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Breaking the silence: Why we need to talk about suicide

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Two men causually talking in the shadow of a mountain

How much of a problem is suicide in our society? While most would agree that it is an issue, it’s difficult to truly understand the scale of the problem.

Let’s put it this way. In 2021, suicide counted among the top nine leading causes of death for individuals from ages 10-64. If you drop the age range to 10-14 and 20-34, it becomes the second leading cause of death. According to the CDC, over 48,000 Americans lost their lives to suicide in 2021, which equalled a death every 11 minutes.

In Illinois, it is the 11th leading cause of death, claiming over 1,000 lives every single year. Again, if you narrow the age range to 15-34 year olds, it becomes the third most common cause of death in the state.

If you take a closer look at demographics, it is an undeniable problem across communities and genders. Not only are young people particularly at risk but men are also 3.9 times more likely to die by suicide compared to women. Racial and ethnic minorities are also more vulnerable, with it being the second leading cause of death among Black Americans aged 15-24 in 2019.

What’s more, there are signs of a shift in the traditional age demographic, with over 85s having recently become the age group that is most at risk of suicide. No matter how you look at it, it is clear that this is an issue that affects every member of our society.

A culture of silence

If you take the time to really read the statistics above, the more shocking it becomes. In fact, that annual number of 48,000 deaths by suicide is almost identical to the number of gun-related deaths in 2021 at 48,830.

For better or worse, the issues surrounding gun control are hotly debated in the media and across society as a whole. And yet, if you analyze those gun-related deaths, you will find that over half of them (54%) were actually suicides.

Gun control is among the most debated topics in modern politics and yet the reason for half the casualties is glanced over.

To be clear – this is not only an issue with politics or the media. The culture of silence is firmly in place at every level. Families who experience bereavement due to suicide tend not to talk about it and friends, acquaintances, or neighbors are often wary to bring it up in conversation.

Silence before, silence after

Most heartbreakingly of all, there is a tendency to silence that exists leading up to an individual taking their own life. While many suicides come as a complete shock to friends or family members, others come at the end of long struggles with mental health.

Even the “shocking” ones are generally because the warning signs, although present, have been missed. A common myth about suicide is that by talking about it you will make the individual more likely to attempt it.

It is a delicate situation and needs to be handled with care, but talking with someone about their thoughts or plans can help open up a dialog that can lead to help. Surprisingly, most people who are suicidal do not actually want to die – they simply want to stop feeling the way they do.

First steps to breaking the silence

In an ideal world, there would be much more open conversation about suicide. That said, we understand that the cultural silence surrounding this issue is strong and it can be hard for individuals to address it.

One thing you can do is take a “prevention is better than cure” approach. If you know someone who is going through a rough time – even if you have no cause to believe they are suicidal – take the time to reach out to them.

A simple text, call, or coffee date to see how they are can be enough to break a negative cycle before it begins.

How do I tell if someone close to me is considering suicide?

As mentioned, when a person takes their own life, it can often feel like it comes out of the blue for friends and family members. However, more often than not, there are signs.

Listen to what they say

It is not uncommon, for example, for individuals to talk about wanting to die, feeling guilt or shame, or being a burden to others. The key point here is that the way they express themselves may be masked behind a joke or sarcastic comment. Even if it appears to be an offhand remark, be sure to take it seriously as there may be truth behind it.

Making unusual plans

In general, watch out for any behavior that is different from normal. There are obvious warning signs such as actively making plans or researching ways to die. Again, even if this does not appear serious, treat it as though it were.

It is also worth mentioning that the plans can be more subtle. Warning signs include:

  • Withdrawing from friends or social situations

  • Saying goodbye to people even if they have no travel plans or similar

  • Giving away items that are of great importance to them

  • Making a will under unusual circumstances

Erratic behavior

Other potential warning signs include a tendency to take extreme risks, such as driving too quickly or crossing the road without caution. They may also display extreme mood swings, moving from depressed or angry to seemingly happy.

These behaviors can also be accompanied by changes in eating or sleeping patterns (whether more or less) or an increase in the use of harmful substances such as drugs or alcohol.

Any of these behaviors could be a sign of suicidal tendencies and should be addressed as soon as possible.

Remember, you also have the power.

If you are feeling particularly low, you also have the power to break the silence. Individuals who are contemplating suicide often feel that they are entirely alone. It isn’t until they talk to someone that they realize that this is not true.

Before taking any action, try talking to friends and family, your doctor, or similar medical professionals.

There are also official resources and lifelines at a national and state level that you can use to find support:.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK

  • Suicide and Crisis Hotline: Dial or Text 988

  • Veterans Crisis Line: Dial 988 then press 1

Suicide Prevention Month

September is Suicide Prevention Month. With our partners at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we will present Talk Saves Lives to share information and resources that will empower participants to have conversations that may help those at risk. For details and to register for this free, online event please visit: More Info


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