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How can we help prevent suicides? Ask and listen, doctors say

People may fear that talking about it will trigger an attempt, but it's the right thing to do, experts say.

Suicides have reached a record high in the United States and the deaths of two beloved celebrities — fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain — have left people wondering how to help a friend who might be in crisis.

Even as psychiatrists and public health specialists struggle to explain the growing numbers, people who have survived their own suicide attempts say there are things that ordinary people can do to help someone they know who might be at risk of suicide: ask, and listen.

“Being asked is such a relief,” said Emet Oden, an 18-year-old suicide attempt survivor in Nashville.

“Listening to someone is the most important part,” agreed Dese’Rae Stage, a suicide attempt survivor and activist who photographs and tells the stories of suicide survivors as part of the Live Through This project.

Suicide may still be considered a sin in many communities, and people may fear that they will somehow put the idea into someone’s head. These fears can be magnified by warnings about copycat suicides after celebrity deaths.

But it’s not only safe to ask — it’s the right thing to do, said Dr. Jack Rozel, medical director of the Allegheny crisis services facility in Pittsburgh and president-elect of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry.

“It’s absolutely OK to ask someone you are concerned about if they are having suicidal thoughts,” Rozel said.

“You won’t magnify the idea. If they say yes, stay with them.”

But don't offer advice or try to cheer people up, Stage advises. “You can tell people all day long that they have this future and they can’t see it," she said.

Suicide hotlines now offer instant access to help — not only for people who struggle with thoughts of dying, but for those who care about them.

“There is something that everybody can do. You can help save lives,” said CDC principal deputy director Dr. Anne Schuchat.

If you are looking for help or worried about a loved one in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Just this week, the CDC reported that 45,000 people died by suicide in 2016 in the U.S. Suicides have risen by 30 percent since 1999.

It’s become clear that while depression is a major risk factor for suicide, it’s not the only factor. Many people who died by suicide had been struggling with relationship or financial problems.

One big factor in completed suicides is having easy access to a means. Firearms were involved in half of suicides — in part because a gun is a very lethal means. It’s harder to save someone who has used a gun than it is to rescue someone from an overdose.

Removing those means can help, the CDC says.

Another factor is a lack of connectedness.

“Supporting people at risk can help,” Schuchat said. “I have learned that it is important to talk about survivor stories. We know that suicide is preventable. We think helping overcome the isolation, helping to improve the connectedness, can help."

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a list of signs that may mean that someone is at risk for suicide. “Risk is greater if the behavior is new, or has increased, and if it seems related to a painful event, loss, or change,” SAMHSA advises.

And, SAMHSA says, here’s what to do if you believe someone may be thinking about suicide:

  • Ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. (This will not put the idea into their head or make it more likely that they will attempt suicide.)
  • Listen without judging and show you care.
  • Stay with the person, or make sure the person is in a private, secure place with another caring person, until you can get further help.
  • Remove any objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and follow their guidance.
  • If danger for self-harm seems imminent, call 911.