This chapter explores various aspects of suicide prevention, such as recognizing the warning signs, limiting a person’s access to deadly means, and how to talk to someone who is suicidal.
Suicide prevention hotline: To receive immediate assistance, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a free hotline run by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org).
Preventing youth suicide by limiting a child’s access to deadly means
The #1 way to prevent suicides is to limit a person’s access to lethal means, thereby making it more difficult and effort-intensive to kill themselves. For example, putting a net around the Golden Gate Bridge was able to reduce suicide deaths. China has recently resorted to doing the same around all of its major bridges. Adding chemicals to odorless natural gas also reduced suicides because it discouraged people from inhaling a lethal dose of it. And when Britain changed its gas supply from toxic coal gas (the most common method for suicide during the early 1960s) to a nontoxic gas, the suicide rate dropped substantially. “Most people do not go for a plan B,” says psychologist Mark Reinecke of Northwestern University. (Springen, 2010) So taking away easy access to lethal means can do a lot more to prevent suicide than one might think.
This is because suicide is often an impulsive choice. While the desperation that drives a person to commit suicide often has been building for quite some time, it also fluctuates, ebbing and flowing under the emotional swings typical to daily life. Imagine it like being a fishing bobber floating on the brink. The influences that bring a person to the brink have been building for some time. But then an event happens or their despair gets to a point where it pushes them over the edge like a fish tugging on the line to pull that bobber under. Wait a day or two, or even as little as a few hours, and it may bounce back. The person is still miserable and on the brink, but they aren’t in a mood so dire to actually attempt it. Someone who can’t cope in one moment can be managing their emotions even several hours later. This is why people who drove to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump off didn’t just go find another tall structure to leap from. The impediment caused enough of a disruption to their plan that this window of lethality passed by.
One young woman, who survives an overdose as a teenager, says in response to a local story of kids who were killing themselves on train tracks: “I’d read about overdoses, but the train just never occurred to me. I wonder if, in that state of desperation, on one of my really bad days, it would have seemed like a good idea to me.” (Rosin, 2015)
In this regard, suicide has two components. There is the longer trail of despair that drives a person to the brink, and then an activating event that pushes them over the edge, leading to an impulsive decision in that moment that “now’s the time, I just can’t take it anymore.”
So the best way for families to prevent the suicide of a loved one is to actively reduce the number of deadly means that exist within the immediate environment:
- If you own a gun, get rid of it. Based on 2008 numbers of actual real-world use, a gun in the household is around 56-times more likely to be used in a suicide than in self-defense. (Congressional Research Service data) Guns do not offer protection, they put everyone in your family in greater danger.
- Discard old pills and keep all medications locked up in a safe place.
- Store all ropes and cordage in a place as inaccessible as possible.
- Dispose of unused chemicals and other potential poisons such as antifreeze.
Other youth suicide prevention tips:
- In the moment, never leave that person alone. If you catch someone in the act or are aware that someone is at crisis level, see if you can get them to do something with you. Go see a movie, get dinner, hang out at a favorite place, or simply stay at home together. Sleep out at their place if you have to. But don’t leave their side until this window of crisis passes.
- Parents should trust their instincts. If they’re uneasy about the way a child is acting, press the issue. Don’t simply let a teen reassure you that everything is fine and leave it at that. No teenager is going to volunteer this distress, you need to continually make yourself available and offer support. Don’t be timid about asking them directly whether or not they’ve ever been so distraught as to think about killing themselves. Their reaction to the question will give you the answer, even if they don’t respond directly.