10 Things You Need to Know About Suicide

Posted on November 21, 2016


Disclaimer: This post is not an expert opinion, rather a collection of my observations through my volunteer work. This post does not provide medical or crisis prevention advice. 


For the last two years, I have been volunteering with the Survivor Support Program (SSP) with Toronto Distress Centre. It is a free program that provides supportive counselling to people who have lost someone to homicide or suicide – also called survivors. It was a very intensive process to become a volunteer and not without reason, as you can imagine. To be accepted as a volunteer, one has to fill out an elaborate form with scenario-type questions, go for an in-person “interview” and attend a 30+ hour training. Once the training is done, you’re matched with a participant/survivor. You meet with them over 8 weeks and work around 8 themes that will help them process their loss. It may sound very unnerving; but you work with an experienced partner who can support and guide you through your initial “matches”. After a few “matches”, you will become the experienced volunteer and may be paired with a new volunteer. I have just complete my sixth match. I can attest that the training I received was superlative and inspiring. I feel reasonably well-equipped to just be part of someone else’s journey. Some days it’s hard, but most days it’s rewarding.

Through the training and working with experienced partners and survivors themselves, I learned some things about suicide. I will try to compress it into a single post.

1. One does not “commit” suicide. You commit a crime or even a blunder. This type of vocabulary is archaic and comes from a time when suicide was punishable by law. Since I modified my language to say, “S/he died by suicide,” I feel different about the person I am referring to.

2. Suicide is not a choice. Rather it is the lack of available choices. It is very rare to find someone who decided to end their life because they had an enriching and meaningful life full of opportunities and options. When one feels backed into a corner and sees no way out, they may be compelled to take such a step.

3. People who die by suicide are NOT selfish. Imagine if you were hit by a truck accidentally and I blamed you for ruining my life by dying so close to my wedding! People who die by suicide may feel like they were hit by an emotional truck which incapacitates them from considering others’ feelings. In fact, at times they may not want to burden others with their unsolvable (as perceived by them) problems.

4. People who attempt suicide are NOT seeking attention. When someone tries to take their own life, it makes us stop and look up. But, that is not their aim. In some cases, that may be the only way we look at them. But that is on us and not on them. They might just be looking for a way to end their pain.

5. Every person who dies by suicide is not mentally ill and every mentally ill person will not attempt suicide. Yes, the risk of suicide may be higher for those who have a mental illness. But that’s like saying only people who smoke will get cancer. Stress can be a very big factor when it comes to a person deciding to end their life. The levels of stress will depend on each individual person. We may find someone’s reason trivial. But clearly, it is not to them.

6. There usually are signs when someone is going to end their life. I have seen people trying to go over every detail of their last interaction with their friend/family member. At that point, everything seems like a sign. But that’s in hindsight. However, when someone has never experienced this kind of situation before, it is hard to understand them as signs at that point. For e.g. I worked with someone who said their family member called them to tell them they loved them very much. But this was not unusual in their relationship. However, they later found out that every member in their family got a similar call within minutes. That was definitely unusual. But there was no way they would all have known that. Even when we know that someone has been having a hard time, we do not expect them to take their own life. Even experienced people miss the signs.

7. A depressed person that gets on anti-depressants may be at higher risk upon starting treatment. This basically means that when someone is in the throes of depression, they may not have the physical and mental energy to carry out their plan. Upon taking medication, they begin to feel falsely better, and the renewed energy may give an impetus to their plans. A person that gets on anti-depressants needs to be watched more carefully. This is what happened to me. You can read about it here.

8. The risk of a person will vary over a period of time. A person will not always continue to be high risk. It will depend on whether the situation around them continues to be stressful and the kind of support system that will rally around them. Recently, I was working with a survivor who verbalized a specific plan to end her life. I had to conduct a safety planning exercise with her. It was basically a simple paper on which we wrote down names of people and organizations she could contact in case she felt she couldn’t manage. We identified and noted down triggers, e.g. time of day that was the hardest and came up with a specific plan around it. I was unsure that this would work. I felt that a piece of paper would be of no use. However, in a few sessions, we realized that the participant had really de-escalated. In the last session she actually said that she had kept that piece of paper in her journal by her bed and it helped her feel comforted. I was surprised. I realized that all I had done was help in creating another option where none seemed to be available.

9. We must specifically talk about suicide to a depressed person. By doing this, we will not be planting ideas into their head – rather we will be providing a safe space for them to verbalize the seriousness of their thoughts. It may also bring relief to them, while alerting us to their state of mind.

And last but not the least, something that I struggle with:

10. Are all suicides preventable? During training, I heard the story of a woman who had saved her husband 22 times before he succeeded in taking his own life. This makes me wonder, are all suicides preventable? For me personally, I need to believe that they are. I need to know that I can make a difference. However, I also know that believing this can be extremely hard when we lose someone to suicide. For me, I try to be present. I try to seek support for myself and constantly point out resources to those I work with. I just want them to believe that someone is always listening. And someone is 🙂

If you think you’re at risk, please keep a physical list of personal and professional resources in your country. I have the Distress Line saved on my phone – for safe keeping.

Posted in: psychology