What You Need to Know about Depression and Suicide

By Sara Pineda, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Program Director for El Centro de Amistad
Most of us might have experienced feeling unhappy or feeling “down” at some point in our lives.  We might have experienced not getting the job we were hoping for, a break up, or not getting a good grade on an important test. Is there a difference between feeling a shift in our mood and depression?  Yes. There is a difference between someone experiencing depression and someone feeling unhappy. Depression consists of longer and deeper feelings of despair. Depression is a common but serious mood disorder that affects how we feel, think, and handle our daily activities, including sleeping, eating, or working. It’s important to distinguish between depression and “feeling blue” or “down” as when someone is experiencing a severe case of depression it can be life threatening and suicide can be a possible outcome. The symptoms of depression are:
  • Sadness or feeling “empty” and anxiousness
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of energy and fatigue
  • Talking or moving slowly
  • Loss of appetite
  • Physical aches and pains that do not appear to get better with medical treatment
  • Changes in sleeping patterns (difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
  • Difficulty making decisions or concentrating
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
Although it’s a common and serious problem, many people don’t know much about depression and suicide. Some research is now indicating that depression might have biological and physiological components possibly rooted in our nervous system, reminding us that “just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Social and environmental factors contribute as well. Depression may be triggered by disappointment or losses. Losses that have not been fully acknowledged make someone more vulnerable to depression. Negative thinking and lack of social support can also contribute to depression. When a person attempts suicide or dies by suicide one of the lingering thoughts or questions for many people is why? A major cause of suicide is mental illness, commonly depression. People feeling suicidal are overwhelmed with emotional pain and see death as the only “solution” or “way out.”  Many times the person loses sight that this is a permanent “solution” to a temporary state. Most people that have attempted suicide later say that they are glad that they did not die. When someone we know or a loved one struggles with depression one wonders if there are warning signs that will indicate that a person is considering suicide.  Although suicide is often hard to predict there are preparations for death or warning signs one should pay attention to. One of those warning signs is being depressed or having other mental health disorders.  Giving away their possessions or acquiring a weapon (e.g. gun) should be a big concern. Becoming socially isolated or having significant changes in their appearance and hygiene is another sign. Any of these signs could be indicative of someone preparing to die by suicide. It is also important to consider risk factors that will make suicide more likely, such as previous attempts, family members or others in the community who died by suicide, cultural or religious beliefs that support suicide, recent losses (death, relationship or a job), alcohol or drug abuse, feelings of hopelessness, access to means (e.g. gun, pills or poison), unwillingness to seek help or not having access to mental health care. People who are considering suicide usually confide in a friend. They will sometimes share passive thoughts like “everyone will be better off without me” or voice active thoughts such as having a plan. It is important to remember that any level of suicidal thinking should be taken seriously. One should insist that the person seek treatment or help them seek guidance from a mental health professional. Depression can be treated with medication, psychotherapy or both. It is important to treat depression as early as possible because there is evidence that the earlier the treatment begins the more effective it is. When a person does not experience a reduction of symptoms, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other brain stimulation therapies may be options to consider. Everyone is different and depression does not affect everyone in the same way so it might take some trial and error to find what treatment is best. If your loved one or someone you know is being treated for depression here are some practical tips that may help:
  • Exercise or staying active
  • Spending time with others
  • Confiding in a trusted friend or family member
  • Let others help you and do not isolate from others
  • Expect gradual improvement in mood not “snap of a finger cures”
  • Avoiding making life changing decisions such as getting married or divorced until you feel better
It also helps to listen and empathize with the person that is experiencing depression. One has to be careful not to minimize or be dismissive of the person’s pain. It’s very important to be mindful and not to say things like “You’re going to be fine so stop thinking of killing yourself”. Instead you can say something like “I can see this is a difficult time for you and I want to help you.” Practical and simple suggestions are more effective, like “let’s stretch out and maybe talk a little while we do that.” If the person is not responsive to your attempts to help, this can be discouraging and frustrating. It’s important to seek support and take care of yourself as well.  Burn out is possible and you might become frustrated, angry and resentful, causing you to want to give up on that person. It is important to take suicidal thoughts or signs being expressed by a person seriously. The person that is experiencing suicidality might ask you not to tell anyone and keep what they are experiencing a secret. It is important to consider what can happen if the person does not get professional help. Part of caring for someone who is considering suicide is getting them the help that they need even if they become upset or angry at you. If you are unsure as to what to do, you can call a mental health provider or El Centro De Amistad for advice at 818-347-8565 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. If someone is threatening to attempt suicide in the immediate future, is actively trying to harm themselves, or has just made a suicide attempt, call 911.