Talking about suicide should be perfectly common

Thinking about death, it is a topic of conversation we prefer to avoid. While talking about suicide can save lives. Every day, five people die by suicide in the Netherlands. How can you make this taboo subject discussable? That question was the focus of the very first Studium Generale symposium of this academic year. Univers was there and lists the most important insights.

Image: Liza Summer / Pexels

“This is an evening that is about the truth. And the truth is that, right now, I very much want to die. I’m in a very dark period.” Like a punch in the gut, experience expert Daniejel de Greef opens the Studium Generale symposium “Suicide and Prevention: Breaking the Silence.”

“The desire to die has been with me all my life. It will never go away either. As an adolescent, I looked for substances to subdue my sadness. Alcohol temporarily provided a solution. When that no longer worked, I looked for new substances. I found a way out in marijuana, cocaine, and sex. That too turned out to be only a temporary remedy. Death was still uncharted territory. Therefore, when I was twenty-six, I attempted suicide for the first time. When I recovered in the hospital, my desire to die was immediately hushed up. According to my doctors, it was just an ‘impulsive action.'”

No more hushing up

In the Netherlands, five people die by suicide every day. In addition, forty people end up in the emergency room every day because of a suicide attempt. Ten percent of young people sometimes think about taking their own lives, and one in twenty-five actually makes an attempt. These are confronting statistics, yet talking about suicide is still a huge taboo.

And that, according to De Greef, is a serious shortcoming: “I would have been so happy to talk about my emotions with friends and family. I was not heard in my death wish. No one asked me why I was unhappy and if I needed help. This convinced me that no one would miss me. My psychologist was the first to ask the right questions and it took me ten years to find her.”

Breaking the silence can take the pressure off, according to the experience expert: “Talking to Sammy (her psychologist, ed.) brought me a lot of relief. I turned out to have a personality disorder in addition to my death wish. Because of this, many puzzle pieces fell into place. I suddenly understood much better where certain emotions came from.”

Sammy asked all the right questions, De Greef continues. “For example, she asked me straight out if I could tell what death would bring me. In addition, she closed each session by asking if she would see me the next week. She acknowledged my death wish. It was no longer hushed up and that was a relief.”

Living alongside the darkness

Those present in the Auditorium hang on De Greef’s every word and have many questions for the expert by experience. “How is it possible that you are attending tonight despite your death wish?” asks an interested student.

“I know that darkness is a part of me. But I also know that after the darkness there are always bright days to come. Such heavy periods I have to live through. And although I don’t necessarily feel it in tough moments, I know I have a lot to lose. It helps me to talk a lot with friends, colleagues, and my psychologist. Also, I have now found my way to the boxing ring,” De Greef says.

“Furthermore, every morning I take a moment for myself. Then I ask myself how I am doing and what I need this day. In the evening, I repeat this ritual and look back on the day.”

Dos and don’ts

After this personal story, Anne Gaijmans of 113 Suicide Prevention, a Dutch foundation dedicated to suicide prevention, has the floor. “How can you observe that someone is having suicidal thoughts?” she wonders aloud. To explain afterward that there are three pillars you can look out for. First, the comments a person makes. “Statements like ‘I feel unhappy,’ ‘I don’t know how to spend my day,’ and ‘I don’t mind not waking up,’ call for extra alertness,” Gaijmans explains.

“In addition, behavior change is a major concern. Do you see cuts or open wounds? Does someone stop showing up to social events? Or is someone suddenly extremely happy after a depressive episode? Then it’s time to engage in conversation.” According to Gaijmans, the latter behavioral change in particular is something people often do not recognize as a concern. Yet it is crucial because this sudden joy may indicate a suicide plan. “The elation then comes from relief: the suicide plan is on the table and that gives hope.”

Research by 113 Suicide Prevention, according to Gaijmans, further indicates that mental health problems, lack of social support, or difficulty with sexual orientation may pose a risk.

She ends her lecture with the message to especially listen and talk to each other: “Listen to the other person, show your compassion and don’t promise confidentiality. You too cannot bear this alone and may need to involve friends, family, or official agencies. But most importantly, above all, acknowledge that someone is having suicidal thoughts and don’t keep quiet about it. We need to break the taboo, because talking about suicide is perfectly common.”

Do you need help? Then you can contact 113 Suicide Prevention Foundation through 113 (available 24/7), 0800-0113 (available 24/7) and 0900 0113 (available 24/7) and

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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