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Experts: Education is at the heart of suicide prevention

Eagle-Tribune - 2/22/2024

Feb. 22—One person dies every 11 minutes from suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

In many cases, it can be the fallout from unspoken pain.

It's not entirely uncommon to hear someone say they're going to harm themselves, therapist Dr. James Conway said, and such statements must be explored and taken seriously. But these are not always the people family and friends should worry about most.

"Children and adolescents can sometimes speak this way because they lack the sophisticated vocabulary to truly describe why they are temporarily frustrated," said Conway, who works with Somers Trust Psychological Associates in North Andover. "What friends and family members need to look for is change."

Suicide rates have increased about 36% between 2000 and 2021, according to the CDC. More than 48,000 people died as a result of suicide in 2021, and even more people thought about or attempted suicide.

Some signs are more obvious than others, said Dr. David Rainen, a psychologist at Merrimack Valley Psychological Associates.

Rainen said people speaking about "deep feelings of shame regarding their impact on the world or others," or seeing themselves as a "burden" are often giving off indications of contemplating suicide.

"If you notice changes in their behavior, such as increased substance use, taking risks, or even giving away their possessions, these can also be warning signs," Rainen said.

Conway said subtle hints say a lot. For instance, perhaps an otherwise outgoing person begins to isolate, or their artistic expressions become "darker," more morbid.

Whatever the indications, it's imperative that loved ones or others tell the person they are here to help, Conway said. Equally important is to be aware of resources, of which there are many.

A national suicide and crisis lifeline is available by dialing or texting 9-8-8. It allows those in need to speak with someone in English or Spanish at any point in the day. Sometimes people are hesitant to broach the topic of suicide with someone they care about, Rainen said.

"The most common fear people tend to have with this situation is that they might accidently give their friend the idea to commit suicide if they ask," he said. "That is not the case — and it is much better to ask them if you should be concerned about their safety and how you can support them."

Conway said about 10 years ago he counseled a teenage boy who did not like much about himself, and neither did his schoolmates.

"He thought so much of the world was 'wrong,'" Conway said. "He felt powerless to change most of it, so was starting to feel that he needed to leave it."

Conway assured the boy that "these are very common things that people his age would feel."

The pair worked to put energy toward change, helping the teen recognize not only his strengths, but his perceived weaknesses.

"Letting as many people as you can know that you're hurting is the best way not only of finding out how many people truly care, but of ultimately getting a better perspective on your situation and feeling better," Conway said. "If isolation is the fuel of suicidal thoughts, then connection is the antidote."

Such situations where a person feels like an outcast are common sources of deep psychological pain, said Dr. Janice Goldstein, a psychologist with the Andover Counseling Center.

"Among teens, I see social media and exclusion as one of those areas that push teens to consider ending their lives," Goldstein said.

"A young woman I worked with quietly considered taking her own life and was found by her parents about to do that," she continued. "She felt isolated and excluded by friends and could not see anything positive ahead."

Goldstein recalled a client who felt harassed at work but believed he could not speak up "or he would be fired." Such feelings of powerlessness also can drive people to attempt suicide, he said.

The key, the experts agree, is educating the public — arming them with awareness and tools for prevention. This is where organizations like Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project — and many others — come in.

The Project works to promote education within the community by meeting with individuals, families, and larger groups like schools.

"The numbers are through the roof right now," said Executive Director Cole Welch of the current suicide rates. "Our system's broken right now and it's more broken than ever."

Welch cited a lack of staff for resource agencies and facilities as a big contributing factor. And Phil Lahey, Project co-founder, said these challenges make battling drug addiction, which is often connected to suicide, far more difficult.

"A tidal wave has brewed and I really feel like it's crashing soon," Welch said. "When it does, it's going to be a lot worse than what's going on now."

Support groups are critical resources.

"We're the only dedicated suicide prevention and resource center in the Northeast area," said Samaritans of Merrimack Valley Director Debbie Helms. "We've got a lot covered; with any training anybody needs."

Samaritan programming, in coordination with the Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, includes outreach and educational support for schools, businesses, youth and senior centers and faith communities.

The organization also offers support groups and Safe Place, which is for adults who have lost a loved one to suicide. Safe Place meets in North Andover on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at 7 p.m. at the Saint Michael Parish, 196 Main St. Helms shared anonymous testimony from people who have used the Samaritans' resources. They included messages of how it's "nice getting uplifting feedback," as well as how attending group sessions allows them to feel "so much better" than when they originally signed on.

"No matter how terrible or hopeless you might feel right now, things can get better with the correct support," Rainen said. "If you are willing to reach out for help, and let others know you are struggling, mental health supports are there to ensure you get the help you need so you can get relief."

Follow Monica on Twitter at @MonicaSager3


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