Understanding suicide: Debunking myths and knowing what you can do
What it means to listen and what you can do when you know someone who wants to take their own life.
SINGAPORE: Knowing that someone wants to take their own life can be difficult to understand - and sometimes people are at a loss as to what can be done to help.
The stigma, myths and a lack of understanding of suicide contribute to that helplessness, and it can sometimes mean concerned family members and friends wash their hands of it or sweep it under the carpet.
Last year, about 400 people in Singapore died by suicide. Nearly every age group saw an increase in the number of people killing themselves. Suicide is a difficult subject to discuss - taboo to some of us.
CNA has worked with the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) to look at the myths and misconceptions around suicide - and what you can do if you know someone is thinking about ending their own life.
MYTH: SUICIDE IS CAUSED BY DEPRESSION
Suicide is not a mental health disorder, but people diagnosed with a mental health condition are shown to be at higher risk of attempting suicide.
To say that depression is the cause of all suicides is a generalisation that is repeated far too often. Suicide is often due to a combination, sequence or repetition of distressing life events.
Depression is also one of the many stressors a person can struggle with. It is important to keep in mind that a majority of people who have depression do not die by suicide.
NO, SUICIDE DOES NOT HAVE A LOOK
It can happen to anyone, not just someone looking moody or sad. Once someone has made plans to end their life, they may appear uncharacteristically happy or outgoing even.
It is useful to take note of unusual emotional and behavioural changes in those around us. If your instinct tells you something is amiss, you may be right. Reach out to them.
MYTH: SUICIDE IS A RARE OCCURRENCE AND NOT A CONCERN IN SINGAPORE
In 2018, 397 lives were lost to suicide.
Due to the difficulties in classifying a death as suicide, published statistics are almost always an underestimate of the actual number of people who took their own lives.
There are also others who attempt suicide and this figure is even harder to accurately capture.
MYTH: SUICIDES HAPPEN ON IMPULSE ALONE
Impulse plays some role in suicide – especially in young people, who may not yet be adept at processing and controlling their emotions.
At the same time, many who experience suicidal thoughts say they go through the stages such as ideation, gestures, plans and attempts.
While the act may seem sudden to by-standers, the decision to take one’s life is often developed over time and through deliberation. For a decision that puts that much on the line, suicide is not an outcome the average person rushes in to.
LISTEN TO CRIES FOR HELP
All talks of suicide and suicide attempts should be treated as though the person has the intent to die.
Though phrases like “my life is meaningless” or “living is so painful” may seem trivial and are often dismissed, these may actually be a sign of distress or be a cry for help.
A prior suicide attempt should serve as a risk factor.
It is also a cry for help from someone in profound distress that should not be ignored or treated as a form of attention-seeking. Someone who is at risk of suicide may also display warnings signs which we often overlook.
MYTH: SUICIDAL PEOPLE WANT TO DIE
Individuals thinking about suicide are often ambivalent and fluctuate between wanting to live and wanting to die.
For a person to contemplate suicide means they are in a situation of helplessness and despair.
They want to get out of their situation but no longer know how to. Death seems like the only way out of their pain and suffering. Reach out.
There are warning signs of suicide.
Those contemplating suicide would often have communicated their intention.
These signs may not always be direct or explicit as individuals fear being judged by those around them.
The fact that we may not spot these warning signs does not mean they do not exist. It is crucial to know some of the common warning signs and risk factors.
- Expressions of being a burden to others: “My family will be better off without me”
- Expressions of feeling trapped/unbearable pain: “There’s no point to my life anymore”
- Suicide threats: “If you don’t love me anymore, I will kill myself”
- Giving away treasured possessions and saying goodbye
- Researching suicide methods
- Writing suicide notes
- Extreme emotional outbursts (anger, sadness, irritability, recklessness)
- Loss of interest
- Humiliation or anxiety
Common suicide risk factors
- A previous suicide attempt
- Family history of suicide
- Chronic health condition and/or pain
- Intense and sudden loss (financial loss, loss of face, loss of loved ones)
- Mental health conditions
- Distressing life events (divorce, job loss, living alone in a foreign country)
- Prolonged stress factors (abuse, bullying, harassment, unemployment)
- Prolonged social isolation, being ostracised
MYTH: TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE ENCOURAGES SUICIDE
Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not put the idea in their head; neither does it push them further towards suicide.
Given the widespread stigma about suicide, having a loved one initiate a conversation about suicide may signal to those in crisis that this is a safe space for them to talk openly about their suicidal ideations.
For those contemplating suicide, it may be a relief that someone is allowing them to verbalise a struggle they are facing.
Asking about suicide shows that you care and it gives them the opportunity to reach out to a trusted individual for help and support.
SUICIDE AFFECTS EVERYONE
A common assumption is that those with greater material wealth will have fewer reasons to take their own lives.
However, with the media coverage of celebrity suicides over the last few years, we know that the factors leading a person to contemplate suicide goes beyond an individual’s socioeconomic status.
Globally, suicide is a public health concern which cuts across social economic statuses.
MYTH: SUICIDE IS HEREDITARY
Suicide is a behaviour, not a condition.
While multiple suicides can be observed in some families, it is not hereditary. Instead, those in the same family experience similar emotional and social environments.
Negative coping methods, such as self-harm, may also be imitated and adopted by some family members as a way to cope with emotional pain.
Social learning is sometimes cited for multiple instances of suicide in the same family.
This story was done with the Samaritans of Singapore.
Where to get help:
Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444
Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019
You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.