Suicide prevention and breaking the stigma of suicide

September 12, 2023 Providence Mental Health Team


In this article: 

  • September is Suicide Prevention Month, a time to bring awareness to suicide – a major public health concern in the United States.

  • Thoughts of suicide can be different for each person and aren’t always associated with mental illness, such as depression or anxiety.

  • A Providence clinical psychologist explains why people may avoid seeking help, how to show loved ones support and important suicide prevention resources.

Suicide is a major public health concern in the United States – across age groups. Maybe suicide has affected you or a family member or friend. Talking about suicide isn’t always easy. But it’s important to recognize warning signs and understand where and how to get help.

September is Suicide Prevention Month. So, we spoke with Manvi Smith, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Providence, to learn more about suicide and helpful mental health resources.

What it means to have suicidal thoughts

When talking about suicide prevention, it’s helpful first to understand what it means when someone is at risk of suicide, or “suicidal.” The experience looks different for each person and their level of risk.

“There’s a huge range with feelings or thoughts of suicide,” explains Dr. Smith. “It could be anything from wishes or preoccupation with death and dying, to wanting to go to sleep and not waking up, to thinking about how to kill yourself. And these thoughts can fluctuate in intensity and over time.”

Suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts can be linked to mental illness or other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression or substance use, but they aren’t always. Dr. Smith highlights that people can be suicidal even when they’re not depressed, low or sad. 

“Emotions are a part of life. So, feeling sad can be part of an emotional response to life circumstances,” says Dr. Smith. “But when feeling down or low causes problems in everyday life, then it’s time to seek help – especially if you’re having more bad days than good days in a row over a couple of weeks.”

Mental health for teens

One group who is especially vulnerable to suicide is youth. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10–24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Suicide rates also are higher among those who face health disparities.

At Providence, programs like Work2BeWell focus on raising awareness about mental health and suicide among teens. Wellness initiatives involve teens, parents and educators and include curricula in Spanish and curricula in Vietnamese.

One initiative is Talk2BeWell, a podcast series hosted by Robin Henderson, Psy.D., chief executive for behavioral health at Providence Oregon. Each episode features teens talking about different mental health topics, including breaking the stigma of suicide, mental illness, and wellness and prevention.

Listen to Talk2BeWell Episode 56: Suicide Prevention

The stigma of suicide

One of the reasons why suicide is such a critical issue in our country is that many Americans have the wrong ideas about why and how someone may take their own life. One myth, or stigma, is that a suicide attempt is a choice – and people don’t ask for help because they don’t want it. In reality, there are a lot of factors that prevent people from getting the help they need.

“Sometimes when we’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, we feel really alone and isolated, which makes it difficult to reach out for help,” says Dr. Smith. “We may feel hopeless, and that also makes it harder to reach out. We also have to acknowledge that there are beliefs, prejudices and stigmas. And sometimes those prevent people from getting help.”

Read: Debunking common myths about suicide

How to respond to suicidal thoughts

If you or a loved one has thoughts of suicide, you should take these thoughts seriously. Start a conversation by reaching out to someone you trust.

“It’s about reaching out,” Dr. Smith emphasizes. “Reach out to a friend, a family member, a health care provider. Reach out. Starting the conversation is powerful. Even just saying, ‘I’m struggling’ is very courageous.”

Read: Things to say or do when a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts

Dr. Smith also encourages people to use primary care providers as a starting point. Health care clinicians want to help, and a lot of patients have long-standing relationships with their primary care provider, who they can turn to for support.

When you reach out to your primary care provider, they’ll likely work with you to figure out your level of need. That way, they can meet you where you are in your mental health journey. They might ask some questions to see how they can best help you. They might refer you to other medical care, suggest medications or see if you already work with a mental health professional. They’ll have plenty of options, resources and guidance.

Providence has a number of programs and specialists, depending on your region and your needs. Examples include mental health, pediatric psychiatry and other outpatient services.

More suicide prevention resources

In addition to your provider and loved ones, here are helpful resources for suicide prevention and mental health support:

When it comes to suicide, mental illness and well-being, remember to take care of yourself and others – just like you would if you had a broken arm or a sore throat.

Dr. Smith reminds us, “Mental health is health. So often, we see it as something separate, but it’s part of our health. If we’re physically ill, it’s going to affect us mentally. And if we’re feeling sad or low, it’s going to affect us physically. We must recognize that all our health is cohesive.”

Contributing Caregiver

Manvi Smith, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist at Providence in Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

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Related resources

Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness

Youth Mental Health: Raising Awareness

Don’t be afraid to seek mental health care

Help is here: A list of local and national behavioral health resources

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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