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4 Myths about Suicide Debunked

Woman hunched down on floor with her dog struggling with mental health stigma
Getty Images / ArtistGNDphotography

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 700 000 people die from suicide every year, accounting for 1 in every 100 deaths. WHO also believes many suicide cases could be prevented with timely intervention.

Misconceptions surrounding suicide and its causes can be harmful and potentially life-threatening. By dispelling these myths, we can encourage those who need it to seek help and support for suicidal ideation. Megan Potts explores four prevailing myths below.

If you or a loved one are thinking about self-harm or suicide, don’t hesitate to phone a suicide hotline. 

Find your country’s hotline here.

In the last few years, we've made considerable strides in mental health awareness.

However, there's still one topic discussed in hushed voices and behind closed doors. Confusing - and sometimes vulgar - nicknames and acronyms don't shed any light on such a serious topic.

Many of us may have considered suicide. 1 in 4 young people has reported suicidal thoughts. Some of us may have attempted it. And a few of us may have lost someone to it or known someone who has.

It's one of the saddest subjects we encounter, but it's more common than we'd like to admit. 

We don't talk about it with anywhere near enough openness. Here's the thing, though - our silence leads to misunderstandings and miscommunication. We bury our heads in the sand too much; we don't draw attention to suicide unless we have to. And all this shying away can lead to more lives lost when they could have been saved. 

Some of you may not know much about suicide apart from its definition. More of you may have heard myths, rumors, or judgments about the topic, shaping your view and keeping you silent. Today, I will explore some of these myths and separate the facts from fiction.

4 Myths about suicide we must stop believing

1. If someone is thinking about suicide, it's already too late to do anything 

When I first heard this myth, I thought of all the people I knew who'd once considered suicide but are still here. I include myself in this.

When I've thought about suicide, it's been during emotionally fraught periods in my life. There's a saying: "Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary pain." Many of us may cringe at this - possibly because we've heard it so often it sounds cliché!

Still, the saying does hold some truth. Don't give up on someone because they're suicidal. We need you to have hope for us when we can't.

2. If you're suicidal, you must be mentally ill

Mental health issues such as major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse disorders have links to suicide.

However, the oft-quoted idea that 80% - 90% of suicides are linked to mental health issues is fast becoming outdated.

Sometimes, people with no history of mental health issues find themselves experiencing suicidal ideation. Major life stresses, such as the death of a loved one or sudden unemployment, can cause suicidal thoughts and actions.

In any case, the reasons behind suicidal ideation don't matter. Pinning the label “mental illness” to the problem is dismissive and stigmatizing. If you, or someone you know, has suicidal thoughts, it's vital to access support as soon as possible. 

3. Asking someone about suicide may put the thought into their head

Many mental health workers will say this isn't true.

Many mental health professionals have to ask, "Have you had or been having any thoughts of suicide?" almost daily. Sometimes multiple times a day. If someone isn't suicidal, it ends up being a short conversation: "No,"/"Okay, I had to check." Then both the professional and the patient can move on.

If someone is suicidal, the conversation tends to be much longer. The mental health professional has to ask how far these thoughts have gone, whether there's an intent to follow these thoughts, and much more.

But suicide often comes with persistent and intense emotional and, sometimes, physical pain. It's unlikely you can manifest that degree of turmoil in someone by asking if they're thinking about suicide.

4. People who talk about suicide are doing it for attention

1 in 5 people contemplates suicide at once or more in their life. 17% of people in the US may deliberately self-harm, with or without thoughts of suicide. However, for people (80% to 83%) who've never considered suicide or self-harmed, the concept of either can be bewildering. Even clinicians can be divided on why people report feeling suicidal.

Why would someone in pain resort to hurting themselves further? Using pain to manage pain seems ridiculous. The person saying they're suicidal or self-harming must be doing it “for attention.” 

