County health officials stress suicide ‘messaging’

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A myth of the holiday season

True or false? More people attempt suicide over the Christmas holidays than any other time of year.

The answer, surprisingly, is false.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, during the months of January, February and March far more calls are received by the organization’s suicide prevention hotline than any other time of year. This mirrors national statistics. Though calls do tend to increase a bit during the fourth quarter, suicide prevention experts look the first quarter of the year as the peak period for depression-related hotline calls.

Evidently, the notion that the winter holidays sparked a rise in suicidal behavior is a myth, perpetuated, in part, by internet memes and media reports that are not always as sensitive, or as accurate, as health care professionals would prefer.

A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, has been tracking the number of news stories that spread the myth of holiday-suicide increases, a trend that has only recently begun to be countered. According to the study, 2014 was the first year where major media carried more stories debunking the myth that those perpetuating it.

Why then do the number of suicide attempts rise after the holidays. Experts point to a number of possible factors, from financial concerns and family conflicts that sometimes arise during the holidays, to the fact that some folks who are struggling with depression, rally to make it through the holidays, but then experience a post-holiday let down.

The important factor, experts say, is that as awareness increases and expectations shift, more resources are being made available post-Christmas and New Years, and the message is spreading that help does exist for anyone who needs someone to talk when life becomes difficult, before or after the holidays.

Suicide Hotline (national) – 1-800-784-8433 or call 1-800-273-TALK

Suicide Hotline (North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour Hotline) - 855-587-637

Depression - NAMI Sonoma County Warmline 707-527-6655

Self-harm – 1-800-DON’T-CUT

Grief support – 1-650-321-3438

Sonoma County support groups – www.namisonomacounty.org

National support - www.suicideispreventable.org

When talking about suicide, either in public or privately, it turns out the words one uses can have a tremendous effect on others, with positive or negative effects. That’s one message county health officials are stressing this month, as seasonal anxieties rise.

“The messages that we put out about suicide and suicide prevention,” says Stan Collins, a San Diego-based consultant and expert on suicide prevention, “are hugely important in how we are able to prevent suicide. It’s necessary to understand the risk of unintended consequences when we don’t have positive messaging about suicide.”

Positive messaging? About suicide?

Absolutely, he confirms.

“When the media runs a story about a recent death from suicide,” Collins says, “and focuses solely on the details, without giving readers any positive suggestions or resources to deal with their own possible suicidal thoughts, there can be a tendency toward copycats. Anyone who talks about suicide needs to be aware that that the messaging they use can either increase or decrease the risk of suicide in others.”

Collins recently spoke to an assembly of Sonoma County healthcare professionals, police and fire responders, and local media, in an event sponsored by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services and the Marin Health & Human Services Department.

“The words you use in discussing any public health issue are very important,” he says, offering a number of specific examples. “When we’re talking about suicide, what is the most common phrase we use? We say ‘committed suicide,’ right? Studies show that that language is not helpful, because it carries such a powerful negative connotation.”

The word “committed,” he points out, is strongly associated with the committing of crimes, or the committing of sins. As such, it adds to the sense of stigma already associated with suicide. For this reason, police departments and other public agencies are being instructed to adopt other phrases, including “died by suicide,” “died of suicide,” “took their own life,” “attempted suicide,” “lost them to suicide,” and, in describing those who’ve attempted suicide and lived through it, “suicide attempt survivor.”

“I know it sounds like splitting hairs,” says Collins, “but it removes a little bit of that blame and guilt we put on individuals who die of suicide.”

Even more important, he says, is to move away from describing suicide attempts as “successful” or “unsuccessful.”

“That’s the one I find even more egregious,” Collins says. “Think about it. If someone has successfully attempted suicide, they are dead. If they are unsuccessful, then they are alive. But we’re always encouraged to succeed at the things we attempt, so what is that saying?”

Choosing one’s words carefully while discussing matters of suicide is much more than mere political correctness, agrees Kevin Thorpe, a therapist and currently the interim Clinical Director at Hanna Boys Center.

“I think the words we use are really important,” he says, noting that depression and suicidal thoughts are nothing to joke about casually. “Suicide is one of those things that can be contagious. For that reason, when there is a suicide in the news, there can be unfortunate consequences. Sometimes, the media chooses not to report on it, which I think is often the right decision, but that’s not always responsible. This is not to say that when someone takes their own life, it should never be reported — but it should be done carefully.”

One on one, though, discussion of suicide can be a lifesaver, if done sensitively. That said, Thorpe agrees it can be uncomfortable raising the subject.

“Some people think asking a friend if they are feeling suicidal might puts the idea in that person’s head,” he says, “but that’s really not what happens. If you are friends with someone who is not happy, who is showing signs of possible suicidal intentions, that sadness can be multiplied if they are left to feel all that on their own. Use your friendship. Tell them you love them, are concerned about their unhappiness, and go ahead and ask if they have been feeling suicidal. Just say, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’”

If so, there’s a good chance they will admit it.

“In such cases,” says Thorpe, “it’s good to know what resources to recommend. Your friendship could save their life.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

A myth of the holiday season

True or false? More people attempt suicide over the Christmas holidays than any other time of year.

The answer, surprisingly, is false.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, during the months of January, February and March far more calls are received by the organization’s suicide prevention hotline than any other time of year. This mirrors national statistics. Though calls do tend to increase a bit during the fourth quarter, suicide prevention experts look the first quarter of the year as the peak period for depression-related hotline calls.

Evidently, the notion that the winter holidays sparked a rise in suicidal behavior is a myth, perpetuated, in part, by internet memes and media reports that are not always as sensitive, or as accurate, as health care professionals would prefer.

A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, has been tracking the number of news stories that spread the myth of holiday-suicide increases, a trend that has only recently begun to be countered. According to the study, 2014 was the first year where major media carried more stories debunking the myth that those perpetuating it.

Why then do the number of suicide attempts rise after the holidays. Experts point to a number of possible factors, from financial concerns and family conflicts that sometimes arise during the holidays, to the fact that some folks who are struggling with depression, rally to make it through the holidays, but then experience a post-holiday let down.

The important factor, experts say, is that as awareness increases and expectations shift, more resources are being made available post-Christmas and New Years, and the message is spreading that help does exist for anyone who needs someone to talk when life becomes difficult, before or after the holidays.

Suicide Hotline (national) – 1-800-784-8433 or call 1-800-273-TALK

Suicide Hotline (North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour Hotline) - 855-587-637

Depression - NAMI Sonoma County Warmline 707-527-6655

Self-harm – 1-800-DON’T-CUT

Grief support – 1-650-321-3438

Sonoma County support groups – www.namisonomacounty.org

National support - www.suicideispreventable.org

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