Suicide Prevention and Education

by Kathie Graydon, M.S.

Director of Education and Community Relations

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and, Wednesday, September 10, 2014 is recognized as World Suicide Prevention Day.  To show our support of this important topic, we are embarking on a series of blogs that should help others to be more knowledgeable about the risk and protective factors for suicide, along with what warning signs can be indicative that someone might be considering suicide. We will also equip readers with the knowledge of what to do when facing warning signs and what actions may not be helpful. Lastly, we will address the difficult topic of surviving suicide.

Right around the time I graduated college, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Alachua County Crisis Center in Gainesville, Florida.  I was trained to man the crisis hotline which, on occasion, meant speaking to someone who was suicidal. One of the most important lessons I learned while there is that people often just need to speak to someone who cares. It was critical that the person on the other line of the phone felt that sense of caring. I became more knowledgeable on how to intervene when someone was at that point and how to match their emotion so that they felt they were heard. It was these lessons and that experience that led me to want to take on blogging about this topic.

If we as a community want to prevent suicide, we must first understand more about it. Recently I stumbled upon a great article that really helped me put all the basics into perspective. I will be including much of what was shared in that article here for you, including a direct link to the actual article here.

Many people want to know what “causes” suicide. The first thing that should be understood when we speak about suicide is that there isn’t one specific cause.  There are, however, situations identified as risk factors that make an individual more likely to consider or commit suicide.  Alongside these risk factors are situations or circumstances that minimize an individual’s likelihood of considering or committing suicide. These are called protective factors.  A detailed description of these two terms is included below from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Risk factors are characteristics that make it more likely that individuals will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. Protective factors are characteristics that make it less likely that individuals will consider, attempt, or die by suicide. Risk and protective factors are found at various levels: individual (e.g., genetic predispositions, mental disorders, personality traits), family (e.g., cohesion, dysfunction), and community (e.g., availability of mental health services). They may be fixed (those things that cannot be changed, such as a family history of suicide) or modifiable (those things that can be changed, such as depression).

A large part of preventing suicide involves understanding what warning signs are. These should not be confused with risk factors, as warning signs indicate a need to take an immediate action.

Warning signs indicate an immediate risk of suicide, whereas risk factors indicate someone is at heightened risk for suicide, but indicate little or nothing about immediate risk (Rudd et al., 2006). Warning signs are only applicable to individuals, whereas risk and protective factors are found in individuals and communities. Being able to tell the difference between a risk factor and a warning sign is important in communications about suicide risk. Talking about warning signs helps people know what actions they can take right now to help someone at immediate risk for suicide. Talking about risk factors helps people understand what might need to change within an individual or a community in order to decrease suicide risk over time.

Often times these issues can be confused, so listed below is a chart that was highlighted in the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s article that should help us identify what each category means by comparing the risk and protective factors of a heart attack and what the warning signs are. It is important to note the difference between risk factors and warning signs.

We must also remember that not all people who are contemplating ending their own life present to us as such. Often times, the very people we should be concerned about present to us with a smile. 

You may be asking yourself…”So, what’s next?” We now understand that there are certain situations that make a person more likely to commit suicide. We understand that there are specific circumstances that, when in place, make a person less likely to commit suicide, and we also understand what the warning signs are that indicate we need to take immediate action.

The good news is that you just took the first step. Congratulations! Understanding the basics about suicide is key to preventing it.

It is also important to know where to go to for help.

In our next blog of this series, we will hear from Susan Ripley, an experienced mental health counselor with a very personal connection to suicide. She will help us know what to do when someone we know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, and she will follow that up with the last blog in the series which will deal with the difficult topic of surviving suicide.