Written by Reid Depowski, LLMSW
If you are in crisis, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line: Text “TALK” to 741741
Reid is a therapist and the Clinical Development Coordinator at Therapy Today, as well as the President of the Michigan Board of Directors for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). She has volunteered for the AFSP in many forms over the last 5 years and is passionate about advocating for, and practicing suicide prevention both in her personal and professional life.
So many of us are struggling to maintain our mental health amidst the COVID-19 outbreak and the painful and angering deaths due to police brutality and racism. For those experiencing hopelessness and/or suicidal ideation, it can be difficult to know how to manage these thoughts during this time. Having suicidal thoughts can be an extremely isolating and overwhelming experience. My hope for this post is to give you some tools for managing these thoughts and caring for yourself if you experience them, or to share with your loved ones who do. It’s important to note that while these are helpful tools, they are best used in-conjunction with seeing a licensed mental health therapist. A therapist can provide a supportive, non-judgmental space to process the sources of stress contributing to these thoughts, as well as help personalize these tools (and others) to best fit your needs and find ways to help keep yourself safe as you navigate these challenging times.
Before we jump in, I want to acknowledge the stigma surrounding suicidal thoughts. Our society is slowly overcoming the false belief that suicidal thoughts are somehow selfish, or that they are “just a cry for attention.” What we know is that those suffering from suicidal thoughts are desperate to end the stress and pain they are experiencing, and often believe they are burdening others by being in pain with seemingly no good options to help. It is undoubtedly true that it can be scary and hard to support someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, and the complex emotions one feels upon losing someone to suicide are completely valid. It is also important to know that checking-in on your loved ones and talking about suicide does not increase the likelihood of them attempting suicide – in fact, it decreases it, as it provides a sense of relief to know that someone is willing to hear and hold their pain with them, as we know social support is one of the leading protective factors for preventing suicide. Although this conversation is hard, it is an important one for saving lives. I have included resources for those supporting a loved one who struggles, and for those impacted by suicide loss at the end of this post.
Suicidal thoughts are produced by a combination of risk factors (such as mental health conditions or substance use disorders, chronic illness, trauma) and ongoing stressors (unexpected lifestyle changes such as a divorce, loss of a job, and of course, a global pandemic). While not everyone responds the same way to similar risk factors and stressors, this can give some insight into why one may experience them, and I find in my practice that understanding the sources of these thoughts can be empowering for finding a way through.
For my clients experiencing suicidal ideation, we develop a safety plan, which is basically a guide created ahead of time for moments when these thoughts intensify. I’ve included the template I use with clients developed by Gregory Brown, Ph.D., and Barbara Stanley, Ph.D. from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As you can see, it includes all of the information one would need to know if they were to find themselves in a crisis. In other words, it basically does the thinking for you, which is why safety plans are so effective at preventing people from attempting suicide. When we are in crisis, our brain does not think as clearly, and we can’t think of all the options to help ourselves. If you find yourself in a crisis and experiencing suicidal thoughts, a safety plan provides you important ways to care for yourself.
For the purposes of this post, we will focus on coping skills and what contacts to have ready should you need them.
Coping skills are activities you do, or tools you use to manage stress and tolerate difficult emotion. Let’s start by engaging our five senses:
Touch – Take a warm bath or shower, pet an animal, put on comfortable clothes, go outside to feel grass and plants, or stretch
Smell – Light a candle, put on scented lotion or perfume/cologne, or make an aromatic food or drink (make coffee or tea, bake cookies)
Hear – Put on your favorite song, listen to a podcast, step outside to notice sounds around you
Taste – Chew gum, eat a piece of candy, make yourself a yummy drink such as hot cocoa or coffee, or eat a snack
See – Watch the sky, look at pictures of you with loved ones or memories, search images of places you would like to visit, or watch a funny movie
Other coping skills could include ideas such as:
- Talk to yourself in a soothing, compassionate way, like you would to a friend. Try using phrases such as: “It’s okay to feel this way, it makes sense to me.” “This is a difficult time, I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
In response to stress you may feel due to the COVID-19 outbreak, you can practice thinking statements that reflect two truths, such as: “I can both understand the importance of social distancing, and still be sad about things I am missing out on.”
Preventing ourselves from viewing things in extremes helps prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed, and helps us see situations more realistically
- Do something creative, such as paint, draw, color, or cook
- Take a walk
People to call:
As mentioned earlier, social support is vital for our mental health. When creating your list of contacts, consider two different categories of loved ones: 1) who would be a good resource to have light-hearted, distracting conversation with, and 2) who would be a good resource to tell how you’re really feeling. This will help you know your reason for calling, which will then help you get your needs met.
For the first category, who in your life is funny, interesting, and relatable? Write their names and numbers on the sheet. Some phrases to contact them while keeping it light could be:
- “Hey! I miss you – how are you doing today?” or “I’m thinking about you. What’s up?”
For the second category, who in your life do you call when things are hard? Who has helped you through some of your most difficult moments? Write their names and numbers in the next section on the sheet. Some phrases to contact them could be:
- “Hey, I’m having a hard day today, and I was wondering if I could talk things through with you?” or “Hey, I’m trying my best to work through some negative thoughts I’m having, but I’m still having a hard time shaking them, and I just need some support. Could we talk it out?”
While it’s important to have our close contacts ready-to-call in your safety plan, there may be times when they are unavailable, or you realize you are in need of more formal support. There are two important numbers you can save ahead of time in your phone to use in an emergency:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- The Crisis Text Line: Text “TALK” to 741741
While we may not be able to change or control some of the stressors that impact our mental health, we can find ways to help ourselves through. My hope is that this post provided you some options for how to respond to thoughts of suicide or a sense of hopelessness.
If you are in need of mental health care support, we have several compassionate, experienced therapists that can help at Therapy Today. You can call our office at 517-481-2133 to schedule an appointment.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers several resources for people touched by suicide in different ways:
- Click here for resources if you have survived a suicide attempt
- Click here for resources if you have lost someone
- Click here for information if you are worried about someone
Other resources you could consider exploring:
- PsychologyToday.com – this website helps you find mental health care and offers various articles on mental health.
- TherapyForBlackGirls.com — also offers a podcast and regular blog
- Ethel’s Club – they create healing spaces that center and celebrate people of color through conversation, wellness and creativity.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – a national non-profit that promotes the destigmatization of mental health, with local chapters and support groups running throughout the country
- The Trevor Project – a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.
- Ele’s Place – a healing center for grieving children, teens, young adults, and their families, with four locations around the State of Michigan.
- JED Foundation – a national nonprofit that aims to protect teens and young adults’ emotional health and prevent suicide. They equip teens and young adults with the skills and knowledge to help themselves and each other