In my practice, almost everyone tells me they’re not thinking about suicide, but I think most intelligent people do at times think about this in their lives. It is probably one of the most difficult things about being human, as we are the only known species who lives their lives aware of their mortality. It’s a dilemma, we both, at times don’t want to live with the pain we live with, but we also don’t want to die. We just don’t want to deal with some of the pain we have to live with as humans.
As a parent, the hardest thing to live with is anything bad happening to a child of ours we’ve nurtured and loved. When young people, when they take their own lives, this is the most tragic, because they’ve usually done it for reasons that don’t make sense to adults. When you’re young, you have the same intensity of pain from the losses and disappointments in your life without the same ability to put them in perspective and cope with those feelings. It’s a particularly vulnerable and difficult time. Young people, just embarking on the complicated emotions that adulthood brings can easily become overwhelmed and make impulsive decisions. What’s even scarier is that the medications that can help a young person with depression have warnings on them frightening parents away from them. It’s true that there’s many things we don’t know about antidepressants and how they work and whether they could have negative long term consequences to our health. But the good news is that they’ve been around for over 35 years now and we haven’t seen any life threatening or shortening consequences. On the flip side, the decisions one can make when trying to function when seriously depressed most definitely have life threatening consequences. The statistics of those who are adolescent who do commit suicide are stronger incidence in those who are not taking an antidepressant. But I have also observed it to be high in adolescents or young adults who stop taking their medications. This is also a very high risk group. Either they didn’t like how they felt on the medications and stopped – because finding the right medication can be a frustrating process that takes a lot of time. Or they stop because it hasn’t helped and they gave up, or they stopped because they got involved in self medicating with drugs or alcohol.
Anyone who knows a fellow human is struggling should try to reach out to them and invite them to talk about what they’re thinking, and to try to do this without judgement. When we hear of young people taking their lives we have to be careful what we say, and try to avoid judgmental comments that would scare our children from talking honestly to us. Contradictory to what’s commonly thought, asking someone if they are thinking of taking their life does not put that idea in someone’s head, It invites them to actually talk about what they’re thinking. I think many parents and teachers and family just get too afraid to ask, because they don’t know what they will do if the answer is yes. But we really do need as a society to learn to ask this question of each other when we see each other struggling through hard times.
When I was first starting out working in psychiatry, one of my first volunteer jobs was manning a suicide hotline. It was an interesting and sometimes frightening job. But talking someone through this and getting them to agree to speak with someone close to them and connecting them with someone who could help them was gratifying. These hotlines still do exist today, and exist in phone, text and email formats. But I don’t think they are promoted as much as they once were, or as plentiful as they once were. Suicidal thoughts need to be a subject young people feel comfortable talking about. We have to get better at allowing people to feel okay about imperfect thoughts and feelings. We have to take the time to listen to each other, and be with each other. True connectedness to others, and them knowing we are there for them no matter what they’ve done or thought or how different they think they are, those are the ways we as a society save lives.