How Could We Ever Have Known?

Watching the family of someone who has taken their own life is never easy. Death is seldom easy at the best of times, let alone when it is a young one in their early teens. Our teens are definitely struggling with anxiety, some with depression, and a few who are having suicidal thoughts; is there a way to identify the cause of having suicidal thoughts and are there truly indicators when they are? The answer to both questions, "It's complicated".

With 20 plus years working with suicide - as a crisis negotiator, an investigator for the Coroner, as a researcher, and now in the field of suicide risk mitigation - the answers still evade us as to the exact cause. However, there is hope for most, if we can just get them to look further into the future than they currently do.

What we do know through science, research, and experience is that suicide is an extreme emotional reaction to an emotional situation, most often to a series of emotional events. Suicide is not a disease, nor a virus, and it is certainly not a 'mental' illness. (Let's get rid of that term 'mental', that has a stigma attached to it, it is 'mind' health).

Taking one's life is definitely not cowardice. More often than not the person is tired. Tired of struggling with what to them seems like a life filled with negative events, their rational brain hasn't fully developed yet so they are unable to rationalise their negative thoughts when a series of 'life' events hit them. They get tired of fighting, so flight takes over from fight.

In every single case that I have ever been involved in, talked with, read about, watched, investigated, or examined - at the time of suicide the person is never themselves. At the point of suicide, the person changes, their thoughts are no longer theirs and there is no longer any control.

It is always something, small or large, in the last 24 to 48 hours that has tipped the scales for them, their head is full of negative thoughts and it overflows with this latest event. They no longer have energy to fight their thoughts so their automaton mind takes over.

Apart from a genetic disposition, there are common traits in people who take their own life;

  1. Extreme empathy - they have an unbelievable ability to read people, to interpret signs of emotion in others that most of us can't see, and they want to help those people. They hurt when others hurt so want to make it right. They are selfless and generous.

  2. A strong sense of social justice - linked to empathy, they want to show support for those less-fortunate or who they believe are unable to defend themselves.

  3. Perfectionism - everything they do or make must be the very best without flaw. If they perceive a flaw, they will destroy their project. They will remember things they have done for the mistakes rather than for the achievement. C's no longer get degrees, it must be A's.

  4. Are multi-talented - they use both sides of their brain to become good at both academic and artistic subjects.

  5. Have trouble differentiating emotions from feelings - emotions come before feelings, they are deep down in the brain (amygdala) and often have a genetic foundation and commonalities with others. Feelings are different for each of us and are based on our experiences.

  6. Great maskers, using humour and happiness to mask their emotional pain and turmoil. They are very much introverted but behave like an extrovert.

Is this information helpful, I do hope so. Can it help predict suicidal behaviour, possibly. However, many people have these traits and aren't impacted by life's negative events.

The biggest factor that influences who we are is what we have done and seen in our lives; our family, our friends, and our schooling. None of these things are the same for any of us, not even identical twins. And therein lies the challenge, we can only make generalisations based on the majority of people.

So, what are the common signs that someone might be struggling;

  1. They get busy - can't sit still for any length of time, have lots of tasks on the go, stay up late to keep their mind occupied, are high achievers because they are always busy.

  2. They isolate themselves - won't go out to socialise, won't talk with others about their negative thoughts, push away those who are close to them. Importantly for me, they won't look at you when you talk with them.

  3. They become tired - only sleeping intermittently, they become lethargic, don't want to exercise, become messy, and don't care about their hygiene.

  4. They self-medicate - there is an increase in drugs and/or alcohol (they will always gulp when drinking alcohol), and increase destructive behaviour; gambling, smoking, and self-harm.

  5. They start to look pale - when things are getting on top of them, the blood flows from the outer extremities towards the major organs to keep the person alive, the body is going into self-preservation mode.

Is this additional information helpful, hopefully. Can it predict suicidal behaviour, probably. However, some people show these signs as part of their normal behaviour. Like most things in life, it is very easy to join the dots after an event. It is very hard to know exactly what event or events to join together to positively predict an outcome.

How would you know if either the traits or the behaviour is leading to suicidal thoughts, ask the person. But, again herein lies another problem, we are very good at hiding things when we are struggling.

The best that we can all do for ourselves has not changed - socialisation, exercise and sleep in that order. If just one of those is missing, our life becomes out of balance. The best thing that we can do for others is to talk and ask, "Are you okay", and never believe what they say in answer so ask them again "Are you truly okay?"

If you are reading this and you are struggling, reach out. 1737 is the organisation in New Zealand that I endorse. There are great organisations in every country who are there to help, use them. Don't listen to your thoughts, listen to those around you, because your thoughts are no longer yours.

Let's talk!