Relationships and Suicide Awareness

By: Allison Smith and Alyssa Campbell

Over the summer months of 2018, the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain left many confused about why these highly successful individuals decided to end their lives. Additionally, shows like 13 Reasons Why have also increased the conversation surrounding mental health and suicidality. The widespread news of these suicides as well as the media coverage of this important issue has sparked discussion about suicide and the many people it can impact.

However, these discussions have been hyper-focused on mental illness and suicide as an individual problem. But suicide can also be characterized as a relational problem, impacting not only the individuals, but also the friends and families of the 40,000 people who die by suicide each year, and the many more who attempt to take their own lives.

It is important to consider the individual in the context of their relationships to understand their lived experience leading up to an attempted or completed suicide. When we only focus on mental illness, many of us feel unprepared or unable to help a loved one.

Two Experiences Associated with Suicide Risk

Be aware of signs pointing to either of these experiences:

  • Thwarted belongingness – an intense feeling of isolation
    • “I am alone” or “Nobody would care if I died”
  • Perceived burdensomeness – feeling like a burden to others
    • “The world would be a better place without me”

If a loved one expresses feeling like they don’t belong or they are a burden to others, your red flags should go up and you should express concern. When a person feels like they don’t have anybody to turn to, suicidal ideation may start to occur, which can lead to additional intent, planning, and an eventual suicide attempt.  

Luckily, the various relational aspects that may maintain suicide ideation can also be a source of hope for those struggling with hopelessness and despair.

So, what can you do?

  1. Ask a loved one if they feel isolated or like a burden to others, as well as if they are thinking about suicide. This may be uncomfortable, but it can open up the conversation for a loved one who is experiencing feelings of hopelessness or like their situation is beyond repair. These may be the exact questions that they’ve been waiting for.
  2. Provide information on where and how to access help, such as pointing them to a local therapist through Psychology Today or providing the number for a suicide hotline. Additional ideas are to volunteer to drive them to a therapy appointment or make yourself available at coffee shop across the street from their church while they meet with a religious leader, sponsor, or mentor. This can show them that you care for them and are willing to sit with them in times of struggle.

If someone feels comfortable confiding in you about these feelings, that means that they value you and feel you are a person that can show them signs that they are not alone. Although it can be uncomfortable to talk about suicide, taking the time to lean in to this person and find out more about their experiences can be more meaningful to your loved one than you know!

Your willingness to engage and show up for the person you care about shows that, although you may not fully understand their struggle, you understand that what they’re going through is real and what they are feeling is valid. This is empathy. Cultivate it. Feed it. Spread it around.

Engaging in conversations about suicide is hard. Mental illness is something we often cannot change for our loved ones. What we can change is how we care for one another.

Reference: Van Orden, K.A., Witte, T. K., Cukrowicz, K. C., Braithwaite, S. Selby, E. A., & Joiner, T. E. (2010). The interpersonal theory of suicide. Psychological Review, 117, 575–600. doi:10.1037/a0018697

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