Empathy and Connection Can Reduce Suicide Risk | The Village Family Service Center

The Village Family Service Center

Empathy and Connection Can Reduce Suicide Risk

Monday, June 11, 2018
Nearly all individuals thinking about suicide do reach out for help.

(Editor's Note: Village Counselor Stephanie Schafer wrote the following op/ed piece for The Forum newspaper in light of mutliple high-profile suicides and studies indicating increased suicide rates)

We read the sad, startling headlines, and it seems like suicide is showing up in the media more than ever. I think this is in part due to the push in recent years for transparency about mental health and mental illness. This transparency has extended to public figures and larger stages. Remember the Video Music Awards last summer when Logic performed his song “1-800-273-8255,” the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline?

When we are explicit about suicide and mental illness, we can receive support and connection.

Humans are wired for connection. At a recent town hall event on suicide, I discussed how nearly all individuals who are contemplating suicide show some sort of sign. They “wave a red flag” so to speak. For the person contemplating suicide, it feels like they are waving both hands in the air, a visible SOS. To those around them who feel blindsided by a completed suicide, the red flag was the size of a toothpick umbrella.

A person contemplating ending his or her life reaches out for connection, in the way they know how. It is not always in a way we know how to see.

We need to learn other ways to see people. That, too, comes from transparency and ending the stigma that surrounds suicide. It comes with empathy.

While there is no single cause for suicide, it is a preventable death. We can help prevent someone dying by suicide by recognizing warning signs and risk factors, no matter how big or small, and taking appropriate action. We can also do this by supporting suicide attempt survivors and suicide loss survivors.

So many people are knowingly and unknowingly touched by suicide, and the stigma is real and pervasive. Think about how hurtful some phrases we say casually are to survivors: "I'd rather kill myself than listen to another minute of this lecture." “She should just slit her wrists and be done with it,” when describing a chronic complainer. “Oh shoot me,” with a finger gun gesture.

If you are noticing warning signs for suicide and have concerns for someone, the best thing you can do is talk to the person and ask if they are thinking about suicide. Generally, when we feel concern and worry, it is coming from a place of connection. Connection helps save lives, helps support someone who has attempted and survived, and supports those that lost someone to suicide.

A person contemplating ending his or her life reaches out for connection, in the way they know how. It is not always in a way we know how to see.

If you find it difficult to connect to someone who has thoughts about suicide, has attempted, or who lost someone, I urge you to find a place where you can connect. Seek to understand another human in pain. We have all felt unbearable emotional pain at some point in our lives, and that is where we find empathy. 

Know that you do not have to fill the role of the counselor/doctor/psychiatrist yourself. Professional supports along with natural supports – family, friends, peers, neighbors – help the person heal from the pain and find alternative ways to process and manage difficult emotions.

Stephanie SchaferStephanie Schafer is a licensed professional counselor, and provides services in Fargo, North Dakota. She has specialized training in Critical Incident Stress Management and suicide intervention.