Today is suicide awareness day. In this article and those that follow in this series, we shall discover together what complex trauma is and how advocates for those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts can help themselves.
Complex trauma involves multiple exposures to repeated traumatic events and is related to many associated psychological outcomes, such as developing dissociative identity disorder (DID).
One of the clues that someone you love is experiencing DID is if they self-harm. Self-harm occurs when a person becomes overwhelmed and deliberately hurts their body. The injuries are anywhere from minor cuts to severe injuries that are life-threatening. As bad as self-injury is, most people who deliberately harm themselves do so without conscious intent to die by suicide (Muelenhkamp, 2005).
Nevertheless, self-harm can result in death and should never be ignored.
People who have been traumatized repeatedly are vulnerable to emotional struggles, a statement that is especially true of children who are abused. Children who are abused can’t process what is happening to them and are in a conundrum because they are totally dependent upon their attacker for survival. This contradiction often causes children to dissociate or stuff away from the memories of what happened to them and sometimes have amnesia for what occurred.
Some of the symptoms in adults that are caused by complex trauma are as follows:
Difficulty controlling one’s emotions
Constantly feeling distrustful or angry at the world
Feeling empty or hopeless
Feeling damaged and worthless
Feeling different from other people
A consistent feeling that nobody can understand what happened
Avoiding friendships and relationships or finding them extremely difficult
Experiencing dissociation such as derealization or depersonalization
Regularly experiencing suicidal thoughts
It is that last symptom, adults regularly experiencing suicidal thoughts, that we are concerned about in this article.
One critical thing to remember is that you are not responsible for what happened to your loved one unless you are the perpetrator. You are a victim too.
Caregivers Helping Themselves
Most of us know someone who has experienced complex trauma. Perhaps it is a friend, a sibling, a spouse, or a child, but complex trauma leaves the person experiencing it in need of help.
However, caregivers often find themselves expending vast amounts of energy on their hurting loved ones and neglecting their own needs. This avoidance of taking care of oneself is a recipe for disaster.
Caregivers must advocate for themselves, reaching out to their friends and finding ways to mitigate their distress because they have a suicidal and mentally ill loved one.
To some caregivers, the thought of self-sacrifice for a dear loved one may seem the norm since they are the parent or partner but sacrificing oneself for someone else will not help them. In fact, it can inhibit their growth and healing.
It is okay to take care of yourself if you are caught up in caring for someone who has a history of suicidal ideation or has attempted to die by suicide. If you truly want to help them give them one last thing to worry about and take good care of yourself.
Remember always that you are not alone. There are millions of people in your shoes who understand what you are going through.
How Can You Help Your Loved One Who Has Suicidal Ideation?
The first step in helping your loved one is understanding the stats behind suicide. Of the 66% who attempt suicide, 80% had prior known mental health problems. People who have a mental health condition are much more likely to die by suicide than other groups, and this stat increases if there are several coexisting mental health disorders (Nock et al., 2010). However, sometimes people who have no diagnosis of a mental health disorder die by suicide, although this number’s statistics are not available (Nepon et al., 2010).
There are basically three steps you can take to assist a loved one who is suffering from suicidal ideation.
One is to get help for yourself. See a mental health professional to find ways to take care of yourself despite the pain you see in your loved one’s eyes. It may feel awkward to attend therapy at first, but the strength and self-awareness you gain are priceless.
Two is to learn the warning signs of suicide so that you can be aware. There are many signs to watch for, with common signs such as isolating or feeling they are a burden on you. In these cases, don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones questions about how they are feeling and doing. Listen intently to their words, and do not allow them to blow off your inquiries with a nonchalant answer.
According to the American Association of Suicidality, here are more signs to watch for in a loved one who may be suicidal.
Disturbed sleep patterns
Pulling away from friends and family
Self-hating thoughts or words
Saying they feel like they don’t belong
Increased use of alcohol or drugs
Feeling that they are a burden to others
Loss of interest in favorite activities
Expressing the thought that “nothing matters.”
Giving up on themselves
Suicidal thoughts, plans, actions
Sudden mood changes for the better
All these signs are things to watch for in your loved one, but you cannot and must not spend your entire existence looking and worrying over them. That would not be healthy for either your loved one or you.