But labeling suicidal ideation or self-harm as "attention-seeking" is invalidating and dangerous. It can be tough for someone to talk about these feelings, and instant dismissal can make them feel worse.

Some people may apply unsympathetic logic toward those with suicidal thoughts. I.e., "If XXX were suicidal, they'd do it instead of talking about it all the time."

But the majority of people who contemplate suicide don't want to die. Suicidal ideation is the last-resort response to a desperate situation. By talking to you or others about suicide, the person in crisis isn't “attention-seeking.” They're seeking help by bringing their thoughts out to the open.

If someone says they're suicidal, every conversation or report must be taken seriously.

What to do if someone says they're feeling suicidal

In an emergency

If someone wants to or has attempted suicide, call 911 or the emergency number for your country, and stay with the person until help arrives.

If you're worried someone is at immediate risk of taking their own life, you should do the following (if you're able).

  • Remove anything nearby the person could use to harm themselves. 
  • Stay with the person. 
  • Get emergency help.  
  • Don't try and counsel them - leave that to a professional. 

The US emergency number for suicide changed to 988 in 2022. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of crisis centers, open 24/7 and providing free, confidential support. 

The number change was to ensure that more mental health crisis calls go to Lifeline rather than 911. Lifeline call centers have advanced training in helping someone with a mental health emergency. They may handle the crisis more sensitively than the police. 

No one is embarrassed to call 911 for a fire or an emergency. No one should be embarrassed to call 988 for a mental health emergency.

– Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life

If you feel like you're in danger

You can call 911 and ask for the police to help. You might feel worried about getting someone in trouble, but your safety must come first.

If someone wants to open up, but they aren't in a crisis

When someone talks about suicide, it can be difficult to know what to say or do.

You don't have to say much in most circumstances – just be there and willing to listen. You don't need special training or a "fix." Many struggling people will be grateful for a friend who listens and can help in small ways. If a friend or loved one opens up, you must:

  1. Listen. Give your loved one the space to talk and avoid speaking over them if you can. If they struggle to find the right words, don't attempt to fill in the gaps. Be patient and let them know you're there for them.
  2. Stay calm. It's very easy to panic when someone talks about harming themselves. However, panic is contagious; the more panicked you get, the more it will rub off on the other person.
  3. Be patient. Your loved one may not want a heart-to-heart that lasts for hours. Other people may want to talk for a while. Don't try to cut them off or act dismissive. Let them set the pace. 
  4. Reassure them. Avoid platitudes like, "Everything will be okay." Instead, tell your loved one they're not alone and you're there to listen.
  5. Don't try and counsel them. Do you think your loved one's feelings could be linked to a recent sad event, childhood, or lifestyle? Keep it to yourself. You're (probably) not a trained therapist, and poking around in someone's memories or business may worsen things.
  6. Talk about other things too. You don’t need to dedicate every conversation to mental health or suicidal thoughts. Continue to invite your loved one to social events, send them funny messages, and keep them updated on your day-to-day life. You’re not selfish – you value your loved one as a friend, partner, or family member, not just as someone going through a crisis.
  7. Offer practical help if you can. Some people going through hard times can neglect their self-care. Ask if you can help with shopping, cooking, cleaning, or childcare. This doesn't mean you’re "on call" every day. But cooking a meal or vacuuming their house once a week could make a big difference.

The takeaway

Misconceptions surrounding suicide and its causes can be harmful and potentially life-threatening. Discouraging others from opening up can make a situation worse.

If you or a loved one needs further information or support, see the links below:

Lifeline (US only): https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Lifeline also provides Spanish-speaking counselors and options for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. A 24-hour Online Chat is also available.

The Trevor Project (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/) is a 24-hour hotline for LGBT+ and questioning youth. 1-866-488-7386.

Trans Lifeline (https://www.translifeline.org/) is a non-profit organization created by and for the transgender community. Available in the United States and Canada. 1-877-565-8860.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 

NPS-ALL-NP-00935 JUNE 2023

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