support – increasing the risk of additional suicide deaths.
Some people fear that suicide is contagious, Casias explains. They respond out of fear, with acts or words of unkindness.
Casias recalls seeing people turning and walking away when they came upon a mother in the grocery store whose child had died by suicide.
“People say it’s tradition,” Casias says. “But I say, well, can’t you break tradition?”
She and others have worked to change traditions of silence around suicide. Priscilla Manuelito, who works at the Thoreau Community Center in the Navajo Nation’s southwestern checkerboard country, echoes Casias’s experiences.
“A lot of elders and parents tell kids, this is our tradition, our culture, so it’s hard for them to talk about something their parents discourage them from talking about,” Manuelito says. “It’s just how we’ve been raised.”
The community center has been trying to change that, working with the schools on peer-to-peer suicide prevention, community events, and suicide awareness among the town’s parents and other adults.
“We’re still running into people who get upset with us, who say this is not up for discussion,” Manuelito says. “But it’s more talked about now, and more people are willing to look for resources and warning signs as parents.”
Many adults fear that asking if a young person is thinking about suicide might plant a toxic seed and become a self-fulfilling prophecy, both women note.
That’s just not true, they insist.
Other experts agree. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends asking any child over 10 about thoughts or plans of self-harm. The WHO released in September 2014 a new report on suicide prevention strategies.
“Asking about self-harm does not provoke acts of self-harm,” the WHO report states. “It often reduces anxiety associated with thoughts or acts of self-harm and helps the person feel understood.”
But it is important to “try to establish a relationship” with the person before asking about suicidal thoughts, the report advises.
So if you suspect a friend, student or family member is thinking about suicide, don’t remain silent. Ask.
“Question, persuade, refer,” Casias advises, citing a simple emergency suicide-prevention strategy by the same name that has been described as psychological “CPR.” Ask if he or she is thinking about suicide, persuade that person to seek help, and refer him or her to a behavioral health or medical professional.
“Offer to go with them,” Casias says.
And if you know somebody who is left behind by a suicide, “offer them your hand of support,” Casias says.