How to identify the warning signs of suicide when we’re physically apart in this pandemic
Suicide is a serious global health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that it was “the fourth leading cause of death” for people ages 15 to 29 in 2019.
WHO also said most suicides across the world happen in low- and middle-income countries averaging up to 77%, and the rest occur in high-income countries.
The risk of suicide continues to rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With these two global health crises upon us, how do we know the warning signs of suicide now that we’re physically apart? How about the steps we can take to help our loved ones and prevent them from harming themselves?
In observance of World Suicide Prevention Day today, Sept. 10, with the theme “Creating hope through action,” PhilSTAR L!fe sat down with the secretary of the Integrated Professional Counselors Association of the Philippines (IPCAP) Inc. and a registered guidance counselor for more than 13 years, Ma. Honey Belle B. Vicencio, to discuss the warning signs of suicide, preventive measures, and how to encourage people to seek help.
Vicencio is also president of the Philippine Guidance and Counseling Association-Peer Organization of the Philippines (PGCA-POP).
According to Vicencio, the red flags—or warning signs of suicide “may vary from teens to elderly.”
The common warning signs teens exhibit are abrupt changes in their eating and sleeping habits, negligence of personal appearance, frequent use of drugs and alcohol, persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, and frequent complaints about physical symptoms.
As for adults, changes in sleep patterns, increased consumption of alcohol or prescription drugs, self-neglect, failure to follow medical orders, and sudden interest to read about death and suicide are some of the signs they may show.
Vicencio said, “If you experience changes like these, make sure to ask for help.”
Vicencio said suicide risks have four levels: low, moderate, high, and severe. The common denominator is suicidal thoughts, but they differ in terms of planning and attempting to do it.
For low suicide risk, the person has no plan to commit suicide and won’t attempt to do it. Moderate suicide risk means they have a vague plan that isn’t lethal and won’t attempt as well. High suicide risk means they have a specific plan that’s highly lethal, but they still won’t attempt suicide. Severe suicide risk means the person has a specific plan that’s highly lethal and will attempt to do it.
Vicencio also shared that some common suicide risk factors include existing mental illness, substance abuse, history of trauma and abuse, previous attempts and family history of suicide, terminal illness, and social isolation.
“If the person is talking about suicide, seeking out lethal means, withdrawing from other people, exhibiting a self-destructive behavior...these are signs of suicide,” Vicencio stressed.
How to help prevent suicide
While suicide may not be predictable, there are ways we help to prevent it. Vicencio provided three tips that we can do to help those who are at risk.
“First, speak up,” she said. “If you notice that someone you care about shows suicidal thoughts, it’s natural that you would feel uncomfortable and/or afraid. But you have to get help as soon as possible. Show them that you care by talking to them and making them feel they can express their feelings.”
She added that by doing so, it will help the person to feel relieved “from their loneliness and pent-up negative feelings.”
It’s also important that we know the right words to say and questions to ask. According to Vicencio, some of these are:
- “I’m really concerned about you lately. How are you?”
- “I want to check on you. You don’t seem to be okay.”
- “How can I best support you right now?”
- “You’re not alone in this. I’m here for you.”
- “Have you thought about getting professional help?”
Another way to help is to know how to respond quickly in a crisis. “It’s important if you can evaluate the immediate danger the person is in, try to assess if the person has suicide plans, and the means to carry out their plan.”
Lastly, Vicencio emphasized that after evaluating or assessing the situation of a person, we have to make sure that we show care, support, and empathy to them. “The best way to help is by offering an empathetic, listening ear. Let them know that they’re not alone and that you care for them.”
She also said that helping a suicidal person takes a lot of courage because it can affect us, especially if it’s our loved ones who are at risk. She said people should “find someone that you trust to talk about your feelings” and to “get the support of our own.”
However, she reminded people not to take responsibility for someone else’s healing. “You can offer support, but you can’t make a suicidal person get better. They have to make a personal commitment to recovery.
Continue your support over a long time. Even after the immediate suicidal crisis has passed, stay in touch with the person, try to drop by, and check in on them. Your support is vital to ensure your loved ones remain on the recovery track.”
Help is available
Vicencio said to “do everything in your power to get them the help they need. Encourage them to see a mental health professional, help locate a treatment facility, or take them to a doctor’s appointment. Make sure to follow up on their treatment. If the doctor prescribes medication, make sure they take it as directed. Be aware of possible side effects and notify the physician if the person seems to be getting worse. It often takes time and persistence to find the medication or therapy that’s right for a particular person.”
If you or someone you know exhibits suicidal behavior, has suicidal thoughts, or is in a state of emotional distress, help is available. Contact National Center for Mental Health Crisis Hotline through the following numbers:
- For Luzon-wide landline toll-free: 1553
- For GLOBE/TM subscribers: 0966-351-4518 or 0917-899-8727
- For SMART/SUN/TNT subscribers: 0908-639-2672