My first “real” social work experience was in a basement of a non-profit in St. Louis, Missouri. This basement was where I was trained as a crisis worker for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For two years, I answered calls at all times of day and night from people around the country. People call the hotline for a number of reasons, including but not limited to, thoughts of suicide, help for others who are struggling with thoughts of suicide, loss of friends and family from suicide, and much more. Answering my first few calls was possibly one of the most nerve-wracking things I have ever done but also some of the most rewarding work I have ever done. Like most topics around mental health, suicide is not talked about enough. As a society, we are afraid of suicide and the connotations that come with it. I learned several things from my time on the hotline but in this piece, you will hear about the few I have found to be the most valuable.
Thoughts of suicide are normal. People often don’t realize that having thoughts of wanting to be dead or even not wanting to be “here” are common, especially among teenagers. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34. Teens who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are three times as likely as their peers to experience thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. The Trevor Project is a fantastic resource for teens who identify as LGBTQ. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/
The hotline is available to anyone and everyone regardless. You do not have to have thoughts of suicide to call the hotline. In fact, many people call the hotline, not because they are suicidal, but because they have no one else to call and need to talk. There are several other hotlines out there for more specific issues, however the hotline does not turn you away if you are not actively suicidal. Many people call because they are very depressed or anxious and need to chat with a trained professional.
Talking about suicide and using the right language is important. One of the first lessons I learned as a crisis worker was to stop using the phrase “committed suicide.” Instead, we were taught to say “completed suicide” or “killed themselves.” While these may seem blunt, it is important to recognize that suicide is not a crime. That is not to say it does not hurt the community, but most people complete suicide because they see no other way out of their current situation. If suicide was discussed more openly, there’s a greater chance people experiencing thoughts of suicide would feel more accepted, and therefore would not have to keep those thoughts a secret. It is extremely important when discussing suicide to address it head on. Do not be afraid of using the word suicide in conversation with someone who may be feeling suicidal. Using this terminology tells the person you are not afraid to talk about this with them. Most importantly, when it is unclear whether or not someone is dealing with thoughts of suicide, do not be afraid to ask if they are. Simply asking if someone is having thoughts of suicide can save lives.
If you, or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please know there are people out there that care about you and are ready and open to talk 24/7. For more information, visit, https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
Lexie Martin-Browne, LSW