Sages of the New Covenant
They fear that asking the person about suicide will only introduce it as a possibility. They wonder, “What does a question about suicide say to young people about our trust and belief in them and their future?,” “Isn’t it important to stay positive?,” and “What can or should I do if an adolescent admits to thinking about suicide?” It might be even more frightening to have our concerns and suspicions about their thoughts of suicide confirmed.
This truth bears repeating because the “seedplanting” myth is so powerful and pervasive that even some mental health professionals seem to accept it.
The most important reason for shattering this myth is that when suicide prevention programs are established in schools, they reduce the rates of suicide. Two long-term follow-up studies have demonstrated this fact. In various counties where suicide prevention programs were provided in nearly all of its schools over a period of years, youth suicide rates declined, while State rates remained unchanged or increased for the same period of time.
It is important to note that school-based suicide prevention programs are not designed nor intended to focus exclusively on suicidal feeling, but instead are focused on help-seeking behaviors, knowing the warning signs, addressing the myths about suicide, becoming aware of school resources, and resolving to take action. Of equal importance is the need to ensure that all of the adults in the school have received training prior to introducing such training to the students. In this way, the adults can develop the necessary policies, procedures, and resources to respond to any increase in requests for help from the students.
This fatalistic view of suicide is reflected in a belief that suicide has become so commonplace that it is to be expected. No one can do anything to prevent it. This false belief may be one of many responses to the high rates of suicide in a particular community. High suicide rates can numb the community and cause many people to want to shut down in grief. Community members can be so overwhelmed by loss that they feel helpless in finding opportunities to prevent more deaths. Accepting suicide as preventable also may create profound guilt. The question becomes, “Why couldn’t I prevent my loved one from killing himself/herself?” Others see suicide as too complicated and mysterious to understand. Why would anyone reject life? This view becomes a barrier to prevention because it may seem futile to try to prevent what cannot be understood. Still others may see suicide as one individual’s response to his or her own unique personal problems. What can a community as a whole do to prevent suicide among diverse individuals?
According to former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, suicide is our most preventable form of death. And, as devastating as even one death by suicide in a community can be, most people, including adolescents and young adults, do not die by suicide. To help dispel the idea that suicide is inevitable, suicide prevention actions frequently focus on the positive aspects of living: strengthening families, developing in youth the skills that help them cope with life’s challenges, and building up a youth’s sense of self-worth. A focus solely on risk factors could simply perpetuate a feeling of helplessness in a community. In suicide prevention, the message must be one of hope for everyone in a community. Prevention is as much about strengthening what is good and working within a community as it is about correcting what may be threatening the health and wellbeing of its members. The power of hope in preventing suicide cannot be over-estimated. An example of its power can be seen in clinical trials to test new medications. In some study designs, half of the group is given sugar pills while the other half is given the new drug. Up to 20 percent of the people taking the sugar pills may show improvement — because they believe that they will. This result is called the placebo effect. Suicide prevention is as much about instilling hope in life as it is about knowing what programs are effective and implementing them.
This myth is based on the belief that suicide prevention is the work of therapists, physicians, psychologists, or other trained specialists rather than that of a community at large.
It seems logical that people who are considering suicide be seen by a professional. It is important, however, to distinguish between the treatment of a suicidal person and preventing suicide by engaging a person at risk in a suicide conversation. Everyone in the community needs to be involved in suicide prevention, from Tribal and Village leadership, to Elders, to the extended family, to teachers, and to youth and young adults themselves. Everyone can help to promote the mental health of youth as well as decrease factors that place them at risk of suicide. Everyone can be alert for signs that a young person may feel troubled. The entire community must come together to prevent suicide. According to Native American culture, children are the gift of the Creator and it is the responsibility of the entire community to care for and protect that gift.
This myth assumes that most people considering suicide do not want to be stopped.
There are commonly accepted warning signs; however further research is needed to identify any signs that may be unique to youth and young adults.
As was discussed earlier in this chapter, many reasons exist as to why a suicidal person might “code” or disguise a warning that he or she intends to die. The reality is that most suicidal people tell someone about their intent during the week prior to their suicide attempt. This fact is the foundation for community awareness campaigns and general gatekeeper or peer training activities, which focus on identifying and referring at-risk individuals for treatment and supporting services.
This myth is related to Myth 4, with many people believing that those who intend to complete suicide don’t tell anyone about it, while those who talk about it don’t intend to take their own life.
As described under Myth 4, verbal, behavioral, and situational clues and warning signs frequently precede suicidal behavior.
This myth is a variation of Myth 2, which is that no one can stop suicide or a person intent on suicide. The mistaken belief appears to be that, even if we could watch over a suicidal person every day, all day, he or she eventually would find a way to end his or her life.
It starts with asking someone who is showing suicidal clues and warning signs a simple question: “Are you thinking about suicide?” This question opens a conversation that can reduce a person’s feelings of isolation, anxiety, and distress and may lead them to seek help. Just asking the suicide question can reduce a person’s risk of suicide.
Also, as discussed under Myth 2, there are various reasons why someone would want to believe this myth. If a family has lost a loved one to suicide, and they are later told that suicide is preventable, what does that say about them?
What could or should they have done to stop their loved one from dying? The idea that suicide is preventable can be very difficult to accept without experiencing guilt, shame, and anger if a suicide has occurred. In any prevention program, it is important to stress that people should not feel guilty about the past because of what they are learning just now in the present.
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Sages of the New Covenant