The news felt like a punch in the stomach, reading that celebrated TV host Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide. I, like many, felt like I’d lost a friend – someone who I’d shared dozens of meals with. Someone who inspired me in life, in travel and in the kitchen.
Next, my thoughts immediately went to all of the people around the country and the world who were contemplating suicide. Just days following designer Kate Spade’s suicide, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were considering taking their own lives, imagining them thinking, “If Anthony can’t do it, if Kate can’t go on – how can I?”
We’ve all seen the stats – suicide rates are on the rise at an alarming rate. According to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control, “twenty-five states had suicide rate increases of more than 30 percent.”
While it seems like no one wants to talk about depression or suicide, there are countless conversations we can (and should) be having. Like our country’s underfunded mental health programs, the stigma around asking for help when feeling depressed, treating mental illness like an actual illness instead of a bad mood, and the list goes on.
Today, the conversation I’m tackling is what we can all do right now to help the people in our lives who might be at risk for suicide. I’m no expert, so I asked someone who is. My dad, John Nuckles M.Ed, who spent nearly 40 years as a mental health counselor. Over the course of his career, he spoke with thousands of people every year who were experiencing mental illnesses like depression.
It’s an understatement to say he has a deep understanding of what someone is going through when they feel suicidal. One of the best ways to help is to really understand the potential warning signs of suicide, which my dad has shared below.
- Check in on people who’ve recently started taking antidepressants. If someone has recently started taking an antidepressant, they can be at risk for suicide. It seems counter-intuitive because they’re taking a step towards feeling better. However, these medications can ease depressive symptoms while still leaving a person feeling depressed. For example, if someone previously couldn’t concentrate due to their depression, with a medication removing that symptom, they can now focus enough to develop a suicide plan. Others might have low energy when depressed, but with a medication, now have the energy to carry out a plan.
- Ask people how they’re feeling. Someone who is considering suicide often feels like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. They can be irritable, angering easily over little things. They can struggle with concentration and focus. Feeling hopeless is common. Someone might say things, like: “What’s the use? Why keep trying? I can’t do this anymore. I give up. Nobody really cares. Nobody really understands. I’m tired. I’m tired of it all. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m at the end of my rope.”
- Take note of how people are acting. A loss or increase of appetite is a common symptom of depression. So is a decrease or increase in sleep – for example, if someone sleeps 12 hours or more a day. Relapsing with substance abuse or beginning substance abuse to cope can be another sign. People might lose interest in hobbies and daily activities, such as cleaning and personal hygiene. Accidents can also be a warning sign as a trial run. For example, crashing one’s car into a tree, walking into traffic or an increase in risky behavior.
- Observe how someone interacts with others. A person who is suicidal might quit their job or end a relationship as a way of saying goodbye to those around them. It’s also common for someone to begin giving away their possessions before carrying out a suicide plan.
- Don’t ignore the blatant signs. People who are considering suicide might start asking if others would miss them if they were gone. They’ll develop a suicide plan and acquire methods, like purchasing or asking friends/family for a gun. Additionally, if someone has previously or recently attempted suicide, they may try again.
If you think someone in your life might attempt suicide, my dad shared this simple and pointed advice:
Ask how they’re doing. Ask someone if they’re ok, if they’re feeling depressed and if they are contemplating suicide. Checking in like this lets people know that others care and can help pull someone out of feeling like they’ve hit rock bottom. A simple question you can ask is, “what can I do right now to help you?” or “what would help you?” Invite them to start a conversation on how they are doing or what they are contemplating. Sometimes people are afraid to discuss feelings because they’re fearful they might act on their thoughts.
Ask them to get help. If someone in your life is considering suicide, ask them to seek help from a professional immediately.
Take action. If someone isn’t willing to seek help, call 911. Don’t feel like you are betraying a loved one by taking it this seriously. Thinking about it is the first step, and suicide is serious.
There are so many additional facets to improving the state of mental health in our country, but let’s start by arming ourselves with the knowledge to support those who are struggling. Anthony Bourdain once said, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” So let’s show up for each other to help make sure we’re all around to enjoy that ride.
And if you or a loved one find yourself contemplating suicide, please pick up a phone and call someone before doing anything else. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.