How are you doing today?
Often that small talk banter may seem forced or trite, but that one question could save a life. Such conversation can help one to be truly present in another’s life when that person may be going through a crisis, even a suicidal crisis.
Stigma and fear, not to mention busy lifestyles, may keep people from noticing the needs of their neighbors, yet a tough economy or chronic health conditions, could put a person at risk for having suicidal thoughts and even for death by suicide.
No suicide deaths have occurred in Fairfield County within the last year, according to Fairfield County Coroner Barkley Ramsey’s office, and by taking proactive steps to care for one another, it is hoped the public can help that encouraging trend continue in Fairfield County.
According to South Carolina Director for the American Foundation on Suicide Prevention Helen Pridgen, it is important to learn the warning signs and learn how to be present with someone who is in a suicidal crisis.
She noted that in South Carolina, more people die by suicide than by murder. Also, 60 percent of people one day will know someone who dies by suicide. The problem is prevalent but action is key.
The acronym ACT is used by the Army is suicide prevention programs. ACT stands for Ask, Care and Escort.
If one finds oneself around someone and they show warning signs of suicide, Pridgen advises to gently ask the individual, “are you thinking of harming yourself?”
Warning signs include: threatening to hurt or kill oneself, writing or talking about death or suicide, making plans for a serious attempt or other more subtle combinations of warning signs such as intense feelings combined with depression including insomnia, panic attacks, feeling trapped or hopeless, feeling like life has no purpose and/or feeling rage or anger.
Showing care for the individual requires one display a calm assertiveness. Phrases such as “I am with you” or “I am concerned about you” can help convey that message to someone undergoing a suicidal crisis.
“People often fear of putting the idea into a person’s mind,” Pridgen said, “but more often what we find is true is that people are relieved to have been asked the question.”
The next step of ACT is to escort, to never leave the person in a suicidal crisis by himself or herself. Options are to offer to call a chaplain, pastor, family member or friend. Calling 911 or taking the person to the hospital also are proper responses, as is dialing the 24-hour help line 1-800-273-talk.
“An acute state of suicidal crisis is much like responding to a person who is having a heart attack,” Pridgen said. “The key is for the person reaching out to be present for them and make sure they are receiving the medical care they need.
Pridgen said that people worry about asking the right questions but that the main thing they need to concern themselves with is genuinely being with the person in crisis and letting them know they are cared for, loved and supported.
She offers the following practical tips:
- Remain calm.
- Be present in that moment.
- Don’t yell or be judgemental.
- It is important to create a safe climate that conveys they are secure and that the person in crisis is being cared for.
Pridgen notes that most people who have a psychiatric illness will never make a suicide attempt, but 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a mental illness.
That is one reason the need is great for persons to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“People may be afraid to let you know the are depressed or going through things because they don’t want you to think less of them,” Pridgen said. “Also when we separate from a suicidal person or from families who lose loved ones because we don’t know what to say… all of us have a role in helping our neighbor.”
Fighting and caring
Promoting self-care and helping persons develop resiliency are key components in this fight.
People may feel overwhelmed and beyond the capacity to cope. Such was the case for Pridgen’s son, Clay Pridgen, who died by suicide at age 25. Clay dealt with major depression, panic attacks and self-medicated to deal with the stresses of young adulthood but in the end the struggle became overwhelming and he moved beyond the capacity to hope.
In the healing process that followed his death, Pridgen, a licensed social worker, learned more about suicide. Her personal experience led to a career change as she dedicated her counseling skills to suicide prevention. Twelve years ago Pridgen said she had so many questions because she was not working in the field when her son died. She has since tried to accumulate a knowledge base and share it with other survivors.
“One problem a lot of survivors face is they judge themselves based on what they know (about suicide and crisis situations) now versus what they knew before their loved one died,” Pridgen said.
One concept she tries to explain to others is that of “suicidal ambivalence,” where part of the person really want to go but they also are not ready to leave and want to stay in this world. Yet they have such a strong desire for relief from the psychological and psychic pain.
Stigma affects servicemen and servicewomen who feel if they come forward it could affect their careers, according to Pridgen, but she is among the professionals working to change that culture.
“The brain is part of the body like the rest of the organs,” Pridgen said. “Remember that 10 percent of persons who die by suicide present no evidence of mental illness. There are psychosocial factors at work, genetic factors, too.”
She also cautioned about environmental and socioeconomic risk factors. For instance, if one has a family member who is at risk for suicide, such as someone with chronic illness or chronic pain, it is prudent to lock away firearms or even remove them from the home.
“Most often, people get past a suicidal crisis, or suicide attempt and then never do it again,” according to Pridgen.
She noted how suicide cuts across economic, age, and racial lines. There is no typical victim. It strikes clergy, professionals and those out of work.
She finds comfort in knowing that she is helping others to know the warning signs and how to respond so that her experience does not happen to others.
But suicide awareness is far more than being knowledgeable of what to do should one be faced with a crisis situation. Suicide leaves its mark on the family members and friends left behind when a person dies by suicide.
Walk to stop suicide
Benefit events such as the Out of the Darkness Walks that occur throughout the nation combat the stigma associated with mental illness and psychiatric illness. An Out of the Darkness Walk will be held from 2-4 p.m. on Oct. 14 in Columbia’s Riverfront Park. Registration ends Oct. 12. The walk also raises funding that goes to national institutes of health grants.
For more information about this free event which is hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s South Carolina Chapter, please contact Dennis Gillan at 734-476-2543, email@example.com or Barbara Webb at 803-206-8833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The event is open to all ages and includes a 2.5 mile walk alongside the Historic Columbia Canal. Memory boards will be provided for people wishing to make displays to honor loved ones.
For Pridgen, she honors her loved one every day when she goes into the office because she’s taken her love for her son and channeled it into her work. In the support culture among survivors such as Pridgen, she is known as a wounded healer who draws from her own pain and suffering to help others. She said that phenomenon is quite common within the community of persons working to promote suicide prevention and to reduce the stigma surrounding death by suicide.
She encourages anyone who feels the desire to do so to come and support the October walk, even if they do not walk as seating will be provided.
That one stand that day may help save a life.