Myths About Suicide Debunked
Inaccuracies and misconceptions about suicide can prevent people from getting the help they need and deserve to get better.
If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Suicide is among the leading causes of death in the United States. Based on recent nationwide estimates, suicide in some populations is on the rise. It is a major public health concern in the U.S. and the world over.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2017 suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States. More than 47,000 people lost their lives to suicide. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among those between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among those between the ages of 35 and 54. There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States as there were homicides (19,510) during this year.
Unfortunately, our society stigmatizes suicide and those who consider or attempt it. Because it is a topic that tends to be hush hush with open conversation about it often discouraged, inaccuracies and misconceptions about the problem are common. Here are some of the most harmful suicide myths along with the truth regarding each falsehood.
Myths and Misconceptions About Suicide
Myth: Once someone is suicidal they’ll always be suicidal
Heightened suicide risk is often short-term and situation-specific. While suicidal thoughts may return, they are not permanent and an individual with previous suicidal thoughts and attempts can go on to live a long life. While past suicidal thoughts and behaviors increase the risk of future suicide many people have one episode of suicidal ideation or a single attempt and do not go on to have another one.
Myth:There’s no way of telling if a person is really suicidal or not.
This can be a particularly harmful assumption to make. While it’s true that when a person is truly intent on committing suicide they will do whatever they can not to let others, and certainly not their therapist know, there are still a number of risk factors to pay attention to. Some of these are things to keep an eye on while others suggest that the person may already be in trouble with regards to possible suicidal behavior.
It’s well known that people with mood disorders have the greatest risk of suicide, particularly within the first five years of experiencing the disorder. Adjusting to living with a challenge takes time and while there are numerous treatments for mood disorders available they don’t lead to a complete cure for everyone.
Those with schizophrenia are also at higher risk. Alcohol abuse places someone far greater risk of suicide and those with alcohol dependence account for 25 percent of all suicides and 50 percent occur when the person is using alcohol. Other risk factors include past suicide attempts, deterioration in psychological functioning, lack of a social support network, making a will, giving away belongings.
Myth: A good therapist can prevent a patient from attempting suicide
This is one of the most difficult things about being a therapist. While, as explained above, there are certain risk factors that therapists should be aware of that indicate a greater likelihood that someone is or will become suicidal, it’s not a perfect relationship. A skilled, well trained therapist knows what to look for and what to evaluate with their clients. They know what to listen for that may not be overtly stated when their client is talking.
Yet at the same time someone who is suicidal and doesn’t want to be stopped isn’t going to admit they are thinking about killing themselves to anyone. The last person they are likely to tell is their therapist who had made a point while reviewing the informed consent form during the first session that if they think the client is a threat to themselves or others they will be required to take action. Just because a client comes in for a session also doesn’t mean they are hopeful about getting better and unlikely to harm themselves. Sometimes clients come in as a way of saying goodbye to their therapists, although they hide the fact they are doing this.
Myth: Talking about suicide or asking someone if they feel suicidal will encourage suicide attempts.
When someone has a problem especially when it is related to mood, their thoughts and perceptions about their environment often takes on depressive qualities. The less they talk to others the more congruent their thoughts are with their mood states. Talking about suicide provides the opportunity for them to communicate their distress and gain support. When problems are shared they are more likely to decrease. People who have caring others in their life have something to live for. (Support and encouragement can be very helpful for someone who is suicidal but discussing suicide and evaluating suicidality should be undertaken by a trained professional).
Myth: Suicide only affects individuals with a mental health condition
Research has indicated that over half (54%) of those who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Other problems have been found to contribute to attempted and completed suicide including:
- Relationship problems
- Substance use (below the threshold for a Substance Use Disorder diagnosis)
- Poor physical health which impacts quality of life and functional capacity
- Employment problems
- Financial difficulties
- Legal issues
- Housing stress
While these problems can lead to anxiety and impact mood, such problems are believed to be situational and not indicate a full blown disorder such that alleviating the environmental stress will alleviate the emotional effects.
Myth: Only adults are suicidal. Young children just don’t kill themselves.
While many believe that young children do not have the planning ability and don’t have an understanding of death’s finality to consciously make the decision to commit suicide. Yet this isn’t true. Research has shown that children as young as 5 take their own lives every year (Sheftall, Asti, Horowitz, Felts, Fontanella, Campo & Bridge, 2016).