The third step is a difficult one. It would be best if you accepted the fact that you have no control over what other people do, not even your adult child. Suicidal ideation can become suicidal actions quickly, and you cannot stop someone determined to die no matter what you do or don’t do. Your only recourse is to take care of yourself and stay out of your loved one’s way as much as possible so that they can heal. Yes, make sure they know you love them and want them around, but do not wrap your entire existence around them.
Options If You Love Someone Who is Experiencing Suicidal Ideation
One of the main reasons we are offering this series on self-advocacy in the face of suicide is because there is very little information about it on the internet. I’m sure survivors have searched and searched only to find hundreds of articles on helping suicidal people but not themselves.
We want you to know you have options to help yourself while loving someone who lives with suicidal ideations or is at high risk for suicide.
One thing you can do for yourself is to seek out a therapist. Although this has already been mentioned, seeking help for yourself is vital to keep you from becoming a statistic yourself. In a therapist’s office, you can share your tears and fears, pouring out your frustrations and helplessness. In doing so, you will find the relief and release that will allow you to carry on despite the danger to your loved one.
Another thing you can do for your sanity is to journal. Journaling helps people to deal with their overwhelming emotions and is a fantastic way to express themselves. Journaling can help you manage anxiety, reduce stress, and cope with the overwhelming emotions you face each day when dealing with someone prone to suicidal ideation.
Journaling helps control your worries and improves your mood by:
Helping you to prioritize your fears, problems, and concerns
Providing an opportunity for positive self-talk
Identifying negative thought patterns and behaviors
When you feel stressed, keeping a journal will help you identify what’s causing the stress and anxiety to work on a plan to resolve them and reduce your stress.
A third thing you can do for yourself is to do artwork to express how you feel. Paint, draw, doodle, use any medium to put down on paper or canvas how you are feeling about what is going on with your loved one. No one needs to see your artwork; in fact, you can throw it away. However, by expressing yourself on paper or canvas, you can see how you are feeling emotionally, and this is powerful because you can visualize your emotions and feelings instead of harboring them in silence in your heart.
Know Where to Turn
When someone is suicidal or knows someone exhibiting signs of suicidal ideation, they need to turn to experts for help.
The first line of defense is your family doctor. Tell them that you are concerned about your loved one or yourself and be honest about suicidal ideations. Your physician will get you the help you need right away, sometimes resorting to entering you into the hospital for observation. While going to the hospital is not ideal, doing so will keep you or your loved one alive while the doctors attempt medications to decrease the anxiety or depression causing the problem.
Your second line of defense is knowing organizations that can help.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Call or Chat Online). This resource is available 24/7 at the following number:
Contact them whenever you feel worried about someone who may be contemplating dying by suicide.
Crisis Text Line. In the age we live in, more and more people opt to text instead of talking on the phone. The Crisis Text Line is available 24/7, and you can reach them by texting “GO” to 741741.
Ending Our Time Together
Being the caregiver or loved one of someone who has suicidal ideation isn’t easy on anyone. Both the caregiver and the person contemplating suicide are stressed to the maximum and in danger.
It is time for articles to be written that explain to loved ones of the suicidal that they can and must take care of themselves. Plus, there needs to be more information about caring for yourself when facing the thought that someone you love may not survive.
It is perfectly okay to advocate for yourself regardless of how ill your loved one may be or how suicidal they may feel. Self-care is vital if you wish to enable that person you love to heal.
“Healing may not be so much about getting better, as it is of letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs, and becoming who you are.” Rachel Naomi Remen
Briere, J., & Scott, C. (2015). Complex trauma in adolescents and adults: Effects and treatment. Psychiatric Clinics, 38(3), 515-527.
Nepon, J., Belik, S., Bolton, J., & Sareen, J. (2010). “The relationship between anxiety disorders and suicide attempts: Findings from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.” Depression and Anxiety, 27, 791–798. DOI:10.1002/da.20674.
Nock, M.K., Hwang, I., Sampson, N.A., & Kessler, R.C. (2010). “Mental disorders, comorbidity, and suicidal behavior: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.” Molecular Psychiatry, 15(8), 868-876.