Facts are stubborn things. They can disquiet us, unnerve us, and even alarm us. While you might find yourself troubled by some of the information presented in this article, the purpose is to inform. Because September is World Suicide Awareness Month (and September 10th World Suicide Awareness Day), this seems an appropriate time to look into this serious public health issue.

One uncontestable fact is that suicide rates are rising nationally. From 1999 to 2016 suicide rates increased in 49 of the 50 states (the only exception being Nevada), and in half of those states suicide rates increased by more than 30%. It’s a particular matter of concern that suicide rates are rising even faster among the elderly. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) reports that while older adults account for 12% of the population, they account for about 18% of suicides. The AAMFT further asserts that instances of suicide are severely underreported, perhaps by as much as 40%. Furthermore, the risk of suicide rises as one breaks down the statistics by age: the risk of suicide among those 85 and older is greater than the risk of those 75 to 85, which is in turn greater than the risk of those 65 to 75. And while there are far more suicides among men than among women, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that “suicide does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk.”

Risk Factors

While there is no one single cause for suicide, it’s generally accepted that experiencing a life crisis is a major risk factor. Because the loss of a spouse is a common event among an elderly population, loneliness can be an important factor, especially as loneliness might shade into depression, another significant risk factor for suicide. Further risk factors for suicide include a family history of suicide and serious physical health issues such as chronic pain.

NIMH stresses that “many people have some of these risk factors but do not attempt suicide. . . . Suicide is not a normal response to stress. Suicidal thoughts or actions are a sign of extreme distress, not a harmless bid for attention, and should not be ignored.” [their emphasis].

Warning Signs

Suicide usually doesn’t happen suddenly or inexplicably: there are a number of warning signs that can be discerned. Major warning signs can include:

• Expressing thoughts of hopelessness and despair • Threatening harm to oneself • Talking about wanting to die or having no reason to live • Increased alcohol or drug use • Dramatic mood swings • Withdrawing from activities or isolating oneself from family or friends • Showing big changes in sleeping or eating habits • Feeling unbearable pain, either emotional or physical

What You Can Do

Perhaps the most important fact I can convey to you today is that suicide is often preventable, and conditions that lead to suicide—such as depression—are treatable. If you spot some of the warning signs of suicide, what can you do? First, it is better to acknowledge them rather than ignore them. While it can be difficult to initiate such conversations, it’s better to speak up if you’re worried about someone. Here are some suggestions about how you might begin (adapted from an online HelpGuide):

• “I’ve been feeling concerned about you lately.” • “I’ve noticed some differences in you and wondered how you’re doing.” • “I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately.” • “How can I best support you right now?” • “Have you thought about getting help?” • “You’re not alone in this. I’m here for you.” • “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.”

If you’re concerned that a friend or family member might be suicidal, one of the best ways to help is to be fully present by listening and being empathetic, without judging or arguing. Being sympathetic and offering hope are important ways of helping and showing you care.

Another important way to help is to assist the suicidal individual in seeking professional help. You will find immediate help through one of the following resources:

• The Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK (8255)) or the Crisis Text Line’s number (741741). Available 24/7 • Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Community Service Board Mental Health Emergency Services – 540.434.1766. Available 24/7 At Sunnyside you can contact any of the following: • Karen Riley – Administrator of Health Services – x. 8302 • Will Lowrance – Chaplain – x. 8229 • Pat Spears – Associate Chaplain – x. 8401

--written by John Noffsinger