Culture of Caring

They Just Won't Listen

“They just won’t listen! They didn’t take him seriously. He said he wanted to end his life, and they didn’t believe him. They did nothing. And now he’s gone!”

Neglected Warning Signs

People who die by suicide often suffered as children and teenagers. They may have had anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders that were never diagnosed or treated. Parents may have noticed something was off, but either ignored it, belittled the child, and told them to “snap out of it”. Or they changed schools, believing it was others who were causing the problems.

School administrations may have noticed something was off but neglected to take action. Law enforcement officials involved with suicidal youth likely blamed their actions on typical teenage behavior without seeking advice or guidance from mental health professionals. 

Those mental health disorders may have led to drug or alcohol addiction. Families and loved ones probably noticed and tried to make them stop but could not change the trajectory.

Parents and families tell stories about their loved ones that followed the same pattern over and over. They saw signs of anxiety and major depression. There had been previous suicide attempts. And suicide warnings. Let’s not call them threats. A trip to the emergency room can save a life if they get there in time. But then what?

When the caregivers don’t seem to care

The vast majority of mental and behavioral health professionals care deeply about their patients. They went into the profession because they’re dedicated and passionate about helping people. But as is often the case, it’s the bad apples that leave an unpleasant taste for everyone.

It doesn’t happen often, but you may have heard of situations where somebody dropped the ball. For instance, when a hospital treated patients and discharged them with no treatment plan or follow-up care. Or a therapist who ignores a patient’s suicidal rants, missing the signs that an attempt was imminent. You have to wonder what the health professionals are thinking when they discharge patients who are clearly suicidal. 

If you ask Google questions about what to do if someone is suicidal, literally millions of responses pop up about how to get help. Nothing tells you what to do if you try to get help for a loved one but your concerns are not taken seriously or are simply ignored.

Yet, that theme keeps repeating itself. It’s heartbreaking. Too many stories like that have ended in tragedy. They didn’t have to.

They were regular people

When families and friends talk about suicide loss, the stories they tell about their loved ones share common threads. Despite health issues, they were passionate, kind, funny, and caring people. They struggled at times with mental health, but were determined to succeed. All of them were regular people who experienced love, joy, loss, sorrow, frustration, and hope, just like anyone else. Some faced barriers beyond their control. Others encountered heartache, betrayal, humiliation, and fear. All of them lived with unbearable pain.

Can you change someone’s behavior?

If you worry that a friend or loved one may be at risk, you may not be able to change their behavior, but you can take action. You can educate yourself. Know the myths vs. facts and educate others. If your loved one isn’t comfortable with the mental health care provider treating them, find a different one. There really are some good ones out there if you keep looking, although they rarely accept insurance.

Do not become complacent if you can’t find a counselor, but nothing happens for a while and things seem to get better on their own. That rarely happens without some kind of treatment or therapy. In fact, it may even be a sign that a person has made peace with their plans and is ready to die.

If your friend or loved one refuses to acknowledge their situation and rejects help, don’t give up. Keep trying to talk about it. Offer support without telling them what to do. Encourage them to seek treatment even if it takes a lot of trial and error to find the right help. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to share your situation and ask for advice.

It happens

No matter how hard you try, sometimes lives will be lost to suicide because life is so painful that the only option is to end it. If it does, you will know that you tried your best to save a life. Don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty—it wasn’t your fault. Try not to dwell on the loss or the death, but on the positive memories you will always have of your loved one. If you get signs or messages from beyond, believe them and accept the communication from your loved one. What you feel as your loss may be a relief from suffering for them, and they might truly be in a better place.

A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.

Theodora Schiro