Survivors of suicide loss: Tools that can help
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The Saturday before Thanksgiving is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. At Centerstone, we recognize this day as an important opportunity to spread messages of hope and healing to survivors of suicide loss, to discuss the significant impact of suicide, and to dispel some of the myths surrounding this all-too-common tragedy.
“A recent research-based estimate suggests that for each death by suicide in the United States, about 135 people are exposed to the event, or 6.9 million people annually,” said Jenna Farmer-Brackett, Centerstone clinical excellence manager. “That means that 40 to 50 percent of the U.S. population has been exposed to suicide.”
She emphasizes that the sheer number of survivors of suicide loss warrants continuous conversation and attention.
“Suicide is something we must talk about. The more we talk about it, the more we can get comfortable talking about it, and that translates into lives saved,” Farmer-Brackett said.
Since conversations are key in helping the survivors of suicide loss, it is essential to know what terms to use, she said.
“We should stop using the following terms: commit suicide, committed suicide, completed suicide,” Farmer-Brackett said. “That’s because they all have varying degrees of negative connotations and stigmas. Instead, we should use: died by suicide or lost their life to suicide.
“We need to choose better words in these important conversations so that we can listen without judgement and so that we can better support suicide loss survivors,” she said. “We are working to eliminate suicide and one of the important steps toward that goal is to help survivors become more comfortable talking about it, so they can work toward healing and recovery.”
Tools that can help survivors of suicide loss
There are many tools that survivors of suicide loss can use to help manage the powerful emotions surrounding this all-too-common and tragic occurrence. They include:
- Using your relaxation response to help create a calm mind and calm body.
- Use mindful meditation.
- Identify activities at home and at work that help you relax.
- Use your five senses to self-soothe, such as: practicing aromatherapy with essential oils like lavender, looking at beautiful photos, listening to the sounds of nature, hugging something soft, or sipping your favorite tea.
- Expand and use your knowledge of yourself: your strengths and your limits.
- Observe your reactions to stress. Learn the signs to watch for that indicate your need for outside assistance. And find someone to talk to. When two or more people work together, they can accomplish so much more than they can alone.
- Increase positive emotions daily.
- Find the joy and humor in your life. Identify those things or situations that bring positive emotions and cultivate them.
- Practice expressing gratitude. Show others that you think about them, care about them and appreciate them. Visits (when we can), phone calls, hand-written notes and letters are all great ways to increase your social connectedness and make you stronger and more able to withstand the rough patches in your life.
- Focus on your accomplishments. Consider everything you have overcome, all your successes. Celebrate all of the things you have done and are doing that are positive and life-affirming.
- Create a caring community.
- Find ways to connect to your community, any group of people who share goals and/or interests. Find ways to create and grow those communities, whether it’s in person, online, on the phone or any other way.
- Identify sources of support.
- Lean on the supportive people in your community.
- Find people at work who support you.
- And be that source of support for others.
- Practice good communication.
- Good communication and conflict-resolution skills will help you in many areas of your life. Strengthen those skills through thoughtful practice. Stand up for your needs and wants while also being respectful of the needs and wants of those around you. Be neither passive nor aggressive, but be assertive!
- Make eye contact. Clearly state your needs and wants. Listen to others to hear, not just to respond. Use an appropriate speaking volume and a steady tone of voice. Practice confident body language. These are skills you can
Facts and statistics on suicide in the United States and in Illinois
According to the CDC, 48,344 people lost their lives to suicide in the United States in 2018. That’s 14.2 people per 100,000. The majority of those individuals, or 67 %, were between 25 and 64 years old.
- 605 were between the ages of 5 and
- 6,211 were between 15 and 24.
- 15,541 were between 25 and
- 16,885 were between 45 and
- And 9,102 were 65 years old or older.
In Illinois, at least one person dies of suicide every six hours. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Illinois residents between the ages of 10 and 24.
- It’s the second leading cause of death for ages 25 to
- It’s the fourth leading cause for people ages 35 to 54.
