Each September, advocates across the U.S. mark Suicide Prevention Awareness Month with public education campaigns, fundraisers and demonstrations of all kinds. Events center particularly on National Suicide Prevention Week, which this year occurs from Sept. 9-15. With that in mind, qnotes takes a look at a few of the organizations working to end suicide and aid people in crisis, including individuals who are LGBTQ, and advises readers on how to spot warning signs of suicidal behavior, where to turn for help and what steps they can take in their daily lives to help build a safer, healthier world.
Suicide prevention organizations
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)
One of the nation’s foremost health advocacy organizations, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017. The group traces its history to a partnership of what it calls its “founding families.” Those families were united by the loss of loved ones to suicide and determined to halt the rise in suicide deaths among young people which AFSP says had been observed in the preceding decades.
AFSP was the first institution of its kind to operate on a national level and has grown to include chapters in all 50 states. It embraces a multi-dimensional approach to its cause, pursuing political advocacy — the foundation is based in New York, but maintains a major public policy office less than half a mile from the U.S. Capitol and an eight-minute drive from the White House — along with scientific research and public education.
Research funded by the AFSP encompasses such diverse disciplines as neurobiology, social psychology, genetics, clinical treatment protocol and community intervention. And despite its name, the organization frequently looks for new insights beyond the borders of the U.S. In the last four years alone, grant money has gone to, among many others, a Cape Town, South Africa scientist investigating organophosphate insecticide exposure as a risk factor for attempting suicide; a Buenos Aires, Argentina researcher who posited that blood levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids in hospital emergency room patients might be used to predict future suicide attempts; and an Edinburgh, Scotland-based Ph.D. interested in possible links between family and community ties and rates of self-harming behaviors in rural Sri Lanka.
The Foundation’s scientific interests also reflect an awareness of the unique vulnerability of some LGBTQ people to suicidal ideation and behavior. 2014 saw a postdoctoral research fellow awarded $85,000 for an investigation undertaken in partnership with The Trevor Project, in which machine learning was applied to assess the language appearing in 100,000 anonymous individuals’ messages to the TrevorText helpline. In total, studies concerning suicide prevention and the LGBTQ population have benefitted from hundreds of thousands of dollars in AFSP grants over the past six years.
The Trevor Project
The Trevor Project exists to prevent suicide and provide crisis intervention for LGBTQ young people, with a focus on those ages 13 to 24. It takes its name from the title character of a 1994 Oscar-winning short film, based on a one-man show by writer and performer James Lecesne. Lecesne, along with movie producer Randy Stone and producer/director Peggy Rajski, founded the Project in 1998 to coincide with the film’s premium cable debut. Its first endeavor was the Trevor Lifeline, a free and confidential crisis hotline still in operation today.
In the decades since, the organization has expanded its offerings to include access to trained counselors via text and instant message. It has also developed its own social networking site, TrevorSpace, through which members can discuss topics such as coming out, navigating family and other relationships, gender transition, the nuanced definitions of the many labels applied to gender and sexuality — and, on its Social Lounge board, anything and everything that might come to mind. TrevorSpace is carefully moderated to ensure the safety and privacy of its users, and posts can only be viewed by fellow members.
Crisis intervention resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
TTY (Deaf & Hard of Hearing)
Nacional de Prevención de Suicidio (Servicios en Español)
Launched in 2005 with support from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Lifeline provides free, confidential 24/7 suicide, crisis, and emotional distress counseling from a network of over 150 local branches.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also offers an online chat service, available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
To communicate with a crisis counselor via text message, individuals can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 in the U.S. (Other suicide prevention and crisis intervention organizations may provide their own codes, such as START or CONNECT, but all provide access to the same service.)
Crisis hotline provided by The Trevor Project, staffed by counselors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Instant messaging with a Trevor Project counselor, available daily between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. EST.
Text TREVOR to 1-202-304-1200
Operates Monday through Friday, 3-10 p.m. EST.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the largest organization of its kind in the nation. Founded in 1979, NAMI focuses on grassroots activism and education, fighting on multiple fronts to eliminate stigma and shape public policy.
The Alliance provides a multitude of support groups and resources not only for people living with mental health conditions, but for their families, friends and other loved ones. NAMI Basics is a course aimed at family caregivers of children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with mental illness, or who have experienced symptoms but have yet to receive a formal diagnosis. NAMI Family-to-Family supports loved ones of adults with mental illness, helping them to understand the illness and its impact on the individual affected; recognize and cope with the role another person’s symptoms can play in the life of a family member, partner or friend; and effectively support and advocate for the person they care about. NAMI Homefront, meanwhile, is a similar program specifically catering to families, partners and friends of active military service members and veterans. A complete list of support groups and education programs, including one-day courses, is available at https nami.org/find-support/NAMI-programs.
At the same time, NAMI pursues legislative and policy initiatives beneficial to individuals living with mental illness, and to their families, friends and caregivers. It has succeeded in securing greater government funding for mental health research, and has achieved notable victories in the quest to ensure that mental and physical illness are equally recognized under the law and in many insurance policies.
