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Debunking myths about suicide helps encourage compassion and understanding

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988. That's the new number anyone in America can call or text for help if they feel suicidal or experience mental distress. It is hoped that the shorter number will help people remember the free service and know who to contact.

Sometimes people who die by suicide get branded as selfish, depressed or attention-seeking.

Such myths contribute to the stigma that can prevent those who are suicidal from seeking the help they need and falsify understanding of the motivations behind suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

Suicide is a leading cause of death among children and adults, with nearly 800,000 people worldwide dying from suicide yearly, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, cited by the online scientific publication Our World in Data. In 2020, there were 1.2 million attempts globally, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says.

On World Suicide Prevention Day and beyond, awareness of the realities of suicide can help people view these deaths with more understanding and compassion, realize the importance of helping others get help, and address their own mental health problems if they are struggling, NAMI says.

If you or someone you know is at risk, trained counselors with the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help. To increase access to the lifeline, every state has rolled out 988 as its new phone number. The previous number, 800-273-8255 (TALK), remains available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Below, experts dispel common myths about suicide.

Myth: Everyone who attempts suicide has a mental health condition

One myth is "that only certain people experience suicidal thoughts, people with mental health conditions," said clinical psychologist Michael Roeske, senior director of the Newport Healthcare Center for Research and Innovation.

"A lot of people don't necessarily fit criteria for a mental health disorder, but in very stressful situations, they lose an important job, they find out about an infidelity with a long-term marital partner, and they go, 'Oh, my gosh. I don't know how I'm going to go forward living.'"

Other factors can include life stressors such as criminal or legal matters, persecution, eviction or home loss, grief, a devastating or debilitating illness, trauma, or other crises, according to NAMI.

Myth: People who attempt suicide are selfish

"There's a derogatory connotation that comes with the word selfish, as if somebody is making this decision typically for a pleasurable reason," Roeske said. "Maybe nearsighted is a better way of saying that their focus becomes really limited down to what's immediately in front of them. And they're not able to see the larger context of the history of their life, the relationships and the dimensionality of things."

People who attempt or die by suicide more often want to end their struggles or see themselves as a burden on loved ones, according to Roeske.

"It's not a selfish piece in the sense of someone making a decision for their own benefit," he added. "It's a decision based on the idea that 'I don't know how to get out of this moment. I feel so overwhelmed. I feel so stressed. I feel so sad that this opportunity to escape is what I need, and I don't feel I have any other choice.'"

Myth: People who threaten suicide are seeking attention

Some people think that those who express suicidal thoughts are attention seekers, or that they are aware of the sympathy they might engender but don't intend to die.

"Regardless of how you respond to it," Roeske said, "you still have to take it seriously that within there is a kernel of truth — that this person really feels this (and) is struggling this much."

Myth: Suicide is a choice

Some experts contend that suicide isn't an autonomous choice, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"That's a pretty big philosophical question: Where does free will come in? Are we the consequence of our experiences?" Roeske said. The mindset of a person who is suicidal is similar to that of someone with substance abuse disorder and chronic relapses, he said.

"They are not willfully choosing substances over their children. They are not making the decision to harm their physical health or to be a poor employee or a poor citizen or engage in illegal behavior," Roeske said. Because of neurochemical changes, such persons have a limited capacity for full choice in terms of what they think is possible and what they can do.

There is some volition in suicide, but suicidal thoughts can be so overwhelming that they crowd out everything else, Roeske said.

Myth: Talking about it will lead to or encourage suicide

One myth "is the fear that if you talk about suicide, it's going to encourage it, and so people shy away from it," Roeske said. Asking someone about warning signs you have noticed might feel awkward, but "it actually does not lead to increased completed suicides," he added.

Having honest conversations about suicide can help reduce the stigma and empower people to seek help, rethink their options and share their stories with others, according to NAMI.

Myth: Improved mood means the risk of suicide is gone

If someone attempts suicide but then seems to be doing better in the days or months afterward, you might think that their risk is gone. But the reality might be the opposite — the three months following an attempt is when someone is most at risk of dying by suicide, according to the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health's Office of Suicide Prevention.

"The apparent lifting of the problems could mean the person has made a firm decision to die by suicide and feels better because of this decision," it says.

The biggest indicator of risk for subsequent attempts is past suicide attempts or having had family members or friends who attempted suicide, Roeske said.

How loved ones and experts respond to a person's suicide attempt might provide temporary relief or set in motion support efforts, he added. But what initially drove the person to attempt suicide might still be at play.

Additionally, there is sometimes "an escalation in the lethality of means," Roeske said.

Myth: You can't stop someone from attempting suicide

Sometimes people think asking someone about suicide is pointless because they'll do it anyway, said Justin Baker, clinical director of the Suicide and Trauma Reduction Initiative for Veterans at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

But Baker added that some research has found people can perceive interrupted or survived attempts as a "new lease on life."

A similar myth is "once an individual is suicidal, he or she will always remain suicidal," according to NAMI's website.

But there are factors that can influence the level or probability of suicide risk, Baker said. A history of self-injurious behavior and genetic makeup are fixed factors, whereas dynamic factors change constantly because they are situation-specific, NAMI says.

Suicide "is often an attempt to control deep, painful emotions and thoughts," the NAMI site says. "Once these thoughts dissipate, so will the suicidal ideation. While suicidal thoughts can return, they are not permanent. An individual with suicidal thoughts and attempts can live a long, successful life."

If someone you care about is struggling, it's well worth the effort to familiarize yourself with the signs your loved one is at risk for suicide.

"People typically do what they want to do," Roeske acknowledged.

"But there are things that we can do along the way that help mitigate some of the issues that are happening for them," he said. "Having that sense of various signs of suicide potential is helpful."

Trevor Lifeline, a suicide prevention counseling service for the LGBTQ community, can be reached at 866-488-7386.

Befrienders Worldwide connects users to the nearest emotional support center for the part of the world they live in.

Crisis Text Line is an international service that provides a live, trained crisis counselor via a simple text for help. The first few responses will be automated until they get a counselor on the line — which typically takes less than five minutes.

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