September 5 to 11 is National Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Though mental health has entered the mainstream conversation in a big way over the past few years, it is still a difficult topic in our community. Regardless, suicide is a tough topic for anyone.
It is important that we have a conversation around suicide and suicide prevention. Research on suicide in the South Asian community is limited; most research looks at Asian Americans in general. However, studies that have been conducted point to stigma of mental health as a risk factor.
South Asian students are less likely than their peers to utilize mental health resources. We have discussed stigma and its adverse effects on mental health before. Click here to read that post. To put it more frankly, ignoring mental health, asserting that it’s a personal failing, or simply not taking it seriously does harm.
In this post, we are going to discuss signs and risk factors of suicidal ideation, and ways to intervene. We know suicide is a difficult topic no matter who you are. Nonetheless, it is our goal to prevent suicide in our community and educate about the realities of it.
Risk Factors and Warning Signs of Suicide
There are many risk factors for suicide, and some are not always expected. It’s important to remember that the presence of any one or combination of these is not a guarantee that someone is suicidal. Furthermore, someone who is suicidal might not be giving explicit indications. That is why knowledge of risk factors and warning signs is critical for suicide prevention.
Common risk factors include:
- Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and conduct disorder.
- Substance use problems.
- Serious health conditions including chronic pain.
- Traumatic brain injury.
- Access to lethal means such as guns and drugs.
- Prolonged stress, such as bullying, financial distress, relationship difficulty, or unemployment.
- Traumatic experiences.
- Exposure to another’s suicide or to sensationalized or romanticized depictions of suicide.
- Previous suicide attempts.
- Family history of suicide.
- Childhood abuse, neglect, or trauma.
Warning Signs of Suicide
Someone who is suicidal may not voice their suicidal feelings. It takes a great deal of bravery to tell someone about feeling suicidal. However, someone who is feeling suicidal or actively planning their suicide may demonstrate some indicating behaviors that, if noticed, should not be ignored.
Such behaviors can include:
- Talking about killing themselves.
- Feeling hopeless, trapped, or like they have no reason to live.
- Feeling like they have no reason to live or that they don’t want the life they are living.
- Talking about unbearable pain or distress.
Furthermore, there are some behaviors that we should all be aware of that are often precursors to suicide attempts, or at least indicate ideation.
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
- Withdrawing from activities or social life.
- Isolating from friends or family.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Aggression or fatigue.
- Calling people to say goodbye.
- Suddenly giving away prized possessions.
All of these behaviors should be taken seriously. The presence of one may not be an indication. It’s important to note if such behaviors are normal or a sudden change for someone. Lastly, there are changes in mood that act as warning signs, such as :
- Loss of interest.
- Shame, guilt, or humiliation.
- Agitation or anger.
- Relief or a sudden improvement.
The final point is an often overlooked or misinterpreted sign. Someone who has been in distress or experiencing a difficult or traumatic event doesn’t normally have a sudden improvement. To friends or family, it can be easy to see that sudden relief as them “getting over it.” However, it is more likely an indication that they have made a decision to take their own life and are feeling “at peace.”
There are conditions that make someone less likely to commit suicide, called protective factors. A tragedy of suicide is that many protective factors are not difficult to achieve. They are certainly easier for some to access than others, but none are impossible.
Additionally, it needs to be understood that an almost community-wide stigma of mental health discussion renders these protective factors much more inaccessible for South Asians. As stated before, South Asian students are much less likely to utilize mental health resources than White peers. Click here to read the study that supports this.
Common protective factors include:
- Access to mental health care, and being proactive about mental health.
- Feeling connected to family and community support.
- Limited access to lethal means, such as firearms or drugs.
- Cultural and/or religious beliefs that encourage connecting and help-seeking.
Ways We Can Help Prevent Suicide
First and foremost, if someone tells you they are considering suicide, believe them. Take it seriously and do not leave them alone until you have brought them to a mental health professional. If someone is telling you that they are having these thoughts, it is important that you listen empathetically without passing judgment. The key is validating their feelings and making sure they are connected with the resources they need.
But what if they’re not talking about it? If you think you’re recognizing the warning signs in a friend or family member and they haven’t brought it up, don’t ignore it. It’s easy to try to explain changes you’re observing, but they may even be hoping for someone to reach out. Assume that you are the only one who is going to talk to them.
However, if you are going to talk to someone you are concerned may be contemplating suicide, there are some good do’s and don’ts.
- Simply be yourself and don’t try to be their therapist.
- Listen. Validate their feelings and truly listen — this can have a much bigger impact than we expect.
- Be sympathetic and open, understanding that this is difficult for them.
- Be willing to ask if they are suicidal outright — studies actually show that this can be a key intervention as it relieves them of having to tell someone themselves.
- Offer cliché advice about having so much to live for, or otherwise argue against their feelings.
- Guilt trip them about the value of life or the effect they could have on loved ones.
- Try to be their therapist — you’re not a therapist and this is not a situation to be mishandled.
- Promise confidentiality. If someone you know is suicidal, you need to find them professional help.
Resources You Can Recommend
If someone you know is suicidal, there are many resources available that you can direct them to.
The National Suicide Prevention 24/7 Hotline is (800) 273-8255. Click here to visit their website.
The Crisis Text Line can be accessed by texting HOME to 741-741 to text with a trained counselor. It also works on WhatsApp. Their website is here.
SEWA-AIFW’s 24/7 Crisis Line is (952) 912-9100.
We offer free, one-on-one counseling to anyone. Click here to contact us about counseling.
We’ll be blunt. Stigmatizing attitudes held in the South Asian community regarding mental health and seeking help are harmful. In our earlier article about the harmful effects of stigma, we discussed how outside opinions and judgment prevent people in our community from seeking help. There is a tendency to distance ourselves from people struggling with mental health and mental illness.
The sad reality of suicide is that it is often very preventable. Suicidal ideation already leaves one feeling very isolated even in supportive environments. In an environment where mental health is still taboo for many, suicide prevention is difficult.
SEWA-AIFW is committed to deepening the conversation around mental health and suicide prevention in our community. It may be uncomfortable, but it must happen. Suicide is preventable. Mental illness is not weakness, nor is it a punishment or personal failing.
Our 24/7 crisis line is (952) 912-9100.