Who knew when the year started we’d be separated from loved ones for months? And here we are, canceling celebrations, work and vacation plans, and not even hugging our friends. We are facing more stress – financial, emotional, social – than anyone could have imagined. We haven’t seen the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health yet. But as therapists, we know that as chronic stress continues, more people will experience depression and even suicidal thoughts.
Let’s not wait to see what the impact is of COVID-19 on the suicide rate! Let’s talk about what we can do to prevent suicide now, while we are still in the midst of the pandemic. The sooner we learn what to do about suicidal thoughts, the more people can find healing.
We’re in an epidemic of distress and trauma
We are facing an epidemic of loneliness. People are feeling alone, abandoned or rejected, depressed, anxious, and scared. Trauma – the experience of feeling danger that’s overwhelming without a way to feel safe – is happening. People with a history of trauma are feeling painfully triggered again. Uncertainty is everywhere. COVID-19 adds one more adverse childhood experience – one more ACEs point — to every child on the planet. Just about everyone in the world will be touched by this trauma!
Are you wondering how to get through this?
We need resilience and self-care skills like never before. This pandemic can be an opportunity to expand our window of tolerance. But at the moment, it may be hard to see anything positive for yourself about this situation.
Facing isolation, depression and fear is serious work. Finding the strength to deal with trauma may not feel like an option for everyone. Those already grappling with hardship may not be able to see how all this pain or distress will end. For some, this struggle will lead to thoughts of hopelessness or suicide.
In fact, people whose lives end by suicide are dying from depression, trauma, isolation, and lack of connection. They don’t yet see how they can regulate their emotions and stretch their window of tolerance.
People do not take their own lives for selfish reasons. They do it because they don’t see any other way out of feeling so badly. Depression and mental illness can kill.
Suicidal thoughts are surprisingly common
Suicidal thoughts happen more often than you might expect for those with depression and/or a trauma history. That’s because, from a trauma-informed point of view, you may have a part (or portion) of you that sees suicide as the only way out. One part sees it as the only possible means of relief and escape from the emotional pain. That feeling comes from a part of you that wants you to feel less badly, or even better!
How suicidal parts can be protective
For people who have survived complex relational trauma, these “protective parts” of themselves are coping mechanisms that formed early on. The protective thoughts and behaviors became resources to help them survive the feeling of danger they experienced early in life.
Among these protective parts, a suicidal part may have developed, with a promise of relief that a person who feels trapped needs to know – if it “got too bad” there was always a final way “out.”
The thought of suicide becomes ironically, a lifeline to survive for a trauma survivor. When a person can’t find improvement or a helper in real life, there is sometimes an inner part with an available exit from pain. A secret weapon. A last resort – that we hope no one ever needs!
You are more than your parts
At times, people can recognize separate parts of themselves. They can see how their thoughts and feelings fragmented when younger into “parts” that could hold or tolerate the pain at that time. A part isn’t all of a person. It’s only a component that helps them survive the pain.
A survivor of trauma, especially one of complex trauma, may use hyperarousal or hypo-arousal to protect themselves. A part may learn to dissociate as a means of survival and protection. Sometimes people may consider suicide as another way to protect themselves—another way out of the trauma and away from the pain.
What if we understood this differently? With more compassion…
Considering the ordeals a trauma survivor experienced, thoughts of suicide to escape might be understandable.
It can be hard for loved ones and even therapists, to hold space to notice suicidal thinking, because it’s frightening, and often condemned as “wrong.” We need to not demonize the way people feel. We need to choose not to get angry with people for feeling so hopeless that life will not get better. Instead, they need us to be able to nurture and understand them!
Of course, it’s scary! There can be a lot of fear around talking about suicidal feelings.
These feelings aren’t just frightening for the people feeling them, but also for their loved ones. No one wants to hear that someone they love is experiencing deep pain and thoughts of suicide. No one wants to know their loved one can’t see a way out, or can’t imagine that life will get better. But if we are to help each other, we must learn to talk about it! We must remember that a suicidal part isn’t all of a person. It’s a part of them.
We can learn to listen to suicidal thoughts without acting on them.
In stage oriented trauma work, as we work toward current day safety, we can ask these protective parts to step aside a bit, give us some space to work – some time to help them, while we safely look at trauma so that there can be healing. Healing gives us other ways to respond to pain so that the suicidal part doesn’t need to be so active or ready to jump in.
