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  • Kindra Gordon, field editor

Breaking the Silence

Mental health expert shares crucial suicide prevention strategies.


Suicide. It’s a somber topic that is most often met with silence. People feel uncomfortable, don’t know what to say and choose to avoid talking about it.


But silence is unfortunately perpetuating the very stigma and misunderstanding that surround this issue. It’s time to talk about suicide and mental health, encouraged Elaine Eaton, a licensed mental health counselor based in New York state who has worked in the field for 35 years. 

Eaton emphasized, “Suicide is a health issue.” 


She underscored that by talking about and creating awareness for mental health, people are better equipped to find support that may help save lives. 


Eaton noted, “Suicide is preventable when people can intervene and provide support.” 

Speaking at the 2024 Cattle Industry Convention (CattleCon) in Orlando, Fla., Eaton shared her thoughts and advice on this important topic, and noted her own personal experience with the loss of loved ones to suicide.


To help destigmatize discussion about suicide, Eaton said to avoid using the terms “committed” or “committing.” 


“We talk about people committing a crime. We don’t want to add additional stigma to this issue by using the word committed suicide.” 


Instead, she suggested phrases like: died by suicide or ended their life. By using sensitive language, we create a more supportive environment for those affected by suicide, she said.


Growing crisis 

Sadly, the statistics surrounding suicide are staggering. More than 700,000 people worldwide and approximately 48,000 individuals in the United States end their lives by suicide each year, according to Eaton. She gave the somber statistic that every 40 seconds someone dies from suicide, and said, “That means in 45 minutes, about 50 people will end their lives by suicide.”


Eaton reported the suicide rate was decreasing steadily until the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a significant increase. This is attributed to factors such as job loss, financial instability, social isolation and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. 


Additionally, Eaton shared the suicide rate is also higher for people in the agriculture community. She said the high stress within the agriculture industry from factors such as market prices, weather, labor and other issues all contribute. Farmers are often very independent and may not want — or know how — to seek help. 


The age group most at risk for suicide is 18-44, shared Eaton, but those aged 65 and above are a high-risk group as well. Eaton pointed out as this older generation retires, they often struggle with losing their identity and purpose, which can lead to depression. 


Understanding why

“There’s no single cause for suicide, but rather many intersecting factors,” Eaton reported. 

She emphasized that while mental health conditions are prevalent among individuals who die by suicide, with proper treatment, the risk can be significantly reduced. 


Eaton shared the perspective of a person contemplating suicide is typically a crisis point characterized by significant pain and a desire to escape. As examples, she said it may be a financial crisis or bankruptcy; it could be divorce or the loss of a loved one, or even triggered by the stress and pain of natural disasters. 


“It depends on that individual … Whatever it is in that person’s mind, it’s a crisis and they’re in a lot of significant pain, and they want to escape that pain. When you’re sitting in pain for a while, your thinking may become blurred and limited,” Eaton explained.


However, she said there is hope in that most people who are suicidal are ambivalent about taking their lives. 


“They very much want to end the pain that’s going on in their lives, but they’re ambivalent about taking their lives, which is why intervention and knowledge from other caring individuals can save a life,” Eaton said. 


Regarding risk factors, Eaton said there are three primary categories: health factors, historical factors, and environmental factors. Mental health factors such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse can be linked to suicide risk. Additionally, individuals with a family history of suicide or mental health issues, a history of childhood abuse, or a previous suicide attempt are at higher risk. Environmental factors might include prolonged stress from something in the individual’s life, along with access to lethal means, which may further exacerbate suicide risk. 


“It could be a stress that maybe we don’t consider a stress, but it’s a stress for that individual. It could be going to a funeral, it could be a loss of a job, it could be failure in school, whatever that is. It’s different for each individual,” Eaton said. “That’s why it’s important as a friend to listen to what their stress is, what their life event is. But what we don’t see are genetic risk factors such as depression. There might be so much more going on with the individual.”


Offering assistance

Eaton emphasizes the importance of open and compassionate dialogue. Some suggestions include:

  1. Recognize warning signs. Learn to recognize the warning signs of suicidal ideation, including expressions of hopelessness, withdrawal from social activities, giving away possessions and changes in mood or behavior. Being vigilant and observant can help identify individuals in crisis and intervene appropriately.

  2. Promote access to mental health care. Encourage individuals experiencing mental health challenges to seek professional help, and support them in accessing treatment options. Eaton noted that today many insurance companies cover mental health treatment in addition to physical health treatment. 

  3. Foster supportive communities. Cultivate a supportive environment within families, communities and workplaces. Strong social connections and a sense of belonging serve as protective factors against suicide, Eaton said. She encourages people to be willing to open dialogue and provide a safe space for individuals to seek support.

  4. Limit access to lethal means. Take proactive steps to limit access to lethal methods of self-harm, such as firearms, medications or other dangerous objects. Securely store firearms and medications, and intervene if you suspect someone may be at risk of using them for self-harm.

  5. Be prepared to intervene. Equip yourself with the skills and knowledge to intervene effectively in crisis situations. Learn how to initiate difficult conversations about mental health and suicide, ask direct questions about suicidal ideation, and connect individuals in crisis with appropriate resources, such as crisis hotlines or mental health professionals.


For available resources contact www.ruralminds.org, or the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Farm State of Mind website (https://www.fb.org/initiative/farm-state-of-mind) or contact local Extension personnel. The national suicide prevention hotline can be reached 24/7 at 988. 



 
Additional tips for helping someone in crisis

When it comes to supporting someone in crisis, mental health counselor Elaine Eaton encouraged individuals to trust their instincts. She said, “If you notice unusual behavior in a loved one or friend, don’t hesitate to reach out. You may be the only one who can reach out to the person in crisis, so don’t wait for someone else to take action.” 


Avoid minimizing feelings: Acknowledge and validate the person’s feelings. Everyone experiences pain differently, so don’t downplay their emotions.


Listen more, talk less: Be a compassionate listener, and avoid trying to convince the person that life is worth living. Eaton said to recognize they are experiencing deep pain, so telling them how wonderful they are and that they have so much to contribute, may not be the best strategy because the individual may not be thinking clearly. Instead, provide a safe space for them to share their thoughts and feelings. 

“So often we want to express our wisdom, when instead we need to listen to their story and just express love to them,” Eaton shared.


Offer privacy and dignity: Have conversations with the person in private, respecting their dignity and autonomy. Allow them to express themselves without interruption or judgment.


Ask direct questions: Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about suicide if you’re concerned. Asking about suicidal thoughts or intentions can help the person feel heard and understood.


Encourage professional help: Offer support in finding professional help, whether it’s making appointments or connecting them with crisis hotlines like 988, which became the national suicide prevention hotline in 2022 and is available 24/7.


Stay with them if safe: If it’s safe for you to do so, stay with the person in crisis and offer reassurance until additional help arrives. If they have access to lethal means like firearms, consider removing or securing them.



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