The BSA’s youth and adult leaders are trained in basic first aid so they can recognize if someone is in trouble. Your level of training may determine how much you can do right away, and how much you should leave to others.
The same thing can be said about recognizing someone who is having thoughts of suicide.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and it’s important to note that suicidal thoughts can affect anyone.
“Youth suicidal behavior is a problem that you may encounter in Scouting or with friends of Scouting youth, but it is often preventable,” according to the BSA’s Safety Moment on Youth Suicide Prevention.
Similar to how you can put your basic first-aid training into action — like making your friend stop and drink water if they appear to be dehydrated, or encouraging your buddy to add a layer of clothing if they appear to be hypothermic — you can also learn to recognize the signs of someone who is thinking about suicide, and then take some basic steps to help them.
By simply having enough knowledge to recognize and be aware of a serious situation — and then turning it over to an expert — you’ve performed a heroic act.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90% of people who die by suicide may have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition. By making an effort to be aware of these symptoms — and responding appropriately — you could quite literally save someone’s life.
What to look for
Some warning signs may indicate if someone you know is at risk for suicide.
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Ask the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?” It’s a scary thing to ask, but using that word in a direct manner can open the door to a meaningful conversation. This will not cause the person to think about suicide for the first time.
- Be there for the person who is at risk. This doesn’t mean you have to solve this problem by yourself; in fact, you should not commit to anything you are not willing or able to accomplish. But simply showing support for someone at risk can be lifesaving.
- Keep the person safe. Ask if the person has already done anything to try to kill themselves before, and if they have a specific plan. The goal of this step is to put distance between the person and their chosen method (firearms, medications, etc.). Do not leave the person alone if they appear to be in imminent danger.
- Connect them with qualified, ongoing supports, like the 988 Lifeline. You should never, ever promise to keep this discussion a secret just between the two of you. The 988 Lifeline is for those contemplating suicide and also for those worried about someone else. In short, if you need help for yourself or a friend, call it. Their website also has additional resources for the hearing impaired, veterans and those affected by a natural disaster.
- Follow up to see how they’re doing. Just sending a short text message can increase their feelings of connectedness, which in turn can reduce their risk of suicide.
Further reading from On Scouting: What you need to know about bullying and the risks for suicide
The stats don’t lie
It’s important to note that someone who is having thoughts of suicide should not be told to simply “cheer up” or fight through it, any more than someone who is dehydrated should be encouraged to fight through that condition without drinking water.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts about suicide, and 9% report a suicide attempt.
Pretty scary, especially when you think about your own Scouts BSA troop, Venturing crew or Sea Scout ship.
But there is hope.
By identifying those at risk, and connecting them with the support they need, we can prevent tragedy.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 1 in 10 young people have thought about suicide, compared to 1 in 10,000 who will die by suicide. That means for each young person lost to suicide, there are 1,000 more who are thinking about it.
That’s 1,000 opportunities for Scout leaders, parents and other Scouts to save a life.
988 has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, now known as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can call or text 988, or chat with them online at any time. There is also a dedicated number in Spanish: 1-888-628-9454.