- The ninth for ages 55 to 64.
- And the eighteenth for people ages 65 and older.
“More than four times as many people died by suicide in Illinois in 2017 than in alcohol-related motor-vehicle accidents,” Farmer-Brackett said. “The total number of of those deaths attributed to suicide adds up to approximately 30,784 years of life lost before age 65.”
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the eleventh in Illinois. Suicide costs Illinois a total of $1,391,865,000 in combined lifetime medical and work loss in 2010, or an average of $1,181,549 per suicide death.
Dispelling the myths surrounding suicide
“The more we can debunk common myths about suicide, the more we can understand it and offer compassion to people who are struggling against that dark urge,” said Farmer-Brackett. “As a society, we should not be afraid to speak up about suicide, to speak up about mental illness or to seek out treatment for ourselves or anyone in need.”
Here are some suicide myths debunked:
- Suicide only affects individuals with a mental health condition. NOT TRUE!
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, many individuals with mental illness are not affected by thoughts of suicide, and not all people who attempt suicide or die by suicide have mental illness. Relationship problems and other life stressors such as criminal or legal matters, persecution, eviction or loss of home, death of a loved one, devastating or debilitating illnesses, trauma, sexual abuse, rejection, and recent or impending crises are also associated with suicidal thoughts and attempts.
“If you are thinking that all of these reasons sound like the world around us during this pandemic, you are spot on,” said Farmer-Brackett. “There is a lot of concern about how the rate of suicide is being affected by COVID.”
- Once an individual is suicidal, they will always remain suicidal. NOT TRUE!
Active suicidal ideation is often short-term and situation-specific. Studies have shown that approximately 54% of individuals who have died by suicide did not have a diagnosable mental health disorder. For those with mental illness, the proper treatment can help to reduce symptoms.
“The act of suicide is often an attempt to control deep, painful emotions and thoughts. But once those emotions and thoughts dissipate, so can those thoughts of suicide,” Farmer-Brackett said. “And while suicidal thoughts can return, they are not permanent. Many people who have experienced suicidal thoughts and who have attempted suicide have gone on to live long and successful lives.”
- Most suicides happen suddenly and without warning. NOT TRUE!
Most people who die by suicide give some warning signs. Therefore, it is important to learn and understand those signs. Many only show warning signs to those closest to them, but those loved ones may not recognize them. When that happens, the suicide may seem sudden or without warning.
“That is not to say that it is anyone’s ‘fault.’ Our aim is never to pass judgement,” Farmer-Brackett said. “Our goal is to stress the importance of education and of talking about these things so as to prevent future tragedies.”
- People who die by suicide are selfish and take the easy way out. NOT TRUE!
“Typically, people do not die by suicide because they do not want to live; people die by suicide because they want to end their suffering,” Farmer-Brackett said. “These individuals are hurting so badly that they feel helpless and hopeless.
“Individuals who experience suicidal ideation do not do so by choice,” she said. “They are going through a very serious, difficult time in life and they need our help, not our judgement.”
- Talking about suicide will lead to or encourage suicide. NOT TRUE!
“There is a widespread stigma associated with suicide and as a result, many people are afraid to speak about it,” Farmer-Brackett said. “Talking about suicide not only reduces that stigma, but also allows individuals to seek help, rethink their opinions, and share their story with others.”
- There is a single cause for suicide. NOT TRUE!
“Suicide most often occurs when stressors and health issues converge to create an experience of hopelessness and despair,” Farmer-Brackett said. “While depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, other conditions like anxiety and substance use issues, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide.
“It’s important to note that most people who actively manage their mental health concerns go on to engage in life,” she said.
“Myths and misinformation can affect how much people elect to tell their service providers. Some fear that talking about suicidal thoughts will either be dismissed or will generate a knee-jerk reaction of hospitalization,” Farmer-Brackett said. “But that silence can be devastating and impact the care received. We all need to talk more about suicide.”