Suicide Prevention: What To Do If You Think Someone Needs Help

According to the Vermont Department of Mental Health, the suicide rate in Vermont has increased over the past 10 years. In 2014, according to the department’s data, there were more than 17 suicides per 100,000 Vermonters. The New York Times reported that the national average that year was 13 suicides per 100,000 people.

JoEllen Tarallo is the director of the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center. She says that suicide can be reduced if more people know how to support friends and family members. She offered some advice for anyone who is concerned that someone they know might be suicidal.

Help is available

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, help is available to anyone. Here are some resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1
  • Crisis Text Line: 741-741
  • Vermont Suicide Prevention Center: http://vtspc.org/
  • In emergency situations, call 911.

Here is Tarallo's advice on identifying whether someone is at risk of suicide and connection them with professional help:

How to tell when someone is at risk of suicide:

The three most predisposing risk factors are:

  • A feeling of hopelessness that pervades over time
  • A feeling of isolation, that "I'm in this alone."
  • And the third is a feeling of burdensomeness that whatever is going on in their life is a burden to others.

These are all perceptions that a person has when things are going awry in the brain chemistry and in the way that they're thinking, and particularly as we get older … very often these things happen.

I don't want to make the presumption they don't happen to children and young people as well, but as you increase in age you start to have more and more things happen to you in your environment around you which tax your mental health, and it becomes even more important that there be a focus in the way we take care of ourselves and each other in home, in family and in community to help us develop the ability to manage the extreme challenges that we're under, and often which come from very complex and mixed emotions. And being able to talk about that is difficult. But the more you do it the easier it becomes.

What to do when you think someone is at risk of suicide:

It's important to tell the person that you're concerned and that you want to help.

This is where I might take a moment to just talk about the difference between sympathy and empathy. It's very important that when somebody is feeling isolated and unloved and alone that they be buoyed by a sense of connection.

When we express sympathy - "I feel so sorry this is happening to you." - those things often are not very helpful because they tend to make a person feel that they are indeed in this alone and that we are relating to them as a very separate entity.

Empathy on the other hand is the expression that "I'm with you here," and so expressing empathy for a person and what they are going through is important.

How to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about:

So the first thing you do is you show you care by saying that you are concerned and that you want to help that you're there with them but you need to ask the question: “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” and “Are you thinking about suicide?” It will not increase a person's suicidal thoughts. The chance to talk often comes as a relief.

And then the next set if they say, “Yeah I am, yes I am,” then you say “Well, I am very concerned and I want to ask you a few more questions,” you know, “Have you decided how you would kill yourself?” and if somebody says “Yes I've thought about that,” then that is a higher level of alert because then you know that that person is entering into a place where they have a plan.

So those are all questions that help you distill and discern to what extent this person is at risk. At that point you really want to get help immediately. You want to call 911 if it's an immediate crisis.

"You need to ask the question:'Are you thinking of hurting yourself?' and 'Are you thinking about suicide?' It will not increase a person's suicidal thoughts. The chance to talk often comes as a relief" – JoEllen Tarallo, Vermont Suicide Prevention Center

If the person is stable enough and is saying that they're happy, that you know they're they will stay with you - they're not going to say they're happy you're there, but they will say that they're willing to work with you on finding some help. You're going to work with them on finding a trusted professional, perhaps getting another friend or family member, if you need to pass this off, to connect the person to.

And most importantly to not leave them alone until another trusted person who can take this to the next step is in sight and present.

So basically all thoughts of suicide must be taken seriously and a person needs to be directly connected to the sources of help we talked about earlier.

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Correction 8:21 a.m. 8/8/2017 An earlier version of this story misspelled JoEllen Tarallo's name