Suicide Prevention

Can a life be changed with a minute?: Suicide prevention, complexity and change

By Tiago Zortea.

The World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) 2017 campaign theme is “Take a minute, change a life”. You might wonder if this is really possible, since suicidal thoughts and behaviours are such complex phenomena to be understood. Indeed, research has shown that suicidal thoughts and behaviours are associated with feelings of entrapment [1] – a state of mind where one feels there is no way out of the distressing situation they are in and that there is no chance of solving their problems. Attempting suicide is the person’s way of trying to end the unbearable pain they are feeling or to escape from life circumstances in which they feel trapped. There are, however, two important elements we should not forget: suicide is preventable, and life is not a static thing – change is possible. How do these two factors help us to understand the WSPD 2017 campaign?

Last week I received a message from Roger [2], a person who used to be my patient when I was working as clinical psychologist about six years ago:

[…] I really would like to thank you for your massive contribution so that today I have built my family and have been achieving good progress in my career. I know that you are aware of the difference you make in this world and the importance of your work to help people to know themselves more and to change for the better. But let me be redundant: thank you for having helped me to change the direction of my life.

Roger’s message was a beautiful surprise to me and not only made me emotional, but also reaffirmed my values about suicide prevention. His life changed because a member of his family took a minute to talk to him and encouraged him to reach out for help. Here, a minute was the beginning of a conversation where change started to happen.

Suicide is the result of a complex network of interconnected factors. These factors are like switches in an electric circuit; they influence each other individually, and they influence the circuit as a whole. If we think of ourselves as parts of this circuit or network, we see that our actions can influence other ‘switches’ (or factors), and that they can influence the entire network to initiate a much wider change. Suicide is not inevitable, it is preventable and we all have a role to play. When we see ourselves in this way, as part of a network, we can also see that small things, such as asking someone how they are doing, have the potential to make a big impact.

Canadian researchers Katherine E. Bostik and Robin D. Everall [3] conducted a study to understand which factors are associated with healing from suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Three main themes emerged from the interviews with their participants: (a) attachment relationships with family, friends and significant others; (b) experiences of being attached to people such as finding acceptance, having a permanent relationship, receiving encouragement, and experiencing intimacy and closeness; and (c) changing self-perceptions – feeling more confident and secure in their personal identities. These are all things that are possible to do and they make us realise that suicide prevention is something closer and more tangible than we may think. One of the participants of Bostik and Evverall’s study said:

If I hadn’t met a lot of the people that I met last year and developed a new stronger circle of friends that are a lot more positive for me, God knows what would have happened. I probably would be dead by now. I just would have ended up overdosing on drugs or drinking too much or those kinds of things.

The influence of some negative factors in the network such as loneliness, isolation and detachment upon the occurrence of suicidal thoughts and actions may be weakened by other nodes as friendship, positive relationships, sense of community, mutual support, and collaboration. Expressing empathy, compassion and showing availability is critical in this process, and everything starts simply by ‘taking a minute’. Someone took a minute to talk to Roger and this person saved his life. The power of this invitation is bigger than we may imagine. Let’s make it a reality, as suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility. Take a minute, change a life!

 

Notes and References

[1] O’Connor, R. C., & Portzky, G. (2018, August 1). The relationship between entrapment and suicidal behavior through the lens of the integrated motivational–volitional model of suicidal behavior. Current Opinion in Psychology. Elsevier B.V. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.07.021

[2] This is a fictional name to protect the patient’s identity. The quote was used with his permission through personal communication.

[3] Bostik, K. E., & Everall, R. D. (2007). Healing from suicide: adolescent perceptions of attachment relationships. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling35(1), 79–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069880601106815

*I want to thank Dr Olivia Kirtley for her invaluable contributions to the improvement of this blog.

 


Tiago Zortea (@zortea_tiago) is a Clinical Psychologist, MSc Psychology & Human Ethology, and a PhD student in the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory, University of Glasgow (t.carlos-zortea.1@research.gla.ac.uk).

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