There are many prevailing myths about suicide, suicide risk assessment, and suicide intervention. Learning that someone is suicidal can be very frightening both for the person experiencing the thoughts and helpers. It’s important that as a well-informed helper you do your best to stop the spread of these myths by educating yourself in the basic theory of suicide risk.
These myths below are common in individuals with no training in suicide risk, but even if you have no formal training, dispelling these myths can help you to reduce the stigma. How many did you get right?
Table of Contents
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#1 – Asking someone about suicide will put it in their head
False! Humans have a strong self-preservation instinct, and asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will in no way put it in their heads. (Dazzi, et. al., 2014) Instead, asking someone if they’re feeling suicidal will often result in relief if they are feeling suicidal, because it shows that you’re willing and able to talk about it openly.
#2 – Someone who talks about suicide is unlikely to attempt it
False! Many times people who are feeling suicidal will drop hints (lethality statements) like “Sometimes I wish I could just fall asleep and not wake up.” People not trained in suicide assessment may not pick up on these subtle hints, or they may fear asking whether they are feeling suicidal because they don’t know what to do if the person says yes.
As suicide statistics reveal, most women to die by suicide have attempted before, and most men use such lethal methods that they don’t get a second chance. Therefore you should always treat a suicidal threat or statement as real.
#3 – Revealing suicidal thoughts will lead to being hospitalized against one’s will
False! While people who are in immediate danger can (and are encouraged) to go to their local hospital emergency room for urgent help, most people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts can get help on an outpatient basis, connecting with their loved ones and getting referrals to counsellors, therapists, or other mental health care.
#4 – You have to be crazy or mentally ill to experience suicidal thoughts
False! Although upwards of 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental illness (Mann, 2002), having suicidal thoughts by no means you are mentally ill. In fact, most people report having suicidal thoughts at one point or another during their life. They are a normal experience and as long as steps are taken to help, most people with suicidal thoughts can overcome them.
#5 – Once a person has been to the hospital for a suicide attempt, their risk is eliminated
False! Certainly, going to the hospital and seeking emergency physical and mental health care is important. Someone who has overdoses needs physicians to make sure they’re healthy, and to get an assessment of their mental state. But this reduction in risk is only temporary.
Once a person has been discharged, if nothing else changes in their environment they are likely to find themselves in the same suicidal thoughts as before. In fact, sometimes suicide risk can even speak after a discharge. (Large, et. al., 2011)
This is why it’s so important to ask what happened during a person’s last suicide attempt, if they have one, as part of a risk assessment. You want to know what has changed.
#6 – Suicide only affects poor people
False! Suicide is blind. Young and old, poor and rich, in every country of the globe people die by suicide, an estimated 800,000 people a year. (World Health Organization, n.d.)
Sometimes people feel like they’re not entitled to feel suicidal because they’ve lived a life of privilege but this is not the case, and bottling those feelings up and not talking to people can make things worse.
#7 – Feeling suicidal is a sign of weakness
False! Suicide is a response to an overwhelming set of circumstances. Humans have evolved to problem-solve, and sometimes we run out of solutions. In that situation, suicide can look like an attractive solution. This is not a sign of weakness, it’s simply a sign that you don’t have enough resources to deal with what you’re going through.
By widening your support network it’s like adding floor joists to your sub-floor. You’re still carrying the same amount of weight but it’s spread out over a larger area, reducing the amount of load on any one spot.
#8 – Suicides are more common during the cold winter months
False! Depending on country, suicides peak at different months (Fruehwald, et. al., 2004), and in Canada and the US tend to peak in April and May (Bridges, et. al., 2005), and are often quite high during the summer. There are a number of explanations for this, one of which is that during the cold winter months, everyone is inside (and so are you.) When the winter is over, people begin to go outside, and it gets warmer; the suicidal person sees that everyone is enjoying themselves but they are not, and the incongruence can elevate suicide risk.
Additionally, the winter months are often associated with the holidays. Thanksgiving (in the US) and Christmas are a time of celebration and being together with family, who in many cases are a strong protective factor. During the spring and summer there are not as many holidays and people don’t see their families as often (if at all.)
#9 – Teenagers and young adults are at greatest risk for suicide
False! Although teenagers experience an increase in suicide risk compared to earlier adolescents, people in their 20s actually have one of the lowest rates of suicide. After a person’s 20s and 30s, suicide risk tends to climb with age, and individuals 65 and over experience the highest rates of suicide, followed by middle-aged individuals, aged 45-54. (Statistics Canada, 2014)
Explanations for this include empty-nester syndrome in women, where they feel like their purpose has been served and they are only a burden on others, and a “mid-life crisis” in men where they begin to evaluate where they are and where they’ve been and decide that they haven’t lived up to their potential.
#10 – If someone has lost someone close to them to suicide, their grief will prevent them from doing the same
False! In fact, losing someone to suicide (becoming a suicide survivor) actually increases risk. (Jordan, 2008) This is because losing that person has provided a behaviour role model, which serves to give the suicidal person permission.
Additionally, they may experience a lack of support because the person they relied on is now gone. Factoring in grief from the loss and a desire to want to be reunited and it becomes easy to see why suicide bereavement is such a powerful predictor of suicide. (McEnamy, 2008)
These are just a few of the myths that are frequently spoken or thought when the topic of suicide comes up. With your help, you can change people’s attitudes towards suicide and create a more open atmosphere for everyone. Can you think of any other suicide myths?
Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. T. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence?. Psychological Medicine, 44(16), 3361-3363. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299
Mann, J.J. (2002). A current perspective of suicide and attempted suicide. Annals of Internal Medicine. Vol 136
Large, M., Sharma, S., Cannon, E., Ryan, C., & Nielssen, O. (2011). Risk factors for suicide within a year of discharge from psychiatric hospital: a systematic meta-analysis. Australian & New Zealand Journal Of Psychiatry, 45(8), 619-628. doi:10.3109/00048674.2011.590465
World Health Organization. “WHO | suicide Data” (n.d.) Retrieved electronically from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/ on January 29, 2015
Statistics Canada. (2014) “Suicides and suicide rate, by sex and by age group (Both sexes no.)” from CANSIM, table 102-0551. Retrieved electronically from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/hlth66a-eng.htm on January 29, 2015.
Fruehwald, S., Frottier, P., Matschnig, T., Koenig, F., Lehr, S., & Eher, R. (2004). Do monthly or seasonal variations exist in suicides in a high-risk setting?. Psychiatry Research, 121(3), 263-269. doi:10.1016/S0165-1781(03)00253-1
Bridges, F. S., Yip, P. S. F., Yang, K. C. T. (2005). Seasonal changes in suicide in the United States, 1971 to 2000. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 100, 920–924
McMenamy, J. M., Jordan, J. R., & Mitchell, A. M. (2008). What do Suicide Survivors Tell Us They Need? Results of a Pilot Study. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 38(4), 375-389.
Jordan, J. (2008) Bereavement After Suicide. Psychiatric Annals. 38(10)