Myths and Facts about Suicide

Column by Amy Marschall, Psy.D.

September is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with approximately 130 people dying from suicide each day. Unfortunately, misinformation around suicide perpetuates stigma and prevents people from seeking help and support. This article dispels common myths about suicide.

If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Phone and chat options are available on their website.

MYTH: Asking someone if they’re suicidal will “put the idea in their head.”

FACT: If someone is not experiencing suicidal thoughts, asking them if they are will not make them consider it as an option. On the other hand, if someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, they might not know how to reach out or tell someone what they are thinking. In that case, asking could give them the opportunity to reach out for help.

If you are concerned about someone’s well-being, it is okay to bring up the topic of suicide in a non-judgmental way to show someone that it is safe to share their thoughts. Even if the person is not suicidal (or not ready to share their feelings), communicating that it is an okay subject to talk about reduces stigma, normalizes conversation around suicide, and opens up the potential for someone to ask for thelp if they are in crisis.

MYTH: Suicide is selfish.

FACT: When someone dies from suicide, they are not thinking selfishly. In fact, they often view themselves as an unnecessary burden on their loved ones. Spreading the message that suicide is a selfish act is harmful because it sends the message that suicidal thoughts or behaviors make someone a bad person when this is simply not true.

Guilting someone into staying alive is likely to backfire in the long run. It might feel like you are giving someone a reason to “hold on” because their death might hurt other people, but telling someone their suicidality makes them “selfish” furthers negative self-talk.

MYTH: Suicide ends the pain of depression.

FACT: A common thought that a suicidal person might have is that suicide will get rid of the pain they are going through. But suicide ends the person’s entire life, not just the depressive symptoms. Mental illness is treatable, but death is permanent.

MYTH: Someone who talks or thinks about suicide is suicidal and is in danger.

FACT: There is a difference between having suicidal thoughts and having the intent to act on these thoughts. For example, some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder have intrusive thoughts about suicide, and they are disturbed by these thoughts because they do not want to act on them. Someone might think, “Things would be better if I were not alive anymore,” but not have a plan or intent to act on this thought. This is known as passive suicidal ideation.

If someone is talking about suicide, it is best to have then talk with a professional who can assess their level of risk. A risk assessment includes determining things like: Do they have a specific plan to harm themselves? Do they have access to the means to carry out this plan? Do they intend to act on this plan?

Ongoing mental health support is beneficial, as someone with passive suicidal ideation can become suicidal in the future. However, just because someone has suicidal thoughts does not automatically mean they are actively suicidal.

MYTH: People just attempt suicide to get attention.

FACT: Many people do not know how to communicate their mental health struggles because stigma prevents us from talking openly and sharing information about mental illness, and many people do not know someone with whom they feel safe sharing these feelings. Furthermore, young people especially have not yet learned how to put words to their feelings. Behavior is another form of communication, and a suicidal person who does not have the resources to ask for help in a healthier way might feel like this is their only option.

In this case, a suicidal person is not “attention-seeking;” they are help-seeking. They still need and deserve support and care. Framing this behavior as manipulation further stigmatizes suicidality and prevents people from asking for help for fear of being framed as “just wanting attention.”

MYTH: Only certain types of people can be suicidal.

FACT: Prevalence varies by demographic, with women being more likely to attempt suicide than men, men being more likely to die from suicide than women, and individuals ages 20-24 being the highest risk age group for suicide. However, suicide occurs among all genders, age groups, ethnicities, and income levels. Although depression is the diagnosis most commonly linked to suicide behavior, suicidality can be a symptom of many different diagnoses. Suicidal ideation can affect anyone regardless of other factors.

MYTH: When someone dies from suicide, their family and friends should have known they were struggling.

FACT: You cannot tell if someone is suicidal simply by looking at them, and if they do not want to share what they are going through, you likely will not be able to tell from talking to them. Even people with severe depression might smile or act like nothing is wrong much of the time. Additionally, sometimes suicide occurs impulsively after a traumatic or upsetting event, so there might not be warning signs in the days prior. Other times, it might look like someone’s depressive symptoms are getting better before the suicide behavior.

It is natural and typical to ask ourselves what we could have done to prevent someone’s death from suicide, but suicide is caused by mental illness. Blaming loved ones for a death is harmful because it can prevent them from getting support in their time of grief.

Talking about suicide is uncomfortable, and the topic is steeped in stigma. Recognizing myths around suicide and countering them with accurate information is essential. Understanding the truth about suicide can ensure that those who need support can get the help they need.

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