MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL SECTION: Saving a life

MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL SECTION: Saving a life

47,000 people in the nation died by suicide in 2017, with 1,163 being from Tennessee, 9 being from Hawkins County, and 2 being from Hancock County.

Suicide is ranked as the CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) 10th leading cause of death in the nation as a whole and the second leading cause of death for adolescents ages 15-19.

Chances are, nearly everyone has either thought about suicide, attempted it or know of someone who has.

So, what can we as a county do help someone who is suffering and potentially save a life?

Spotting the warning signs

“If you think somebody might be suicidal, don’t worry about putting the idea in their mind by mentioning it,” said ETSU Counseling Center Director Dr. Dan Jones. “It’s better to go ahead and ask, ‘have you been thinking about suicide?’ so that, if they are, you can try and make sure they get the help they need.”

Jones suggested that changes in a person’s behavior can often signal a decline in his or her mental health, especially “changes in behavior from people who have a history of doing well or someone who has had problems in the past but is doing worse than usual.”

He went on to list some specific behavioral changes you might notice in someone contemplating suicide.

“Withdrawal: someone who has always been friendly and outgoing just kind of withdraws and separates themselves from the people in their life,” he began. “Sometimes, people who have been doing okay begin drinking a lot more or using drugs. Sometimes people who are taking drugs or drinking a lot of alcohol are trying to self-medicate. People who usually take care of themselves and keep themselves clean but suddenly aren’t shaving or taking baths. People who used to be doing a good job at work but aren’t doing as well as they used to be. Students who have always gotten good grades, but their grades start to go downhill.”

He also noted that people contemplating suicide often “start giving away their property” as a way to prepare.

The TSPN (Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network) website also provides a list of warning signs that include the following:

• Talking about suicide, death, and/or feeling no reason to live

• Preoccupation with death and dying

• Withdrawal from friends and/or social activities

• Experience of a recent severe loss (especially a relationship) or the threat of a significant loss

• Experience or fear of a situation of humiliation or failure

• Drastic changes in behavior

• Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school etc.

• Preparation for death by making out a will (unexpectedly) and final arrangements

• Giving away prized possessions

• Previous history of suicide attempts, as well as violence and/or hostility

• Unnecessary risks; reckless and/or impulsive behavior

• Loss of interest in personal appearance

• Increased use of alcohol and/or drugs

• General hopelessness

• Recent experience of humiliation or failure

• Unwillingness to connect with potential helpers

Do I need help?

TSPN’s website notes that, “nearly everyone at some time in his or her life thinks about suicide, though most everyone decides to live because they come to realize that the crisis is temporary, but death is not.”

However, if you or a loved one are in the middle of a crisis, those feelings are very real. TSPN explains that people experiencing a crisis often feel like they:

• Can’t stop the pain

• Can’t think clearly

• Can’t make decisions

• Can’t see any way out

• Can’t sleep, eat or work

• Can’t get out of the depression

• Can’t make the sadness go away

• Can’t see the possibility of change

• Can’t see themselves as worthwhile

• Can’t get someone’s attention

• Can’t seem to get control

What should I do?

If you or someone you know is exhibiting suicidal behavior, Jones explained that, “it’s always good to get them (the at-risk person) to see a professional, but some people are embarrassed or ashamed to do that, and they refuse to go. You do the best that you can, and if you can’t get them to see a professional, maybe you can get them to talk to their minister or their best friend. You can contact their parents to let them know you’re worried about their child.”

Regardless of the situation, Jones explained that you should at least “do whatever you can to make sure somebody is checking on them (the at-risk person) and making sure they’re okay.”

It is also important to note that the suicidal person might give some push back if you try to help.

“They (the at-risk person) might not like it,” Jones said. “They might even get mad at you for doing that (inquiring about their mental state), but I’d rather have somebody mad at me than dead.”

Cicely Alvis, who is a Division Director at Frontier Health, also explained the importance of removing a means by which someone could commit suicide if he or she is exhibiting warning signs.

“A lot that comes into play with suicide prevention is means restriction in the home for people who are vulnerable or at risk of suicide,” she said. “There’s a big focus on making sure people who are at risk of suicide don’t have access to weapons or medication (that have not been prescribed to them) for a period of time in their life. Safety planning and having a safe home is very important.”

She noted that this is particularly important in regard to youth suicide prevention.

“The latest data that I have says that 60 percent of the teens who died by suicide in Tennessee used a gun in the home or a family member’s home,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with having a gun in your home. It’s just important to make sure that people don’t have access. There are gun locks. These often come with guns when you purchase them. It’s not really about taking anything away—it’s just about prevention.”

Means restriction is also especially necessary in the case of someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis or has recently been hospitalized for mental health reasons.

“For a period of time, it’s really important not to have that kind of access,” Alvis said. “Not forever. It’s just about making sure that, when people are in that more vulnerable time, that they don’t have any sort of immediate access to something that could ultimately be life threatening.”

Step by step

TSPN also offers the following advice on properly addressing a loved one who is exhibiting suicidal behavior:

• Be aware. Learn the warning signs.

• Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.

• Ask if he or she is thinking about suicide.

• Be direct. Talk openly and freely about suicide.

• Be willing to listen. Allow for expressions of feelings and accept those feelings.

• Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.

• Don’t dare him or her to do it.

• Don’t give advice by making decisions for someone else or tell them to behave differently.

• Don’t ask “why.” This encourages defensiveness.

• Offer empathy, not sympathy.

• Don’t act shocked. This creates distance.

• Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.

• Offer hope that alternatives are available, do not offer glib reassurance; it only proves you don’t understand.

• Take action. Remove means. Get help from individuals or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

For more information, visit TSPN’s website at http://tspn.org. For immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “TN” to 741741. You can also live chat with a counselor 24/7 by going to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.