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Empathy, empowerment, engagement: How to talk about suicide with loved ones

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User: Mrs. Logic/flickr
Dr. Farha Abbasi offers guidence for spotting and addressing signs of suicidal thoughts


The world is still reeling from the recent deaths of designer Kate Spade and chef and writer Anthony Bourdain. These tragedies have drawn the country's attention as rates of suicide continue to climb.


In the United States, suicide rates have risen each year for the past two decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 1999 and 2016, there were 25 states that experienced a more than 30 percent increase in suicide rates.  

So what can you do if you know someone who is thinking of suicide? 

Dr. Farha Abbasi is a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University. Stateside sat down to speak with Abbasi about ways you can help. 

 (If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call theNational Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.  (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. You can find more Michigan resources for mental health crises listed by county here.) 

Spotting indicators of distress is a challenge because there are no clear-cut tests or diagnoses that can tell you if someone is planning on killing themselves. But there are warning signs. 

Dr. Farha Abbasi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University.
Credit Derrick L. Turner / Michigan State University
Michigan State University

Abbasi divides those symptoms into two large “clusters.” Abbasi said some individuals may demonstrate new feelings of anger, sadness, fatigue, irritable. But there are other individuals who suddenly start behaving very happy, elated, and positive. 

“The biggest thing to look out for is sudden changes in behavior and lifestyle pattern,” Abbasi said. 

If you are concerned about a friend or family member, and think they may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, Abbasi says you should definitely ask. 

“That's one myth, that talking about suicide is going to trigger something in them,” Abbasi said. “They actually, it can be a source of relief for them, that you are finally having that conversation.” 

Abbasi breaks down her intervention strategies into the three Es. The first E is empathy. Abbasi said that means instead of telling your loved one what to do, you listen without judgement. "Instead of asking what is wrong with you, ask 'what wrong has happened to you?'" Abbasi explained. 

The second E is empower — validating their trauma, experiences, and their pain. The final E is engage. Spending time with your loved one or writing them thoughtful notes and texts can help remind them you are a safe place they can go to when they are feeling overwhelmed. 

“We have to understand that suicide is not a moral, ethical, spiritual, mental or medical failure,” Abbasi said. “It is a public health crisis of our time. We have to deal with it coming together as a community, putting our resources together.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

Minding Michigan is Stateside’s ongoing series that examines mental health issues in our state.

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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