I Work In Suicide Prevention, And These Are The Most Important Lessons I've Learned

by Jorrie Varney
Originally Published: 
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Trigger warning: This posts contains information about suicide that may be triggering.

“She killed herself.”

My ears were ringing as I attempted to process the information coming through the receiver of my cell phone. I’d just been told my friend had died by suicide.

She’d called me the week before and I hadn’t answered. Too busy to talk, and I hadn’t gotten around to returning her call. I wondered if there was something I could have done to stop her, had I only answered the phone that day. Would she have given me any indication that she was struggling?

If only I’d known. The words rattled around in my head for hours, days even. I imagined her final moments, how dark and lonely they must have been, and I wished more than anything I could turn back time. Of course, even if I had done all the right things, it might not have been enough. Family and friends can do everything possible to try to keep their loved one from suicide, but tragedies still happen.

That was seven years ago.

Today, I work as a registered nurse in suicide prevention. Today, I know exactly what I would have said to my friend, even before that final call, and I want you to know what to say, too. We are not powerless when it comes to suicide, though it often feels that way. Our words are our greatest ally in the fight against depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and every other mental illness robbing us of those we love and care about.

We have to normalize conversations about mental health. We have to talk about it, and we have to keep talking about it. Not just when tragedy strikes, but every day. We have to check in with each other. Look out for each other, and be comfortable having tough conversations.

The world lost two brilliant minds recently—Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Both died by suicide. Both left a world of people who loved and admired them. What you didn’t read about in the news were the other 861 people who died by suicide this week. That’s right, 123 people die by suicide every day. For every person who completes suicide, 25 others attempt. That’s over 3,000 suicide attempts every day. Every single day.

Do I have your attention?

These people are our friends, our brothers and sisters, our spouses, our parents, our grandparents, and our peers. These are people, like you and me.

I know it feels foreign and uncomfortable to talk about suicide and mental health issues. Suicide is scary, and mental health is complex, but not talking about it only perpetuates the stigma. I’m begging you, please don’t stick your head in the sand, you hold so much power in this fight. Lean into your discomfort, because your actions could save someone you care about. Your words could empower others to speak out and seek help.

You may be thinking you don’t really know anyone with mental health issues, but you would be wrong. One in five people has a mental health diagnosis. This doesn’t include all of the people who have not sought help, and/or remain undiagnosed. We all know someone with a mental health diagnosis whether we are aware of it or not. That’s why normalizing conversations about mental health is so important.

We aren’t talking enough right now, we aren’t asking enough questions. We are losing people we love way too often.

If only I’d have known. We say these words, I said these words. But, how can you know if you never ask? If you know someone struggling with any mental health diagnosis check in, ask the hard questions. Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you considering suicide?

The most common myth about suicide is that talking about it will give people the idea of suicide. That by somehow mentioning it, it will present suicide as an option, but that’s simply not true. Talking about it can be their lifeline, can prompt them to seek professional help and support.

And know that even if you do all the right things, sometimes it’s not enough to stop someone you love from acting on their thoughts of suicide. When this happens, it’s devastating. Suicide is always devastating. But please know, no matter the circumstances, it is never your fault. Don’t blame yourself.

Asking questions, checking in, and offering support without judgment is the best way you can help prevent a suicide attempt. Because by asking, you are showing them you care. By asking, you are giving them an opportunity to talk about what they’re feeling, what they may be going through. You’re providing support they may desperately need. You’re becoming part of the solution, and all you have to do is start talking.

So, let’s talk.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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