People around the world have reeled at the news of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington’s death by suicide. For many, his music was the soundtrack to their generation, and his loss is devastating.
But this is not an obituary for Chester – I was not much of a fan and I don’t know too much about him. What I do know is that whenever a high-profile person commits suicide, there is a great deal of commentary on social media about society’s response to this ultimate expression of mental illness.
My friends who suffer from mental illness talk about the importance of ending the stigma, and making it easier for people who live with this debilitating condition (or collection of conditions) to come forward and ask for the help they need.
And then there are the people who say that some organisations suggest that protocol should be to never mention the method of death when someone commits suicide, so as not to give anyone any ideas.
Right, so we’re supposed to end the stigma and talk about it while at the same time not mentioning it.
There are also those who implore their mentally ill friends to come forward. They share Facebook statuses encouraging others to share to show that at any time, someone is listening.
And then there are those who say that really, when a person is at the point of considering suicide, they can’t ask for help. The very thing that’s driving them to suicide is the thing that prevents them from reaching out to those who love them.
So, honestly, with so many people who are experts by dint of actually having a form of mental illness, and so many who work in the health or youth media or mental health care giving contradictory messages, there’s little wonder that no one really knows what to do.
This being the case, what do we do or say when we suspect someone might be suicidal or are confronted with a person who is. First, it’s a good idea to know the risk factors (all the following points are taken from the National Institute of Mental Health in the US):
- Depression, other mental disorders, or substance abuse disorder
- Certain medical conditions
- Chronic pain
- A prior suicide attempt
- Family history of a mental disorder or substance abuse
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
- Having guns or other firearms in the home
- Having recently been released from prison or jail
- Being exposed to others' suicidal behaviour, such as that of family members, peers, or celebrities
Then it’s a good idea to know the signs of suicidal tendencies:
- Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
- Talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no reason to live
- Making a plan or looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online, stockpiling pills, or buying a gun
- Talking about great guilt or shame
- Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
- Feeling unbearable pain (emotional pain or physical pain)
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Using alcohol or drugs more often
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Taking great risks that could lead to death, such as driving extremely fast
- Talking or thinking about death often
- Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from very sad to very calm or happy
- Giving away important possessions
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
- Putting affairs in order, making a will
And finally, if you think someone is in fact suicidal, these are the steps to helping:
- Ask: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” It’s not an easy question but studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts.
- Keep them safe: Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention. While this is not always easy, asking if the at-risk person has a plan and removing or disabling the lethal means can make a difference.
- Be there: Listen carefully and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling. Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may in fact reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts.
- Help them connect: In South Africa, the best organisations to contact for help are either the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) at www.sadag.org or 080 021 2223 or Lifeline at lifelinesa.co.za or 011 715 2000.
- You can also help make a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
- Stay Connected: Staying in touch after a crisis or after being discharged from care can make a difference. Studies have shown the number of suicide deaths goes down when someone follows up with the at-risk person.
Speaking as someone who has lost two loved ones to suicide, I can understand the desperate need that we all feel to prevent something like this from happening to the suicide victim themselves, but also to their friends and families. I speak with absolute authority when I say that no matter what a suicidal person might think, their families are not better off without them. Please don’t think twice about getting help.