While the only person who is responsible for a suicide is the person who makes the decision to end their life, we are all responsible for being alert to the threat and doing what we can to prevent suicide.
New numbers just released by the Centers for Disease Control show that the number of suicides in the U.S. has risen significantly since 2000. It continues to be one of the top 10 causes of death. Middle-aged white women seem particularly vulnerable, leading some to suggest that "gray divorce" may be a contributing factor.
We don't talk much publicly about suicide and divorce but it is a very real concern. Whether it's a child whose parents are getting divorced, the person who wants to end the marriage but can't or the person whose spouse has said they want a divorce, it's a sign of a person who is struggling for their life and desperately needs help.
I recently discussed suicide and divorce with Samantha Nadler, who is a regional coordinator with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. Samantha has attempted suicide numerous times triggered by her parents' divorce, and her own divorce. Here's what Samantha Nadler and I discussed.
Children Often Feel Powerless During Due to Their Parent's Divorce:
People who feel suicidal talk about feeling powerless, trapped and hopeless. That is exactly how children can feel in divorce when there is a high level of conflict between their parents and when that conflict continues post-divorce. Nadler reports that her parents' divorce came almost as a relief, she thought it would be an end to the fighting. There followed however a bitter custody battle which resulted in her father, who had remarried, being awarded full custody. During the process, Nadler felt she had little say in the outcome. She also felt she didn't have any allies in the process.
Where children are concerned, the truth is that our family court system often gives a child little or no opportunity to speak directly with a judge. They may be interviewed as part of a parenting or family investigation but it's easy to see how a child, especially a teen might feel nobody is listening to them.
Avoid Oversharing With Your Child:
Every divorce expert will tell you that it's not appropriate to share the details of why your marriage is ending, the particulars of your divorce process and the specifics of your financial settlement with your child.
One of the dangers in sharing these details is that your child will feel that they have to take a side, that they are being asked to judge one of their parents. This lays the foundation for animosity towards that parent that can intensify when the child is expected to spend time with that parent. Nadler said that her mother had shared many of the details of her father's extra-marital affair with the woman he later married. This set the stage for feeling powerless when her father was awarded custody.
If There is a History of Mental Illness, Be Prepared:
If you're getting ready to tell your spouse you want to divorce or you're going to tell your children, and there is a history of mental illness, then consider the possibility of a suicide threat. Talking that through with your therapist will help prepare you to support your spouse or child. You could also call your spouse's therapist to alert them. Consider a consult with your child's therapist ahead of time and have an appointment scheduled ready for after you've told your child. Having the conversation with your child with the therapist present is another option.
Don't Discount Other's Emotions:
When someone shares that they are feeling suicidal, try to avoid looking at the situation from your perspective, thinking they have nothing to be concerned about. Compared to your worries your teen's concerns maybe seem self-centered and minimal but their feelings are valid and legitimate.
Instead, ask them to tell you more about how they are feeling. Practice listening without offering solutions.
Pay Attention To Warning Signs:
There are usually signs that someone is planning suicide but they can be missed since they may not be direct or even verbal. Be aware of sudden changes in behavior, talk of making final arrangements, substance abuse or relapse.
Be alert to statements that allude to being gone, such as "Pretty soon you won't have to worry about me." You might interpret the statement to be referring to when your child goes to college or starts shared parenting time, or that your STBX is referring to moving out or when the divorce process is over but they could also be telling you they are considering suicide.
Ask the person to clarify exactly what they mean.
Take Talk Of Suicide Seriously:
That popular belief that if someone tells another they are feeling suicidal, it means the threat isn't real is a myth. If someone tells you they're suicidal, listen. Try responding with, "It sounds like you're taking this very hard. Would you be willing to get some help?"
Be Direct When Confronting Threats of Suicide:
When someone hints at taking their own life, you need to confront that directly. Instead of asking if they are thinking of harming themselves, say, "Are you thinking of killing yourself?" or "Are you planning to take your own life?" Don't skirt around the issue. Avoid asking leading questions such as, "You're not thinking of killing yourself, are you?" which may shut down the dialogue.
Have a Plan in Place?
When someone admits to feeling suicidal, ask them if they have a plan, how they would do it. This gets to whether the person has the means to take their own life. Nadler says that if there is plan, then there is intent and that elevates the threat level.
Suicide Threats Can Be Domestic Violence:
Threatening to commit suicide is sometimes used as a way to continue to control and manipulate a victim. Nadler experienced that when she told her husband she wanted to end their marriage. He shut himself in a closet with a gun. Nadler says her husband, unlike her, had never threatened or attempted suicide and had no mental health history. He was trying to use her vulnerability to manipulate her in a situation in which he didn't have total control.
Murder-suicides happen especially when there is access to firearms. In this scenario, you have to be willing to let professionals take over. If you are the stressor in the situation, then you are at risk. Removing yourself to safety is the first priority.
The Divorce Decision Doesn't Change With Threats of Suicide:
A suicide threat does not change any of the reasons for ending a marriage. So a threat itself is not a reason for someone to change their mind about divorce. A suicide threat does point to the need for the at-risk person to get professional help and while this is on-going, then aspects of the divorce such as the timing, signing of paperwork, or one party moving out may need to be modified.
Suicide is a very complex condition. It doesn't happen for one reason. Divorce may be the last straw. While the only person who is responsible for a suicide is the person who makes the decision to end their life, we are all responsible for being alert to the threat and doing what we can to prevent suicide.
Read more about warning signs of suicide at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or call 1-800-273-8255.
This article originally appeared on SinceMyDivorce.com