Frequently asked questions about suicide

Suicide is a complex phenomenon, and understanding it can help us care for those in distress

Sriranjitha Jeurkar

Is it normal to have thoughts of suicide?
Thoughts of suicide are not uncommon, and most people do experience stray thoughts about being tired of it all or of wanting things to end, during times of intense emotion. However, a fleeting thought can cross anyone’s mind, whether they are with or without mental health issues. It is when the thoughts increase in frequency, intensity and in their intrusion into a person’s daily life that it becomes a cause for concern.

Who can have thoughts of suicide?
Any individual can experience thoughts of suicide, irrespective of their age, personality traits, accomplishments or social status. Certain factors such as the existence of a mental illness, marginalization, and exposure to socio-cultural stressors may increase an individual’s vulnerability. Research shows that in India, the rate of suicide is highest in the 15-29 age group with women in that age group being more vulnerable than men. That said, there is no age group that is immune.

Does suicide mean the person has/had a mental illness?
Not all people who have thoughts of suicide or attempt suicide have a mental illness. And not all mental illnesses make a person vulnerable to suicide. There are several biological, psychological and social factors that may make a person vulnerable to suicide. Suicide is a complex phenomenon resulting from a combination of several factors. Mental illness may or may not be one of them. While suicide is an indicator of intense emotional distress, it is not necessarily an indicator of a mental illness.

Is a suicide attempt a sign of the person’s weakness or inability to handle their problems?
It’s a common belief that suicide is a sign of the person’s weakness or their lack of courage in facing their challenges. A person doesn’t simply opt to have thoughts of suicide. They may have thoughts of suicide due to an interplay of several factors – biological, psychological and social. Thoughts of suicide are usually a symptom of extreme distress and can overwhelm an individual irrespective of how strong they are.

But why don’t they reach out?
A person who has thoughts of suicide is likely to have an intense experience of loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness, which makes it hard for them to reach out for help. They may also fear judgment by others. They often attempt to cope with their problems by engaging in behaviors that may not easily be seen as a cry for help – withdrawing from hobbies, work, family or friends, suddenly becoming dependent on substances or by broaching the subject in a roundabout way with people they know. Some people may choose not to reach out to the ones closest to them because they’re worried about how they will take it, or fear that the person they reach out to won’t understand what they’re going through. The existing misconceptions and stigma around suicide and mental illness can make it more difficult to reach out.

Is anyone with depression at risk of suicide?
People with mood disorders such as depression may biologically be more at risk of suicide than people who don’t. However, the social component matters too: if a person who has depression has a loving and supportive family, and a workplace or community spaces where they experience acceptance and support, they may be able to seek support in time and tide over their emotional distress. The existence of a mental illness (or lack of it) is not the only factor that determines a person's vulnerability.

If someone is harming themselves, does it mean they’re at risk of suicide?
While some people with thoughts of suicide may harm themselves, not everyone who harms themselves is doing so with an intent to end their life. This is being recognized across the world today, with the DSM-5’s new classification called Nonsuicidal Self Injury disorder (NSSI). Self harm here is used mostly as a coping mechanism or a distraction, rather than the end in itself. People who self harm may harm themselves for months or years without ever attempting to end their life. This said, self-harm can be one of the risk factors for suicide, and should be monitored closely.

Is it okay to say that someone committed suicide?
In English, the word ‘commit’ is used in context of actions that are against the law, or current ideas of morality. The usage of this word in the context of suicide can (sometimes inadvertently) perpetrate the existing stigma and misunderstanding of the phenomenon. This stigma can keep people vulnerable to suicide from seeking the help that they need. Talking about suicide in a way that doesn’t connote a sense of wrongness to the act can help reduce the stigma. ‘Attempted to end their life’, and ‘took their own life’ or ‘died by suicide’ are more compassionate phrases that can be used to describe an incident.
 
With inputs from Dr Divya Kannan, Clinical Psychologist;  Kamna Chibber, consultant clinical psychologist at Fortis Healthcare; Paras Sharma, counselling psychologist  at The Alternative Story; and Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan, psychotherapist at The Talking Compass.