Too often, we hear about girls being bullied, gay teens being ostracized, military veterans with PTSD. Not receiving the care and protection they deserve, some people instead choose the pain and permanence of dying over the pain and possibilities of living.
Suicide is a major problem and, tragically, a leading cause of death in many communities, greater than the number of homicides and for soldiers more than combat deaths. As the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S., people who consider suicide are clearly not alone. It doesn’t have to be such a crisis.
There are many social reasons people hurt or kill themselves, as sociologist Emile Durkheim noted in the 1890s, which transcend the individual. We see that suicide is related to many social factors, including sex (males are about three to four times more likely than females to kill themselves), race/ethnicity (whites are about twice as likely as Africans-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and somewhat more likely than Native Americans), class (higher income people are more susceptible), sexuality (suicide is more common in the LGBT community), age (middle-aged and older people are more prone), religion (atheists have a high rate, Protestants have a higher rate than other Christians, while Jews have a lower rate than each of these), marital status (married people are less likely to commit suicide), day of the week (Monday is a peak day), season (Spring tends to bring more suicides), geography (Hungary, Lithuania, and China have an especially high rate; within the US, western states excluding California have a higher rate, especially Alaska, followed by southern states, while the northeast has the lowest), gun ownership (half of suicides involve a gun), ideology (conservatives have a higher rate), and so on. As with most things in life, suicide is also a combination of personal and social factors. Although there may be individual responsibility, there isn’t necessarily individual fault.
As a sociologist, I seek to better understand why problems exist in society, so that I can help reduce the incidence of those problems. I want to use my expertise to help; in this case, to save lives.
There are also many very personal reasons why some people choose to take their own lives, which experts divide into three major categories: clinical, situational, and rational. Clinical suicide is often related to feelings of depression, a severe negative perception of one’s life situation, which has been described as like being “stuck in goo”. Situational suicide is often related to overwhelming loss: a lost job, broken relationship, unusually stressful work or school, major health, legal, or financial problems, severe physical or emotional pain, etc. Rational suicide is often related to being terminally ill with imminent expectation of death as well as suicide for political purposes. There may also be some genetic or biochemical reasons as well as what it called imitation and contagion (so-called copycat suicide). This article focuses on addressing clinical and situational possibilities.
Here are 9 realities that we may not always remember or be fully aware of:
1) We’re not always fully aware of ourselves or the world around us, especially when we’re effectively looking through distorted lenses and therefore not necessarily seeing ourselves, the people around us, and our world as clearly and as accurately as we can.
2) You’re not alone, others have also felt and feel the way you do, and in that sense it is completely normal, even if not completely healthy.
3) We’re all connected in some way and what happens to one of us affects the rest of us, sometimes in surprising ways.
4) Things may not actually be as out of control as they seem.
5) The way you feel now is not how you once felt and not how you will feel in the future. We’re not stuck and nothing is permanent. Things will get better and we can help make things get better.
6) People around you will feel tremendous pain if you hurt or kill yourself, some of whom you may not know would feel this way, because people care about you, especially family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, and others.
7) There are always other alternatives, possibilities, and solutions, even when it may not feel that way.
8) You’ll be glad later that you didn’t do anything to hurt yourself or others.
9) You’re important, not irrelevant. There’s only one you and no one else can take your unique place in the world.
There are various things we can do. Although not all of these will work for any one person – in fact, some definitely won’t – perhaps one or two will. It’s rare to be able to fix something right away, but given the right time and enough effort, we can conquer our demons.
Writing to a friend, Rainer Maria Rilke suggested that “Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.” Perhaps we can help ourselves, perhaps we can help others, perhaps we can learn something new, perhaps we can also feel better.
Try some of these double dozen proven techniques for survival and success:
1) Get help:
Talk to people (counselors, therapists, doctors, coaches, teachers, psychiatrists, clergy, 24/7/365 suicide prevention hotlines or warmlines like 1-800-SUICIDE, and web sites like www.SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, www.Befrienders.org, tiny.cc/suicidehelp); there are many caring, trustworthy people willing and able to listen to you and help you.
2) Project time:
Just wait a bit by pausing for a moment, minute, hour, or a day and try to imagine how it’ll be in the future looking back (“Survivors often regret their decision”, according to Tad Friend, which “makes suicide all the sadder.”). Think of all the good things, people, places, experiences, and opportunities you would miss if you weren’t around to experience them.
3) Stretch space:
Step back and disassociate yourself from a situation or look down at it happening as if you were floating above to get a clearer perspective, allowing you to more easily resolve a problem or find another way out. Try being a witness instead of a participant (this can be tried for any sort of pain or discomfort).
4) Take it easy:
Instead of getting overwhelmed, think about “baby steps”, small actions that can be taken to move toward something positive or away from something toxic (e.g., no one reads a book all at once, they read it one word and one page at a time).
