Honest and tough conversations can save lives

By Patti Atkins, APR, communications consultant for Tillamook County Health Centers

September is National Suicide Awareness month. This topic is much more important when coupled with the traumatic stress that most of us have faced during the ongoing pandemic.

One of the top 10 causes of death for Oregonians is suicide. Oregon has more deaths each year from suicide than motor vehicle accidents. There are more than 600 deaths by suicide and more than 1,800 hospitalizations due to suicide in Oregon each year. [i] The friends and family members (suicide loss survivors) left behind are forced to navigate the tragedy of loss. In many cases, suicide loss survivors are left in the dark. Too often the feelings of shame and stigma prevent them from talking openly.

Suicidal thoughts, much like other mental health conditions, can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation or background. In fact, suicide is often the result of pain from an untreated mental health condition. Suicidal thoughts, although common, should not be considered normal and often indicate more serious issues.

Crisis resources

  • If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 9-1-1
  • If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide hotline/Lines for Life (Oregon) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • If you are uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can text 273TALK to 839863 at Lines for Life in Oregon. They also have veteran’s and teen peer support available by phone or text message.

Know the warning signs

Any person exhibiting these behaviors should get help immediately:

  • Threats or comments about killing themselves, also known as suicidal ideation, can begin with seemingly harmless thoughts like “I wish I wasn’t here” but can become more overt and dangerous
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Social withdrawal from friends, family and the community
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Talking, thinking or writing about death
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior
  • Putting their affairs in order and giving away their possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Mood shifts from despair to calm
  • Planning, possibly by looking to buy, steal or borrow the tools they need to commit suicide, such as a gun or prescription medication

If you are unsure, a licensed mental health professional or your primary care provider can help assess risk. These services are a covered benefit with many insurance plans, including Oregon Health Plan.

Risk factors for suicide

Research has found that about 90 percent of individuals who die by suicide are experiencing mental illness. A variety of things may put a person at risk of suicide, including:

  • A family history of suicide.
  • Substance abuse — drugs and alcohol can result in mental highs and lows that exacerbate suicidal thoughts.
  • Intoxication – more than one in three people who die from suicide are found to be currently under the influence.
  • Access to guns.
  • A serious or chronic illness.
  • Gender – although more women than men attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to die by suicide.
  • A history of trauma or abuse.
  • Prolonged stress.
  • Age – people under age 24 or above age 65 are at a higher risk for suicide.
  • A recent tragedy or loss.
  • Agitation and sleep deprivation.

Can thoughts of suicide be prevented?

Mental health professionals are trained to help a person understand their feelings and can improve mental wellness and resiliency. Depending on their training, they may be able to provide additional ways to help including:

  • Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, can help person with thoughts of suicide by recognizing unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior, validate troubled feelings and learn coping skills.
  • Medication may also be used if necessary to treat underlying depression and anxiety and can lower a person’s risk of hurting themselves. Depending on the person’s mental health diagnosis, other medications may be used to alleviate symptoms.

One difficult conversation can save a life

Have this crucial conversation with someone you love, you can talk with passion and strength around suicide prevention. The truth is, we can all benefit from honest conversations about mental health conditions and suicide, because just one conversation can save a life.