In trauma work, all parts of a person are welcome. We never ask parts to go away, die off, or leave. We always ask to work or collaborate with them. After all, they are there for a reason!
What if we could talk about suicidal parts and thoughts without stigma?
Depression has a stigma. Sometimes people judge those with depression as lazy or unmotivated. When a person becomes ashamed of a feeling or thought, it can cause them to go deeper into themselves and make the situation worse.
People at risk of suicide sometimes cover up emotions for several reasons:
- They don’t feel like anyone will understand
- They feel too alone
- They don’t want to be a burden to others
- They feel there is no other way out
- They feel ashamed to be thinking this way
For example, consider some celebrities we know whose death by suicide took us by surprise. Did anyone know that the comedian Robin Williams was so depressed? Or that Anthony Bourdain saw no other way out?
Shame comes from the stigma around the mention of suicide or suicidal ideation. It prevents so many from getting the mental health care they deserve! It prevents so many from healing and living. By learning to talk openly with each other, each of us can help end this stigma.
Healing is possible
Healing, even from depression and suicidal thinking is possible. For example, therapy helps people expand their window of tolerance. It must first be safe enough to notice and acknowledge the feelings that plague you. Having safe people in your life – a therapist, a helper allows the creation of a safe place to share and connect. Naming, understanding and connecting compassionately.
Thoughts of suicide are obviously very serious, but what if we could more easily name them and speak about them? Wouldn’t that reduce the shame—and lead people to get help?
If there wasn’t so much stigma and shame around being a trauma survivor, then maybe people would be able to really say how much pain they’re in. Maybe they could more readily ask for help.
No one is “bad” or “wrong” for having suicidal thoughts. Without the stigma, more people could understand that their thoughts, behaviors and actions all make sense considering what happened to them!
So, how can we better understand and support those who may be grappling with thoughts of suicide? We can help:
- By talking about it!
- By reducing the stigma, and making it okay to ask for help!
- By noticing the signs someone is thinking of suicide.
- By being a safe place, a helper.
- By celebrating vulnerability as courage!
And by knowing that strength comes from vulnerability.
What to say to someone who is suicidal
Someone who is thinking of suicide needs professional care. Getting that care starts with a conversation.
If you are wondering how to talk with someone you think may be suicidal, the article Suicide Prevention – 10 Questions and Answers can help you find words to reach out. Remember:
One of the most important things you can offer — as a therapist, family member, bystander or friend — is living proof that someone cares.
People start thinking of suicide when they feel hopeless and alone in their struggle. They do not see a way out. Telling them they are not alone — and really meaning it — is huge. They desperately need someone to care.
A simple act of kindness, like asking a question, can do a lot to help someone who may be thinking about suicide.
Much healing –even from trauma – starts within healthy relationships and secure attachment. Friends and secure relationships give us the courage to open up what we generally keep hidden from the rest of the world. Often times, these emotionally-corrective relationships start in therapy.
In this unprecedented time, more than ever, pay attention. Tune in. And don’t be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions or show someone that you care.
There is hope!
Even when someone is enduring unspeakably dark times, there is hope. Why? Because the power of connection is remarkable. The healing that comes from healthy relationships is life-altering. And the possibilities of therapy are incredible. People can—and do—recover from even the darkest places, even when it feels like all hope is lost.
Compassion, openness, awareness and support are gifts we can give each other. So if you have the opportunity to have a difficult dialogue with someone you care for, please do it. And if you are someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please, say something.
Crisis Intervention Hotlines
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The Crisis Text Line
- The National Runaway Switchboard
- National Domestic Violence Hotline:
- Alexandria Domestic Violence Program
- Alexandria Sexual Assault and Awareness Program
- National Sexual Assault Online Hotline
- Crisis Link
24/7 regional hotline: 703-527-4077
- Alexandria 24-Hour Emergency Mental Health Services
720 N. St Asaph St, Alexandria, VA 22314
703-746-3401Domestic Violence Program:
24-hour hotline: 703-838-4911
A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client in the DMV area, please contact/email me for therapy through Brickel and Associates.
During this COVID crisis – we are able to see Virginia resident clients via our HIPAA approved, virtual teletherapy system, implemented for the COVID-19 health crisis.
- View our COVID-19 Guidance, Procedures and Resources.
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- How to Build Resilience as a Trauma Survivor
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