Suicide is a serious problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have increased by 35% since 1999.1 Many in the human services industry encounter this problem first-hand. Their clients often deal with life issues known to be risk factors for suicide. As a result, human services organizations could find themselves thrust into the role of developing suicide prevention and awareness policies.
Mental health organizations are taking the opportunity to spread vital information about how to develop effective and accessible crisis-response plans for people at risk. In the same way the Heimlich maneuver and CPR can be performed by those without formal medical training, there are some basic tools and knowledge almost anyone can use that might help prevent a suicide.
Risk factors and signs
Unfortunately, suicidal thoughts are not uncommon, and they are often signs of more serious issues. Much like other mental-health conditions, suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background. However, serious suicidal thoughts do seem to occur more often in certain demographic groups than others, such as the groups listed here2:
- 4.9% of all adults
- 11.3% of young adults aged 18 to 25
- 18.8% of high school students
- 45% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth
It’s important to note changes in a person’s pattern of behavior that may indicate a mental-health issue. Changes in behavior that can indicate a mental-health issue can include the following:
- Increased alcohol and drug use
- Aggressive behavior
- Withdrawal from friends, family or community
- Dramatic mood swings
- Impulsive or reckless behavior
- Collecting and saving pills
- Giving away possessions
- Tying up loose ends, such as organizing personal papers or paying off debts
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
It is important to note that mental health is an overall wellness of how people think, regulate emotions and behave. Mental health can be affected by a mental disorder, which are often diagnosed by medical professionals through tools such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and clinician interviews3. However, mental illness by itself may not indicate a danger of suicide.
There isn’t an easy distinction between mental health and mental disorders, but changes in mental health should be noted as they could lead to suicidal tendencies.
It is critical for those working in the human services field to know and recognize the signs of suicide, in addition to knowing what steps to take next. Undergoing mental health first-aid courses, such as those offered through county mental health boards or outreach programs, can be beneficial for:
- Human services workers
- Family members of human services workers
- Members of local emergency response teams.
What human services organizations can do
Employee training is key to helping address suicide within the populations human service organizations serve. Staff training might include this course on Mental Health First Aid, which instructs those without formal medical training how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse.
As a general rule, human services employees should know the warning signs of suicidal behavior and how to approach and talk to a client or co-worker in crisis. Here are a few guidelines:
- Talk openly and honestly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
- Remove means, such as guns, knives or stockpiled pills.
- Calmly ask simple and direct questions, like “Can I help you call your psychiatrist?”
- If there are multiple people involved, only one person should speak at a time.
- Express support and concern.
- Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice.
- Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong.
- If you’re nervous, try not to fidget or pace.
- Be patient.
If someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, let them know they can talk to you about what they’re going through. While speaking, it’s important to try to adopt an open and compassionate mindset. Instead of “arguing” or trying to disprove any negative statement the person makes — such as saying things like “Look on the bright side, count your blessings,” etc. — employ what are known as active listening techniques.4
Active listening techniques involve listening carefully to the speaker, and then occasionally restating and clarifying what has just been said. While actively listening, avoid asking questions or saying what you feel, believe or want. Respond to the personal and specific aspects of what is being said, as opposed to bringing up impersonal or abstract concepts. Above all, try to focus on the feelings reflected in the speaker’s words, not just the facts or ideas. This can help the person feel heard and validated.3
In urgent situations, employees can call a new three-digit Suicide & Crisis Hotline—988—available to every person in every community nationwide. This number from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will put you in touch with trained crisis counselors who can help in a mental health, substance use or suicide crisis. The previous Lifeline phone number (1-800-273-8255) will always remain available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.
Human services organizations interested in bolstering their suicide prevention and awareness protocols might also benefit from some of the resources available at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).