Mental Health Awareness Month:
5 Common Myths About Suicide
Rebecca Wenrich Wheeler, MA, M.Ed. – Health Educator
May is Mental Health Awareness month. The purpose of the awareness month is to decrease stigma and increase the general public’s knowledge base of mental health. Unfortunately, deep-rooted myths about mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide remain. Could the greatest deterrent to suicide prevention be the endurance of long-held myths?
Myth 1: Suicide occurs most often in the winter.
In the northern hemisphere, suicide rates increase in spring reaching a peak in May. In the Southern hemisphere, the peak happens in the spring as well, around September/October. In fact, this trend dates back to studies from the 1820s (Stoll, 2013). The high rates of completed suicides in the spring still confound researchers. The theories surrounding this trend tend to fall into two categories: biological and social. Some theories point to the increased inflammation in the body and vulnerabilities to pollution that comes with warm weather. On the other hand, while winter has many of us bundled indoors, spring invites more social interaction and change. When a person is in the throes of depression, social engagement is very difficult. When he sees those around him lifting out of winter sadness and he is not, it can make the person feel even more isolated (Palmer, 2012).
Myth 2: Suicide is a young person’s illness.
The origin of this myth mostly likely stems from ranking causes of death for age groups. For instance, in North Carolina, suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death for ages 15-24, slightly higher than a just few years ago. (Nationally, suicide ranks as the 3rd leading cause of death for ages 15-24, with NC ranking 35th out of 50 states). In North Carolina, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death for all ages combined. With age, other illnesses, such as heart disease, become more of a danger, causing such illnesses to out-rank suicide. The highest amount of suicides occur in middle age, white men in particular. In 2014, white males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides, a 30% increase since 2010. Just a few years ago, older white men showed the highest rates of suicide. An unstable economy, unemployment, and veteran suicides helped contribute to the rate change. (“Suicide Prevention”, 2013).
In relation to race, white men still significantly die by suicide at higher rates than black men. Though it should be noted, that the African-American community is disproportionally young in comparison to whites, which highlights that the average age of suicides in the African-American community is 10 years younger than for whites (“Suicide Statistics”, 2014). In terms of proportion, Native Americans have the highest rates of suicide deaths in comparison to the general population. In relation to youth, LGBTQ teens are at greater risk of suicide than adolescents as a whole.
Myth 3: The gender suicide paradox is a universal truth.
In the United States, men complete suicide at much higher rates than women, and women attempt suicide at higher rates than men. Though women are more likely to have suicide ideation, men account for 77.9% of completed suicides (CDC, 2015). This paradox doesn’t hold true in other countries. For instance, women from China complete suicide at higher rates than their male counterparts; in Finland and Ireland, the rates are roughly equal between sexes for suicide attempts (Bryner, 2010). Such differences demonstrate that suicidal tendencies aren’t biologically predisposed, but influenced in part by culture. Powell (2015) argues that we couldn’t imagine a breast cancer prevention campaign not targeted at women, as females suffer the majority of deaths from this cancer. Why wouldn’t we see suicide prevention in the same way? Powell writes, “Let’s stop marveling at the suicide paradox. How does our understanding and expectations of men affect the way we should address suicide? Let’s make a plan, and in that plan, can we talk about gender.” In terms of prevention, if we aren’t willing to address these gender differences will we be able to curb increasing suicide rates?
Myth 4: Asking “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” will plant the idea in a person’s mind.
Asking a loved one the question will not plant the idea of suicide in his or her mind. If you are concerned enough to ask, you would have noticed warning signs that already indicate the person is thinking of suicide. Asking the question brings the person’s feelings into the light, and recognizing and validating another’s pain can bring a great sense of relief to the suicidal person. When talking with a person who is experiencing suicide ideation or has experienced a previous attempt, the Canadian Centre for Suicide Prevention (2009), found the person most benefited from the following:
- Seeking help from family and professionals, and being included in treatment discussions
- Being treated with kindness and respect, and approached without judgement
- Affirming the person is worthy and valuable
- Being seen as a whole person and not just a “suicide attempter”
- Allowing the person to honestly express their thoughts and feelings
- Building problem-solving and coping skills
- Being connected or reconnected with significant others, culture, or spiritual beliefs
When talking with a person who has suicidal thoughts or has attempted, discuss any protective factors that may be present. Research has shown “that some of the most significant protective factors are: Effective mental health care, connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions problem-solving skills, contacts with caregivers” (Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2013). Additionally, include the person in problem solving goals and in decision making when seeking professional help.
Myth 5: The language we use to talk about suicide doesn’t matter.
The word commit is most often used in conjunction with a crime or a sin (committed a crime), which then places a value judgement on the act. It is more appropriate to say died by suicide.
Failed or unsuccessful attempt
When talking to a person in an already vulnerable situation, referring to the attempt as failed or unsuccessful might further the person’s feelings of inadequacy. Would a completed suicide then be a success? Using the phrase survived and attempt or non-fatal attempt, would be preferable.
Suicide is selfish.
When a person is in the depths of depression, the sense of hopelessness and isolation is overwhelming. The person often doesn’t want to die, but sees death as the only way out of the suffocating depression he or she is experiencing. Additionally the person might perceive themselves as a burden to the family and suicide as a way to release their loved ones.
The most important words you can tell a person experiencing suicidal thoughts: You are not alone.
Youth Mental Health First Aid Training
Youth Mental Health First Aid trains participants on how to appropriately respond to a mental health crisis in an adolescent’s life. Some training topics include: psychosis, non-suicidal self-injury, panic disorder, and suicide ideation. Participants will also work through scenarios in order to feel more comfortable working through the action steps. The course is 8 hours in length and may be broken up between a couple days. The training is for any adult who interacts with young people. To learn more information about the program and schedule a training, contact Rebecca Wheeler.
Bryner, J. (2010, September 12). Suicide Stereotypes Exposed as Myths. Retrieved April 30, 2016.
Canada, Canadian Mental Health Association, The Centre for Suicide Prevention. (n.d.). Attempted Suicide: Part 1. The Perspective of Attempters. Retrieved January, 2009.
CDC, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2015). Suicide Facts at a Glance. Retrieved April 30, 2016.
Palmer, B. (2012, December 7). The Season of Renewal and Suicide: Why are people more likely to kill themselves in springtime than during the holidays? Retrieved April 28, 2016.
Powell, J. (2015, January 29). The Gender Paradox of Suicidal Behavior and Why We Can’t Address the Issue. Retrieved May 01, 2016.
Stoll, B. (2013, March 23). Suicide cycle: ‘April is the cruelest month’. The Daily Herald. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2013). Suicide among racial/ethnic populations in the U.S.: Blacks. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.
Suicide Statistics (Rep.). (2014). Retrieved April 29, 2016, from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website.
Mittal, V., Brown, W., & Shorter, E. (2009). Are Patients With Depression at Heightened Risk of Suicide as They Begin to Recover? Psychiatric Services, 60(3). doi:10.1176/appi.ps.60.3.384
Presidential Proclamation — National Mental Health Awareness Month, 2016. (2016, April 28). Retrieved May 05, 2016.
Robertson, G. D. (2015, October 19). Report: North Carolina youth suicides double since 2010. Retrieved April 29, 2016.