I remember like it was yesterday as I recounted the details over and over again in my mind…
I had just attended the most uplifting service at the African American House on campus to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King and was driving home from such a spectacularly full and rich event. The evening soon turned to tragedy. After more than 10 missed calls from my baby sister, I knew something was terribly wrong.
So with that, I returned my sister’s call. “Awnnie, what are you doing? I have been trying to get in contact with you,” my sister was sobbing.
I could hardly understand her. She asked me to pull over and I quickly obliged, given the seriousness in her voice. Honestly, in the back of my mind, I knew he had finally done it.
“Are you there?” my baby sister asked.
I was wrapped up in my own thoughts and had temporarily drowned out my sister’s cries, “Paul killed himself early this morning. His body is with police now!”
This event changed me for eternity
This event has changed me for eternity. My own blood, my baby cousin that I watched grow up, talked on the phone with, and hung out with in NYC, had just ended his own life; he committed suicide.
Shortly after the days passed, I heard so much from family and friends about Paul’s death. Many refused to believe that he indeed ended his own life. Rejecting the notion of suicide altogether, they created alternate explanations and conspiracies of how Paul “was killed.” Some even stated suicide could not possibly explain Paul’s death because Black people don’t kill themselves. In some Black communities, there is this notion or belief that suicide affects rich, white folk—not Black people who have access to friends, family, and religion.
Through Paul’s death, what I began to realize more and more is that, as a collective unit, there was an overwhelming sense of guilt. Had we failed him as a family? Is there more that could have been done? Did we ignore or turn a blind eye to the warning signs? After all, I WAS a psychiatry resident at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. If I couldn’t have helped him, who could have? There was A LOT of guilt to go around, myself included.
Since that time, I really tried to understand suicide in more depth, in respect to what families and friends can do. I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is in providing education. Yes, suicide is tragic, but what is even more tragic is ignoring the signs and symptoms of those suffering, and not providing help when possible. Paying attention to the signs and clues of those suffering, family and friends can intervene and provide different solutions and resources in a variety of ways.
What we know about suicide
Suicide is a major public health concern, affecting over 41,000 in the U.S., and is the 10th leading cause of death overall (afsp.org). Suicide does not discriminate among racial or ethnicities, but rather affects all people, regardless of race, age, or gender. Non-Hispanic whites have the highest rates of suicide, however, multiple studies have shown people from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, like American Indians/Alaska Natives, actually endorse suicidal ideation (thinking) at higher rates than others (cdc.gov).
Knowing the risks factors for suicide and understanding those at higher risks are paramount. The main risk factors for suicide include people with:
- Depression or other mental illnesses
- Substance use
- Family history of a mental illness or substance use
- A prior suicide attempt
- Family history of suicide
- History of trauma or abuse
- Having a gun in the home
- Male gender
- Advanced age
Oftentimes, friends and family that are closest to the suicidal person are in the best position to appreciate the risk factor and to spot warning signs. Research demonstrates that 70% of people who commit suicide tell someone about their plan or give some warning beforehand (psychcentral.com). Some warning signs to look out for include statements such as:
- I’d be better off dead
- Life isn’t worth it anymore
- People would be better off with me
- There is no way out
- I’m such a burden
- Life is too difficult
Other warning signs include changes in normal behavior patterns. Sometimes, people who contemplate suicide will plan ahead and complete or revise a will. Others may hoard prescription pills in preparation for an overdose. Other concerning signs are:
- Increase in drug or alcohol use
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Withdrawal from regular activities
- Increased isolation
- Failure to take care of self
What you can do
If someone you know is expressing concerning sentiments or exhibiting the behaviors listed above, you can ABSOLUTELY be an advocate for getting help. When helping a suicidal person, it’s always important to be non-judgmental, offer hope, and refer to treatment immediately. Mental illness is treatable, and many people who commit suicide often have a treatable mental disorder. You can refer the person to a mental health specialist, like a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist. Another potentially life-saving tool is giving the person the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours, 7 days a week.
No matter what you do, just remember that suicide is often preventable and that treatment can help. By simply knowing the risks, paying attention to the warning signs, and not being afraid to act, you can help your loved ones receive the treatment they need and deserve. It takes a lot of courage to help someone who is suicidal, but your help could potentially be life-saving.
Helping someone with suicide:
|Make a safety plan: Help your loved one make a plan when suicidal thoughts arise, such as having a contact person or being with others during a stressful time (e.g., anniversary, birthday, death, traumatic experience)|
|Encourage your loved one to get help: Help locate a mental health professional, call for an appointment together, or go to the appointment with the loved one|
|Be assertive: Those who contemplate suicide may not be in a place where they will follow up on your suggestions. So, it’s OK to be proactive to make sure your loved one follows up on plans or mental health appointments|
|Remove any lethal or potential means of suicide: Take away pills, guns, knives, or any other tools the person can use to end their life|
|Stay in touch: Continue to support, keep in contact, and reinforce communication with your loved one|
|Be empathetic: Keeping an open mind and non-judgmental attitude will help your loved one feel safe to talk about delicate or private issues|