Helping People with Suicidal Thoughts

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Suicide, the act of taking one’s life or causing own death, is a complex public health challenge that encompasses psychological, social and biological factors.  This phenomenon is difficult to understand in Nigeria as a result of the cultural, social and religious narratives around it portraying suicide as a character flaw or an indication of poor moral standing. More often than not, people who own up to suicidal thoughts are laughed at, and are in some cases perceived to be attention seekers. Unfortunately, these common responses have worked to stigmatize people struggling with suicidal thoughts and reduce their desire to seek appropriate care.

Recently, media reports on the cases of suicide or attempted suicide in Nigeria have been on the rise. The widely circulated news of a doctor who committed suicide in Lagos in Year acted as a catalyst in increasing information supply on suicide rates in Nigeria. It has also created a growing awareness of the rise in the number of suicides in Nigeria and highlighting the fact that such acts cut across gender and age. The limited amount of data in Nigeria makes it difficult to ascertain the accurate number of suicides or attempted suicides in Nigeria however; the World Health Organisation (WHO) suicide ranking in Nigeria approximates that there are 15.1 suicides per 100,000 population per year in 2015, a number that may have drastically increased in recent years. The question remains: why are more Nigerians committing or attempting to commit suicide? Literature on the increasing rates of suicide in Nigeria has attributed the phenomenon to individual factors like chronic physical illness, emotional distress, alcohol and substance abuse, perceived abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), family history of suicide, history of mental health challenges, and socio-cultural factors like religious beliefs, bullying, economic or financial difficulties, loss of a loved one, stressful or traumatic life events.

Committing suicide is not about the desire to die but rather a desperate attempt to escape emotional distress. Many survivors have compared it to experiencing the combination of feelings of despair, grief, anxiety and fear. Regardless of their desire to end their suffering through death, most suicidal people seek other ways to relieve their pain however, they are clouded by their negative feelings and thoughts. Contrary to prevalent narratives, most suicides do not occur suddenly as they are usually preceded by warnings that we may not easily identify or understand. Some of these warnings include writing, talking or hinting about suicide, a sudden sense of peace or calm after a severe depressive episode, negative self-talk, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, engaging in self-destructive behaviour, giving away of possessions or interest in writing wills, withdrawal and isolation.

Suicide prevention is reliant on the ability to spot suicidal ideations and talk about them with the person experiencing it. It can be difficult and normal to experience some level of fear about approaching the person to talk about it; however, it is important to note that when a person is suicidal, they need immediate help.  When uncertain about the presence of suicidal thoughts, stick with asking questions that are leading. For example, “I have noticed that you have been acting different of late, and just wondering how you are doing?” “I am concerned about you, you don’t seem like yourself”. The ALGEE approach is described as a first step to helping people experiencing distress. It is important to support people with suicidal thoughts or feelings by:

  • Assessing their level of risk for suicide
  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage them to seek self-help and other support strategies
  • Encourage appropriate professional help when necessary

When talking to a suicidal person, it is important to take the person seriously, to listen, offer reassurance and be sympathetic. It should be conversation free of judgement or argument. When it is established that a person is suicidal, evaluate the immediate level of danger by asking about the suicide plan (How? With what? and When?), then seek immediate professional help with a qualified Psychologist or Psychiatrist.

If you or anyone you know is affected by the topic discussed in this piece, please contact Chinyereugo Udensi, a Clinical psychologist for support or guidance.