Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

We Need to Talk About Suicide-Loss Survivors During Suicide Prevention Month

[TW: mention of suicide, mental illness, grief, and loss]

National Suicide Prevention Month has finally come to a close. The articles, videos, and social media posts telling us how to support our loved ones or recognize the signs of suicidal ideation are overwhelming, and frankly, I’m relieved.

After losing two of my friends to suicide in high school, I started noticing the topic everywhere. People making jokes about wanting to die, T.V. shows and films romanticizing self-harm, drug use, and mental illness, public figures taking their own lives—it felt like I couldn’t catch a break. I have to live with this grief every day. Complicated grief that brings up feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety, amongst others. Every year, Suicide Prevention Month acts as yet another reminder of this pain.

Those of us who have lost people to suicide experience an increased risk for thinking about or attempting suicide, along with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. The “what-ifs” are inescapable and I constantly find myself overestimating the role I could have played. I ruminate on what I could have said or done, the circumstances surrounding the suicides, what I might have missed. But all this reflection has given me a lot of insight into the idea of suicide prevention.

Suicide is preventable—to an extent. It’s certainly important to provide verbal and emotional support to our friends who are struggling. We do need to be able to recognize the warning signs and risk factors. But to those of us who’ve experienced suicidal ideation or lost loved ones to mental illness, the “check-in with your friends” verbiage is overly simplistic. The assertion that suicide is preventable at all tells us as survivors that we’ve failed to provide adequate support and implies that those who are suicidal should or will feel better once they know they’re loved. This narrative minimizes the conditions under which people become suicidal and erases the complexity of suicidality. 

As a suicide loss survivor, it’s hard enough to feel like I have the right to contribute to this conversation. It’s easy to assume we won’t be understood, that we’re being burdensome, or that we can’t really trust our own perspectives because we didn’t do enough. The guilt and grief instantly begin to build as soon as the topic of suicide comes up. I’m not a mental health professional, and despite my experience, I don’t have all of the answers. But the unique experiences of those of us who live through this kind of trauma are worthy of attention and can add a useful perspective to the conversation. Centering our voices alongside the voices of those who have experienced suicidal ideation allows us to look at the nuances of suicide and recognize that statistics and diagnoses don’t paint a complete picture. 

Suicide can’t be boiled down to warning signs or risk factors. Their presence doesn’t guarantee people are suicidal, just as their absence doesn’t guarantee people aren’t. The way people manage trauma, anxiety, depression, addictions, genetics, or other factors varies between individuals, and even when we can identify these risks, they don’t necessarily engender suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, some people experience suicidal thoughts for years without acting upon them, while others take their lives in a singular impulsive decision. I’ve seen people go through cycles of attempting and getting treatment—some people survive while others don’t. 

Even still, individuals often conceal these thoughts when confronted, especially if they already have a plan to take their life. On top of the stigma of mental illness, the persistent fear of being burdensome or unworthy of support can prevent people from being honest about their mental state. 

Mental illness isn’t just about feeling alienated or disconnected from one’s loved ones—it entails extreme exhaustion, pain, self-loathing, fear, and disillusionment with one’s life. It’s a disease and needs to be treated as such. Social media campaigns can spread awareness, but they aren’t a stand-in for professional help. Even professional help can fall short. From my perspective, suicide prevention permeates all aspects of our lives, from continuing support within our closer circles to institutional change. Access to quality mental and physical healthcare, affordable housing, poverty reduction, unemployment services, resources for LGBTQ+ individuals and BIPOC, and harm reduction for self-harm and substance use all are important elements of suicide prevention.

Suicide prevention dialogue and sensitivity need to be incorporated into our everyday conversations, not just during the month of September or whenever the issue is trending. Our language matters when we talk about mental health, even when we’re not talking to someone who is suicidal. Indiscriminately using colloquialisms like, “I’m going to kill myself,” or, “it’s okay to not be okay,” trivializes the experiences of those who are genuinely suicidal and may prevent us from being able to validate and support them. Extending this kind of compassion can go a long way, especially for attempt survivors and loss survivors who may feel the stigma attached to talking about their experiences.

So, let’s make space for suicide loss survivors. If sensitivity and awareness lie at the heart of mental healing, then we can’t leave anyone out.

Resources for Suicide Loss Survivors:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/two-takes-depression/201311/understanding-survivors-suicide-loss

https://suicidology.org/resources/suicide-loss-survivors/

http://www.oursideofsuicide.com/2019/09/08/reframing-suicide-is-100-preventable/

https://www.sprc.org/comprehensive-approach/postvention

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Carmen Chu