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Suicide Prevention: How to Create a Safe Community for those in Distress


Create a Safe Community for those in Distress

Written By:
Kara M. Connors, MPH
Community Outreach and Education Coordinator
Buckelew Suicide Prevention Program

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported data on the ten leading causes of death in the United States. Suicide rates increased from 29,199 deaths in 1996 to 47,173 deaths in 2017. It is the second-leading cause of death among our nation’s youth and the leading cause of death among men under 50 years of age. Sixty percent of all deaths by firearms are suicides, not homicides.  Our country is experiencing the longest-lasting decline in life expectancy in recent years, due in large part to suicide and drug-related overdoses.

The narrative for suicide as a complex public health issue could stop here. These statistics are daunting and should prompt us to consider: With suicide rates increasing among every age group nationally, what does this mean for our collective understanding of, and response to, suicide? What will it take to reverse these trends?

The answer may be found in recent research conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention indicating that 94% of Americans believe that suicide can be prevented. In addition, the research shows that the majority of us want to help, feel we lack the words to communicate with someone in distress, but want to learn how.  These are powerful findings, and provide a direct pathway for each of us to become a resource for someone who is in distress.

This September, as we honor Suicide Prevention Month, what can you do to help build a safer community for those in distress? 

Learn About Risks and Protective Factors

Familiarize yourself with those factors that may protect someone from the risk of suicide, such as social connectedness, faith, exercise, limiting substance use, and more. Risk factors may include a family history of suicide, depression or other mental health conditions, or a family divorce. It is important to note that suicide is not caused by any one event or condition, and the presence of one or more risk factors does not mean that someone will take their life.

Know the Signs

The California statewide Suicide is Preventable campaign entitled “Know the Signs” identifies key specific behaviors (“warning signs”), or feelings that a friend or loved one may be experiencing if they are in distress, including: feeling withdrawn, lonely, or being a burden; talking or writing about suicide; having difficulty sleeping; having access to lethal means; skipping school or class assignments, etc.  Visit suicideispreventable.org and familiarize yourself with what to look for.

Ask Directly and Listen

We know that asking directly about suicide will not give someone the idea to take his or her own life. Having recognized specific warning signs, you might say: “I’m concerned about you. You’ve seemed really withdrawn. Are you thinking of taking your life?” Let your friend or loved one share their story—and listen. While your natural inclination might be to interrupt, listening is a great door opener for a conversation. Validate the person’s experience and show your support by saying, “I want you to know that support is available to help you through this.”

Refer for Help

Assume you are the only person who will help your friend or loved one. Let them know, “I’d like to sit with you while you call (the hotline, therapist, hospital). Find resources together.


Let your friend or loved one know you’d like to make a plan to connect again. Stay in touch by a visit, phone call, or note to show you care and are ready to help in the healing process.

Reduce Stigma, Dispel Myths and Promote Help Seeking

Reducing stigma is an active process that we can all engage in by speaking openly and non-judgmentally about emotional pain and mental health conditions. Encourage those around you that “it’s okay to ask for help” and check in with them as they seek help.

Take a Stand and Be an Ally

If suicide is an issue you care about, harness your passion and desire to make a difference by getting involved in your community’s efforts to raise awareness.  Consider hosting a Suicide Prevention training at your home or workplace or become a volunteer telephone hotline counselor.

As a nation, we have an incredible opportunity before us to change the trajectory of suicide in our communities. Suicide can be prevented. Talking about suicide openly and compassionately is a powerful first step and can be life-saving.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255.

If you’d like to learn more, receive training about suicide prevention, and/or are interested in becoming a hotline counselor, please contact the Suicide Prevention Program at Buckelew Programs. Buckelew Programs helps people with behavioral health challenges lead healthier, more independent lives by providing treatment tailored to their unique needs. Contact: hotline@buckelew.org or visit: buckelew.org.