Lately, I Have Been Thinking of Suicide

I am sorry, if I alarmed you, but indeed suicide has been on my mind lately. A few weeks ago, I heard that a schoolmate of mine had died by suicide. We had not been in touch for more than a decade and yet, the news came as a big shock. It hurt to imagine the depths of despair he must have been in, the hopelessness and loneliness that he must have felt to have taken that step. What further dismayed me, was the reaction of some people when I shared this with them. Between the condolence messages, there were thoughts about how this is a cowardly act, or why he didn’t think of his family and how unfair it is on them, or that he should not have given up so easily. Nevertheless, though deeply saddening, these opinions were not surprising, since this is what we have been taught all our life – that suicide is cowardly, it is a way of escape, only the weak do it as they cannot handle the pressure, it is selfish, it is a crime. But none of this is true. And I will tell you why.

Since the day I heard about this friend, I have thought over and over again, if there was some way he could have been saved. So, today I am writing this post in the hope that it raises awareness and empathy towards people who might be going through a difficult time and perhaps end up saving a life or helping someone, somewhere who is feeling lonely and hopeless. I would like to tackle some myths about suicide, to understand and identify warning signs of suicide and some thoughts on how we can help somebody going through a difficult time.

Understanding Suicide

My first step to understanding suicide was to talk to people working in the area of mental health. Each of them mentioned that suicide is not a desire to die, but a cry for help. And it is definitely not cowardice. Those people have been so lonely and in so much pain that they couldn’t see any other option. It is not that they did not think of their family or loved ones and were being selfish.  What is actually going on in their mind is likely very different.

According to counseling psychologist Shivangi Anil, “They don’t want to die. They are just ending their pain. They probably think of themselves as a burden on their family and are ridding the family of that everyday burden.” Read here from a person who has contemplated suicide and shares the same emotions.

 Clinical psychologist Palka Bhasin Kapoor explains this very well, “depression, anxiety, stress, negativity – everyone has these emotions – they are a part of life. But only a part. When this part starts to become whole, that’s when it becomes a problem.” At these times, the brain stops to think and leads to brain fog, immobility and this starts to affect a person’s everyday functioning. Personal counsellor, Maullika Sharma believes that, “a lot matters on how someone is processing the world. How they interpret an event. What are their expectations vs reality.” There could be many reasons for why different people react differently to similar circumstances and how some people go down the dark path.

Childhood trauma, abuse, bereavement, substance abuse, personal loss and many other reasons could render a person more vulnerable. At times chemical imbalances in the brain could also be a cause of suicide, such as in cases of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. Even a low level of serotonin affects the ability to feel happy. Genetics can also play a role in increasing someone’s risk of suicide. Just like having cancer in the family could increase a person’s risk to get cancer, says Shivangi. Regardless of these causes, a person contemplating suicide is confined within their feelings, experiences and emotions and feels that they cannot cope anymore with the immense psychological or physical pain.

Season 4 of the show Stranger Things symbolizes mental illness through its latest monster Vecna. The killings by Vecna mirror what a person suffering from depression or mental illness might be going through. All victims have their own traumatic pasts which they are unable to share with anyone. Just before the actual killing, the victim starts hallucinating – in the recesses of their own mind, where everything is dark and bloody, they are running from some terrible monster while outside where it is bright and sunny, people are unable to comprehend what is going on with their friend. The one person that survives, does so by running towards the light – symbolising how she breaks through the traps her mind has built for her, supported by her friends.

This is not too different from a person suffering from trauma or mental health issues. They are trapped in their own minds, unable to seek help and those outside are unable to reach in. So how do we know if someone is going through mental health issues, or worse still is having suicidal thoughts? And if we do understand, then how do we help that person?

Recognize the signs

This is easier said than done. When a person dies by suicide or attempts suicide, it is easier to see in hindsight what was going on with them. However, the reason it is difficult to predict suicide is because there are many people going through similar situations who may never consider suicide. Nevertheless, one should not ignore the following behavioral signs or signals of suicidal ideation:

  • Withdrawing from the people around them
  • Talking about leaving, going away
  • Sentences such as ‘mere bachchon ka dhyan rakhna’/ ‘take care of my children’ or start telling the family about where important documents or money are
  • Starting to give away things – especially those they cherish
  • Saying goodbye too often – for instance, visiting family and friends they haven’t seen in a long time
  • Talking about hopelessness, bleak future, nothing changing
  • Wrapping up loose ends.
  • Putting house in order – cleaning up finances, making a will
  • Loss of interest in personal appearance
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Changes in behavioral pattern like excessive happiness, sudden peace, too much alcohol
  • Changes in sleeping patterns such as too much or too less sleep

Even if the person exhibiting these symptoms, is not suicidal, there is a high likelihood that they are undergoing severe stress or depression, and in cases such as this, try to reach out to them.