NAMI also prioritizes awareness events like Suicide Prevention Month (September) and Mental Illness Awareness Week (the first full week of October).
The NAMI HelpLine aids callers in non-emergency situations (staff and volunteers will transfer callers in crisis to a national crisis hotline) in common issues associated with mental illness, including information on symptoms and treatment, local support options, and job search and legal aid services. HelpLine can be reached at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) and is available 10 a.m. -6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Signs to look for
People at risk of suicide frequently exhibit behaviors that can indicate that risk. Take note if someone you know:
- Talks about killing themselves. Even if they present it as a joke, the sentiment may well be sincere, and at the very least demonstrates that suicide is on the person’s mind.
- Says that they feel hopeless, powerless, exhausted, or trapped, that they can’t remember a time they were happy, or that they can’t imagine ever feeling better or finding an escape from their current situation.
- Says that they can’t bear the way they feel.
- Talks about feeling like a burden to others, that they’re useless or a problem, that those they care about would be better off without them, or that they would eventually “get over” the person’s death.
- Exhibits risky behaviors, such as increased use of alcohol or other drugs, or having unsafe sex.
- Withdraws from relationships or activities that were previously important to them, or ceases to find pleasure in things they formerly enjoyed.
- Researches methods of suicide.
- Demonstrates fascination with suicide or romanticizes it, such as speaking of taking one’s own life as an act of beauty.
- Gives away possessions, especially those they value highly.
- Speaks hypothetically about their death or absence, or makes arrangements for that potential circumstance, such as asking a family member or friend to look after their pet if anything were to happen to them.
- Has or seeks access to means of taking their lives, such as obtaining firearms or hoarding medication.
Equally important, particularly if you have a history of mental illness or suicidality, is to remain aware of warning signs in yourself. It can be difficult to view your own situation with the perspective necessary to observe patterns, or even to note consciously that something is wrong. Look out for the same signs that you would in others, and keep in mind any thoughts or behaviors particular to you that have historically signaled a period of severe depression or a worsening of your symptoms. If you know that you tend to neglect personal hygiene when severely depressed, for instance, or experience insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much yet still feeling tired), or skip school or work, or avoid answering the phone, or become easily overwhelmed by events that wouldn’t otherwise bother you — look for those signs, and ask people close to you to be aware of them as well.
Steps you can take
Above all, don’t ignore the signs. Don’t assume that someone else will do something, or that the situation will resolve itself.
It’s as important to listen as it is to talk, but if it falls to you to begin the conversation or to take action in a crisis:
- Don’t try to minimize the person’s feelings or struggles. If they’re real enough to contribute to a person’s thinking about suicide, they’re real.
It’s okay to recommend resources such as crisis hotlines or mental health services, but avoid giving advice about specific situations unless it’s asked for.
- Don’t tell stories about people who have “had it worse.” Rather than inspiring the person in crisis to count their blessings, it’s much more likely to worsen the feelings of guilt and self-reproach they’re already struggling with.
- Never say or imply that people who commit suicide are selfish, or express judgment or condemnation. This only discourages a person in crisis from talking about what they’re going through.
- Do let the person know that you’re paying attention — that you’ve noticed the things they’re saying or doing that cause you concern, and that you care.
- If the person isn’t ready to talk, don’t give up. Make sure they know that you’re available when they are ready. Similarly, if a friend or family member has been withdrawing or turning down invitations, keep inviting them, and keep reaching out.
- If you believe that someone is in immediate danger, don’t talk yourself out of calling 911. Don’t leave them alone, or if you can’t be physically present, do your best to keep them on the phone or otherwise stay in communication. And take practical steps: get rid of anything they could use to harm themselves.
- Accept that the person’s immediate reaction could be anger, resentment or denial. That’s okay.
- In daily life, take suicide and mental health seriously, and be aware of the way your actions may affect others. Never joke about or shame suicide. Stigma is rife: if you find mental illness unnerving or frightening, learn more about it. And avoid sharing material that dramatizes suicide or self-harm, or that gives unnecessary detail, like news articles about suicides that include discussion of the method used.
By remaining empathetic and aware of the resources available to us, we can all contribute to building a world without suicide.
Upcoming suicide prevention walks
Out of the Darkness Community Walks American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Sunday, Sept. 16
Fayetteville Area Walk
Saturday, Sept. 22
8 a.m.-12 p.m.
Triad Area Walk
Sunday, Sept. 30
9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Triangle Area Walk
Durham Central Park
Sunday, Oct. 7
Asheville/Western NC Walk
Saturday, Oct. 13
9 a.m.-12 p.m.
Central Piedmont Walk
Statesville High School Stadium
10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Myrtle Beach Walk
Broadway at the Beach
Myrtle Beach, NC
Saturday, Oct. 20
Romare Bearden Park
Sunday, Oct. 20
Columbia Area Walk
Sunday, Nov. 4
Wilmington Area Walk
Wrightsville Beach Park