Ending the Stigma of Suicide

Let’s Talk About It: Dr. Jonathan Singer, President of the American Association of Suicidology

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Dr. Jonathan Singer talks to Sherril Schwartz

Now more than ever, talking openly about suicide is critical to fighting the shame and silence that often accompanies suicide death. Dr. Jonathan Singer has studied the subject for years and has some pragmatic advice that seeks to give parents and loved ones tangible tools for helping those in need. 

About Dr. Singer

Dr. Singer is Associate Professor of Social Work at Loyola University in Chicago and the current President of the American Association of Suicidology. He’s worked on a mobile crisis unit for suicidal, homicidal, and actively psychotic youth where he conducted suicide risk assessments and engaged the youth and their families in short term stabilization therapy.  Once he received his doctorate, he started doing research on family-based interventions for suicidal youth along with schools and suicide. “A lot of my focus really ended up being on working with school districts on developing suicide prevention policies and protocols, training school-based clinicians along with community mental health providers, and speaking to parent groups about answering the question, ‘what happens when your kid is suicidal?’” 

Startling Suicide Stats

Dr. Singer brings some startling statistics to the conversation. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals in the US between the ages of 13 and 34. The suicide rate is actually higher when you look at adults, but overall causes of mortality in adults is higher than in children. In fact, you’re three times as likely to kill yourself than be killed by somebody else in the United States. Girls and women are about three times as likely to attempt suicide. And men are about three times as likely to die by suicide.

“Men tend to use more lethal means. Firearms are the most lethal means, where nine out of 10 suicide attempts with a firearm results in death. And there’s no gender difference when you use a firearm. So firearms are the number one reason why women die by suicide. They’re the number one reason why men die by suicide. But women tend not to use firearms as often as men.”

Dr. Singer recounts that between 2008 and 2017, there was a significant increase in the rate of suicide in girls, as well as suicide attempts. “Suddenly the rates that were rising the fastest and indicating the most risk were actually in girls.” 

A Generation Sandwiched Between Crisis

Citing the 2008 Great Recession as the starting off point for these increases in suicide rates, Dr. Singer is concerned that girls who struggled as adolescents in 2008 are now young adults struggling with the pandemic and economy. In 2008 they were struggling to establish friendships and peer groups when the economy was collapsing and families were losing homes and being uprooted. 12 years later, they are trying to establish their careers and navigating adult relationships at a time when the economy is, once again, collapsing. “My fear is that unless we are vigilant and are actually tackling this, we are going to see another rise in suicides amongst girls and possibly amongst young women because they had this double whammy of major crises.”

Pandemic Proactivity

Between the pandemic causing many of our self-care options to be limited and relying more and more on online interactions that are rife with body-shaming, bullying, slut-shaming, and comparisons, our traditional support systems have been compromised. Add in home-schooling and job loss and things can feel overwhelming. “In this society, it’s not okay to be a woman and say, I’m not able to handle this. 

“Particularly if you’re a woman of color, there is this additional burden of saying, ‘well, not only do I have the myth of being a strong black woman, but I also have the lived experience of needing to be strong because 24/7, I’m confronted by white supremacy and systemic racism. And so I literally have to be strong for that. So how do I be a black woman and have moments where I don’t have it together? Where I am legitimately not sure how I’m going to go on to the next thing.”

Suicide Prevention Begins with Conversations

Although Dr. Singer says trained professionals study how to have conversations with people that are suffering from thoughts of self-harm, he does have some advice for the rest of us. “We can’t just jump in, you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m Jonathan, are you having thoughts of ending your life?’, People are gonna be like, ‘What?

There are ways that you can build up to that, that there are ways that you can use assumptive language, you can say, ‘So I’m wondering if you could tell me some of the ways you’ve thought of ending your life?‘ Even that subtle shift says I’m not going to be afraid about the answer. If somebody was in a relationship that ended and it was acrimonious, you could say, ‘I know, sometimes when people go through a divorce, it’s so horrible that sometimes they have thoughts of suicide. Even though that’s not something that’s ever happened to them before, I’m wondering if that’s been happening with you.’ That’s a gentle way of saying, ‘I’m going to take out the shame for you.’”

Dr. Singer has three suggestions for supporting others we love during this difficult time:

Create a Circle of Support

“I’ll talk to the moms first. If you have a daughter, one of the first things you should do is reach out to the parents of your daughter’s friends, and say, ‘Hey, I know that suicide is something that girls think about. One in five high school girls have thoughts of killing themselves on average, and that goes way up for kids who identify as lesbian or bisexual. And so I want to reach out to you as our group of parents and say, how should we talk about this? How can we support each other?’ Really create a community of support.”

Talk to Teens

“For communication with our daughters, we want to focus on having the conversation. Ask, ‘What are some of the things that make it hard for you to come to me when things aren’t going well?’ And the daughter may be like, ‘Oh, I’ll come to you for anything,’ then you can say, ‘Well, would you? Would you come to me if you were having thoughts of suicide?’ And they might be like, ‘That’s really weird. I’m not sure I would.’

Then you can have the conversation like, ‘Well, what would stop you?’ and just listen and just be that person who can listen and validate any of their concerns, like, ‘well, I don’t want to upset you, Mom, you’re such a great mom, and you’ve done so many things for me and you you’re taking on so much. I don’t want to burden you with anything else.’ And you can be like, ‘Literally not a burden, I would do anything for you to share this with me. The burden is you not sharing with me.’

Fight Biased Expectations

“The third thing is, as a society, we expect women to patch up all of the holes in our systems of support. For example,we expect women to quit their jobs during a pandemic to care for their children. And we don’t have that same expectation for men. We expect women to put their careers on hold, to actually just get off the career track all together during this pandemic. This is indicative of the system.

“Society puts suicide prevention on the individual and mostly puts it on women. And that’s not okay. It is not okay for us to have to choose between a career and our family. And that is a structural issue, not an individual issue. For women who don’t know how they can make life work because their husbands are not going to not work and one of them has to stay home, now they are suddenly doubting their value in the world. And then the thoughts of suicide start coming back in because she had them when she was younger.”

Three things to help prevent women and girls from dying by suicide in brief: 

-Create a community of support with other moms 

-Make sure that you’re there in a way that your daughter can talk to you as well as your son 

-Fight back against the system that says it is on you to fix because it’s not on you

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