Studies have have also indicated that suicide is the second most frequent cause of death in children age 10 to 14 (e.g. Ballesteros, Williams, Mack, Simon, & Sleet, 2018). The Epidemiology of Unintentional and Violence-Related Injury Morbidity and Mortality among Children and Adolescents in the United States. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(4), 616.
In a study examining suicidal ideation in children aged 6–12 across Europe (Kovess-Masfety, Pilowsky, Goelitz, Kuijpers, Otten, Moro, & Hanson, 2015), results indicated that suicidal ideation was present in 16.96% of the overall sample (from a low of 9.9 percent in Italy to a high of 26.84 percent in Germany). Thoughts of death were present in by 21.93 percent of the sample (from a low of 7.71 percent in Italy to a high of 32.78 percent in Germany).
Myth: The Media has nothing to do with establishing and reinforcing myths related to suicide.
There have been a number of studies that have evaluated whether there was an association between time spent reading newspapers, watching television and online, and endorsement of suicide myths, suicide-related knowledge, and stigmatizing attitudes toward suicidal individuals.
One such study found that amount of time spent reading tabloids was related to higher endorsement of suicide myths, a higher level of stigmatizing attitudes toward suicidal individuals and a lower level of suicide-related knowledge (Till, Wild, Arendt, Scherr & Niederkrotenthaler, 2018).
In 2001 several government agencies and private health organizations, published recommendations for the reporting of suicide in the media (CDC et al., 2001). Since then, investigations have been conducted that evaluate whether news sources are actually following these guidelines.
One study assessed this in reporting of suicidal deaths in 2002 and 2003 (Tatum,Canetto,& Slater, 2010). The study determined that while method and location were frequently reported, reports rarely included information about warning signs and risk factors (1% of stories), the role of depression (4%), the role of alcohol (2%), and prevention resources (6%). These are all factors that help decrease myths and misconceptions.
Additionally, a subsequent study indicated that while journalists wanted to cover suicides responsibly, they often disregarded the guidelines for reporting. They often deviate from these guidelines for several reasons.
In some cases, they feel the pressure of competition for coverage of high profile stories and other times professional conventions conflict with adherence recommendations. Many journalists have been found to deliberately disregard suicide reporting recommendations because their perceived professional responsibility to serve the public interest through truth telling full disclosure of information. (Yaqub, Beam, & John, 2017).
Suicide has long been considered a taboo topic to discuss. This has lead to a number of inaccuracies and myths being perpetuated. These misconceptions involve several areas including:
- Who is at risk?
- When is suicide most likely to occur?
- What are the reasons people might consider suicide?
- What are common methods people use to commit suicide?
- What are the best ways to help yourself or someone if suicide is being contemplated?
The misinformation or complete lack of information regarding the answers to these questions and others often means that desperate people can’t or won’t get the help they need in times of crisis. It is important for everyone to be well-informed about the topic of suicide. Accurate information can help save your life or the life of someone you know.
Ballesteros, M., Williams, D., Mack, K., Simon, T., & Sleet, D. (2018). The Epidemiology of Unintentional and Violence-Related Injury Morbidity and Mortality among Children and Adolescents in the United States. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(4), 616.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Mental Health, Office of the Surgeon General, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology et al. Reporting on suicide: Recommendations for the media. 2001.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Suicide rising across the US. More than a mental health concern. Atlanta, GA: CDC.
Kovess-Masfety, V., Pilowsky, D. J., Goelitz, D., Kuijpers, R., Otten, R., Moro, M. F., … & Hanson, G. (2015). Suicidal ideation and mental health disorders in young school children across Europe. Journal of affective disorders, 177, 28–35.
Sheftall, A. H., Asti, L., Horowitz, L. M., Felts, A., Fontanella, C. A., Campo, J. V., & Bridge, J. A. (2016). Suicide in elementary school-aged children and early adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(4).
Tatum, P. T., Canetto, S. S., & Slater, M. D. (2010). Suicide coverage in US newspapers following the publication of the media guidelines. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 40(5), 524–534.
Till, B., Wild, T. A., Arendt, F., Scherr, S., & Niederkrotenthaler, T. (2018). Associations of tabloid newspaper use with endorsement of suicide myths, suicide-related knowledge, and stigmatizing attitudes toward suicidal individuals. Crisis.
Yaqub, M. M., Beam, R. A., & John, S. L. (2017). ‘We report the world as it is, not as we want it to be’: Journalists’ negotiation of professional practices and responsibilities when reporting on suicide. Journalism, 1464884917731957.
Natalie Frank has her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. She specializes in Pediatrics and Behavioral Medicine.
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