5) Decrease negatives:
Reduce the things and activities that get you down (e.g., transform or avoid toxic people and environments, special stressors, and painful experiences). Neutralize negativity in all its forms. If possible, try to transform negatives into positives whenever possible.
6) Increase positives:
Increase the things and activities that give you meaning, pleasure, and enjoyment (e.g., friends, food, music, art, dance, exercise, gardening, movies, comedies, nature, meditation, reading, writing, volunteering, working). It’s good to enjoy life more in whatever ways you can.
7) Connect with others:
Join a group of whoever or whatever might interest you (e.g., based on education, hobbies, identity, music, sports, politics, exercise, counseling). Look for activity partners to join you.
8) Create meaning:
Do something meaningful, such as helping someone or volunteering for a cause. In serving others, you will also serve yourself. Even if you’re not expecting anything more out of life, life is expecting more out of you. You’re needed, perhaps in ways that are difficult or impossible to recognize right now.
9) Find the light:
Recognize something that’s good in your life – anything really – and try to replicate it. Assess what’s working, no matter what it is or how small, and try to do more of it and then expand it to other parts of your life. Seek out any green shoots and seize them. Don’t simply look on the bright side of life, but go there, find the light, and shine it around.
10) Try medication:
If one has a physical ailment or disease, going to a doctor and getting medicine might be the only thing that treats or cures it; likewise, suffering emotionally can sometimes only be helped by taking medicine to alter one’s biochemistry (the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that 90% of those who commit suicide suffered from treatable mental illnesses).
11) Swap thoughts:
Try to replace some of your negative and destructive thoughts with some more realistic, more reasonable, more positive, and more constructive thoughts. Experiment with transforming worries, nervousness, and anxieties into wishes, hopes, and excitement, both for yourself and for others (explore cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, which is “problem focused” and “action oriented”).
12) Be present:
With the past behind us and the future not yet here, try not to worry about the future and avoid obsessing about the past. Focus on the now. Doing so can reduce and regulate your stress hormone cortisol. Buddhists speak of mindfulness, while Ram Dass simply said “be here now”. You are a human being, not a human was or a human will-be-doing. Give yourself a gift by being present, recognizing the importance of you and “your one wild and precious life”, right here, right now.
13) Box it:
Many therapists suggest creating a real or imaginary worry box. When you start to worry or feel anxiety, place that worry in the worry box and keep it there. If you worry about it again, remember that it’s safely stored in the worry box.
14) Show gratitude:
There’s always something to be grateful for and we should recognize that, even if it’s something seemingly small (e.g., some people keep a gratitude journal and note at least three things they can be grateful for every day … I’m grateful you’re reading this!).
15) Smile (& laugh):
Even if you don’t feel happy, make yourself smile or laugh anyway, even if you have to physically force it (smiling and laughing can release serotonin and other neurotransmitters that can increase our sense of well-being and generate happier thoughts).
Breathe in, breathe out. Deeply and slowly, then repeat. There are many techniques: focus on your breath, create a positive mantra to repeat, try to still your mind, whatever works for you. Whatever you do, breathe in goodness and positivity, breathe out bad thoughts and negativity, breathe in hope, breathe out despair.
17) Eat healthier:
People who eat healthier, meaning a mostly or completely plant-based diet without too much sugar, fat, processed food, or other junk, tend to be mentally as well as physically healthier, with a lower rate of depression and a higher level of optimism.
18) Love yourself:
Appreciate who you are, what you are, and what you’ve had to overcome.
Disrupt the downward spirals and the destructive loops that continuously play old tapes and spin out of control. Whether it’s thoughts, language, habits, relationships, or other painful patterns, experiment with ways to simply yet effectively disrupt, transform, or reboot them (cf. “creative destruction”).
Some things take a lot of work and a long time, yet some things can be accomplished in an instant. If it takes as much energy and effort to be happy as it does to miserable, you might as well try happiness to see how it feels. Try changing something right now.
If you can’t make a big switch right away, that OK. Try leaning in a healthier direction, taking baby steps toward where you want to be. If a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, you only need to take that first step to begin. Break large, complex, abstract, and overwhelming processes down into smaller, reasonable, incremental, and manageable tasks that are easier to complete.
22) Take control:
Create an action plan to regain control over your precious life (e.g., take some of the ideas listed here, such as talking to someone, decreasing the negatives, and increasing the positives). Be the subject of your life, not simply the object that things happen to (as Joan Baez says, “action is the antidote to despair”).
You’re not alone, people care about you (including some who you might not be aware of), there’s help for you, there are steps you can take to feel better, and while it won’t always be easy, it can get better!
24) Surprise yourself:
You can be a whole new and happier you!
Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches sociology at San Jose State University, has published numerous e-books, and welcomes comments, questions, concerns, constructive criticism, or contributions via firstname.lastname@example.org. More info at http://about.me/danbrook.