Offering support, Seeking help

Since there aren’t obvious physical manifestations of psychic pain, it is usually not easy to understand the agony a person might be undergoing and therefore others are not able to appreciate or relate to this pain. Hence it is important to understand that a person with mental health issues is undergoing a variety of complex emotional experiences.

More often than not, a person with suicidal tendencies would have tried to reach out to someone for help, perhaps spoken about their feelings. How this person responds would matter a lot. And to be able to really help this person, the first thing we need to do is to let go of our own biases and be more empathetic. Maullika puts this very nicely – “if there is a person trapped in a dark room, there are two ways in which you can try to help them. One approach is to stand outside the dark room and encourage them to come out. The second is to step into the room, take their hand and help them to come out.” It is obvious which approach would be more effective.

How to help:

  1. Listen – sometimes it is just enough to listen. You are not always required to provide advice, just be with them. Make yourself available – “I am here if you want to talk.” As Shivangi puts it, ‘sometimes just letting them cry with you can be cathartic.’
  2. Do not trivialize – comments such as “snap out of it”, “it shall pass”; “time will heal” are just empty sentences – perhaps well-meant but do nothing to alleviate the person’s pain or suffering.
  3. Be non-judgmental – many people do not seek help, because the fear of being judged or considered weak is foremost in their mind.
  4. Get involved – try to do different activities with them – something you may enjoy together, or even daily chores – as sometimes the person might have lost interest in even doing those.
  5. Find support – there are a number of support circles for suicide prevention and you could help to enroll them in that
  6. Seek help – finally try to get professional help. Depression is a serious condition but is often used very loosely. We say very often we are depressed – but we are actually just sad. Real depression is much deeper and complex and for an expert to diagnose. Medication and therapy both can help people come out of depression.

“Man up dude”

Did you know that more men die by suicide than women? Surprised? Shouldn’t be. Data shows that globally, death by suicide occurred about 1.8 times more often among males than among females while in the Western world, males die by suicide three to four times than women.

While there could be many reasons for the same, but it would not be wrong to say that the same patriarchal thought system that has treated women unequally, has also made men prisoners of their own minds. Traditionally men are brought up to ‘not cry like girls’ – they learn very young to bottle up their emotions. Moreover, the conventional gender role of the man being responsible for the wellbeing of his family is bound to take a toll on their mental health. So, when a man is undergoing stress, he does not reach out as easily for help as perhaps a woman would. I am not even sure how much men discuss their problems with each other – the fear of being judged as weak or incompetent is high and discourages them to come out in the open with problems they are facing. As a result there is no space for emotional release. What Shivangi said was very telling of this problem – 60-80% of her clientele is women. Because men do not reach out. Read this experience

It is possible to get rid of suicidal thoughts

And finally, if you or someone you know has been having suicidal thoughts, please know that it doesn’t have to remain this way. Many people, at different times in their lives go through suicidal ideation. It does not mean that they are crazy or weak or have a character flaw – it is just means that they are experiencing more pain than they can cope with at that point. They are unable to find a way out of their problems.

But do remember that suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. Hold on till the pain subsides and the situations changes. Today there are many options to deal with such situations – reach out for treatment. Find a therapist or support groups. There are very good medications available – as Palka says, pharmacology has made tremendous improvements in the last 10 years.

And the recovery process is a journey the person and his family take together. Dealing with suicidal ideations is done at both the clinical as well as the family level. Once suicidal tendencies are identified, families and therapists can chalk out a plan to support the person.

Palka related the instance when a mother brought her teenage son to her who was experiencing suicidal tendencies. After a number of sessions, the boy was able to overcome his negative emotions and is now able to see his situation in a different perspective. She also gave the example of another patient who felt he was not able to work or perform and was ready to leave his job and take a break. However, after undergoing therapy with her, he now feels much more confident and feels his productivity has increased too. Another of her patients reveals, “Having a place and set time to discuss my thoughts had a very positive impact, as it is very hard for me to open up to people. Opening up to a professional helps you sort your feelings. It helped me set my priorities and work harder towards my goals.”

Read here an account of someone who overcame suicidal ideations.

So yes, even though at some point, it might feel that there are no options left in life, but it is possible to change your perspective and bring sunshine back into your life.

Make a Difference

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death world over. According to WHO, almost 700,000 people die every year by suicide. That is almost 1 person every 40 seconds. In India, almost 140,000 people died by suicide in 2019 and this rate has been consistently rising over the years. So please do read this and share to spread awareness. You never know that you might end up saving a life.

Suicide Helpline India

Global Suicide Helplines

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional. The content in this post comes from expert interviews and online research.

I have written other posts on mental well being, please see links below:


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One comment

  1. You have raised a very critical issue. We all shy away from sharing our troubles. And it is indeed difficult to recognise a person in distress. Spreading awareness goes a long way

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