World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10th. It’d feel strange to say a congratulatory remark on this day – unlike “happy new year,” there’s no “happy” in suicide. But the gravity of the concept does not mean it is insurmountable – as a suicide attempt survivor and suicide loss survivor, I’ve learned first-hand that we all can play a role in preventing suicide.
First, we need to understand the state of suicide in the world. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 13 years old, those near me laughed in my face. “Mental illness is a White People Thing,” they said. I’m an immigrant to the U.S. from an ethnic minority village in the poorest province of China. I should be grateful I even have food on the table – how dare I fall for a “made-up disease”?
The reality, however, isn’t so simple. 77% of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries (WHO). Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds worldwide (WHO). Likely at least 90% of those who die by suicide have a mental health condition. Mental illness and suicides do not discriminate – they can affect anyone, anywhere, at any age, at any time. Until we take people seriously for the pain they express, that will not change.
Unfortunately, governments aren’t quite yet where they need to be on this matter. Only 38 countries worldwide have a national suicide prevention strategy (WHO). Still, there are plenty of things we can do on a personal level while we advocate for greater, systemic change.
1. Watch your language.
Words matter. Use “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide”. “Committed” has a criminal connotation and ties back to a history where suicide was considered a legally-punishable crime (here’s one example of it in modern day). Furthermore, mental illness is an illness just like other illnesses are, and you wouldn’t someone “committed diabetes”, so why say “committed suicide”?
Similarly, use “completed suicide” rather than “succeeded in suicide”. There is no success to be found here.
Indeed, with the rise in discussion of mental health on online forums, we’ve seen an increase in dialogue without necessarily the same increase in education. This means that sometimes one might say something that feels true but is actually a reiteration of stereotypes and misconceptions ricocheted across media platforms.
On the more “benign” end, that can manifest as incorrectly using terms. In North American medical literature, for example, “suicide survivor” is defined as someone who lost someone to suicide, not someone who attempted to die by suicide. The term “suicide attempt survivor” describes someone who survived a suicide attempt. For clarity, you may want to replace “suicide survivor” with “suicide loss survivor” instead.
On a riskier end, that accidental or intentional spread of misinformation can lead to people self-diagnosing and self-medicating for conditions that they might not have, in ways that may not be safe. Anxiety is not quirky; depression is not fashionably messed-up. There’s no trend to be had here, and we should seek to encourage seeking of professional support and nuanced education, not jumping on the latest Tik Tok trend that suggests anyone who naps a lot must have a mental illness.
2. Take Precautionary Safety Measures.
Some ways we can prevent the darkest moments from becoming a permanent ending include doing prep work for our wellbeing during times when we aren’t feeling quite so in the dumps. That might look like:
3. Practice Suicide Postvention.
When we lose someone to suicide, we may feel pain, grief, fury, exhaustion, and guilt like we’ve never experienced before. Emotional volatility plays a large role in the phenomenon of copycat suicides/suicide clusters, in which one suicide leads to others. This is most likely to affect those under 25 because we tend to share similar communities, concerns, and healthcare access (or lack thereof).
One of the reasons suicide clusters occur can be because of actions we unknowingly take after a suicide, which then leads those on the edge to feel like they would get their fairytale ending too if they did something permanent. Strategies to prevent this from happening is called postvention.
What we all can do:
It is painful, difficult, and often infuriating and excruciating to navigate the journey to heal after losing someone to suicide. These tips aren’t meant to take away from that, but to give us guidance in how to navigate our grief so as to hopefully minimize the need for further grief down the road.
Preventing suicide is neither simple nor straightforward. After nearly a decade of fighting for mental health as the founder and executive director of Letters to Strangers, the largest global youth-for-youth mental health NGO, I’ve learned that sometimes the most important thing we can do is listen. Listen to experts, to advocates, to the people suffering themselves – by taking a step forward to learn and to care, you’re helping shape a future where suicides no longer exist.
To learn more, please consider reading the Letters to Strangers World’s First Youth-for-Youth Mental Health Guidebook, available for free digitally here (it is where most non-cited facts in this article came from); or watch our YouTube Educational Video Series here. To get involved with the numerous global programs at Letters to Strangers, including our namesake letter-writing exchanges, please check out our website here.