“He did not really attempt suicide. It was just a cry for help.”
“If she had really wanted to die, she’d be dead.”
These are often the reactions of friends and family to a suicidal person. Sometimes, it is true that a person who made what appeared to be a suicide attempt did not really want to die. One large study found that of 286 people who reported that they had attempted suicide, almost half (41.8%) nevertheless endorsed the following survey item about their intentions: “My attempt was a cry for help. I did not intend to die.”
The flip side of those study results is that the majority of people who reported a suicide attempt – 58.2% – did intend to die. They endorsed one of two survey items: “I made a serious attempt to kill myself and it was only luck that I did not succeed” or “I tried to kill myself, but knew that the method was not fool-proof.” (On a side note, I take issue with the wording of these items, as no method is fool-proof.)
When Suicidal Behavior Is a Cry for Help
Even among those who reported a suicide attempt but did not actually intend to die, there still are serious problems for which these people deserve compassion and concern – certainly not derision – from others.
First, people who hurt themselves in what they view as a suicide attempt do so because of great pain, desperation, or other distressing emotions. If they are crying out for help, there is usually a good reason for them to do so – and a good reason for others to listen.
Second, it is normal for people to need and want attention. Everybody has a need for attention; what differs among people is how they go about getting it. Threatening or attempting suicide is a very unhealthy way to get attention or communicate distress to others. It is a sign that something is wrong. Even if the person does not really plan to die by suicide, he or she needs help. There are other, more healthy ways for people to let others know that they are suffering, angry, depressed, or otherwise in trouble and need help.
Third, even people who threaten or attempt suicide to get other people’s attention can still die. Mistakes happen. A study of teens found that half underestimated the amount of Tylenol needed to cause death. So, a teen who did not truly want to die but took Tylenol as a means to signal distress to others could still die. Who knows how many of the suicides every year are a cry for help gone awry?
Taking Suicidal (or Potentially Suicidal) Behavior Seriously
In short, suicidal behavior is a serious, potentially fatal problem. This applies to suicidal thoughts as well as attempts. If someone you know is saying they really want to die by suicide – or has already tried – take them very seriously. They deserve empathy, compassion, and assistance, whether from you or professionals (or both).
Which would be worse – to presume that somebody really is suicidal when they are not, or to presume that somebody is not suicidal when they really are? Although both situations are complicated, the second scenario can result in death. It is better to err on the side of safety.
© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All rights Reserved. Written For: Speaking of Suicide
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