By Racheal Hebert, LCSW, BACS, STAR President & CEO
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Research has shown that survivors of sexual trauma are at an increased risk of suicide attempts and death by suicide. By learning more about the connection between experiences of sexual assault and suicide, we can learn to identify warning signs to help prevent suicide.
Exploring the Connection: Sexual Trauma and Suicide
Last month, Daisy Coleman, a survivor who was featured in the Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy, died by suicide at the age of 23. After experiencing rape as a teenager, Daisy became an advocate for sexual assault survivors by establishing SafeBAE, a youth-led national organization whose mission is to end sexual assault among middle and high school students.
The Audrie and Daisy documentary explores the aftermath of the rapes of Daisy Coleman and Audrie Pott, two teenage girls whose assaults gained national attention. Daisy was raped by a 19-year old man at a party in Maryville, Missouri in 2012 when she was just 14 years old. The assault was recorded by a witness to the assault. After her allegation was made public, Daisy was relentlessly bullied at school, leading her to attempt suicide when she was 16 years old. Audrie Pott was sexually assaulted by three boys in Sarasota, California in 2012 when she was 15. Audrie died by suicide a week later after experiencing harassment and bullying from her peers and having nude photos of her posted online.
The stories of Audrie and Daisy shed light on the fact that survivors of rape and sexual assault are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who have no history of sexual assault. Researchers have also found that survivors whose first assault occurred before the age of 16 were at an even more increased risk, with suicide attempts being three to four times higher than those assaulted in later years (Davidson, 1996).
Warning Signs of Suicide
Thoughts of self-harm and suicide can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background. Suicidal thoughts, although common, should not be considered normal and often indicate more serious issues.
According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), here are six warning signs to look out for if you’re concerned for a friend or family member:
- They increase alcohol or drug use to cope
- They say things that allude to them wanting to end their life, such as “I’m going to hurt myself,” “I’d be better off dead,” or “I can’t do this anymore”
- They’ve shared with you that they have attempted suicide in the past or have thought about it
- You rarely see them anymore, or when you do, they seem different; they’re quiet, they don’t eat, they’re less social, or otherwise don’t seem like themselves
- You’ve noticed that they are making reckless decisions without thinking about the impact (e.g., dropping out of school, quitting work, etc.)
- They’re often either extremely happy or are really upset/angry; their mood seems to change drastically every day
When It’s Time to Take Immediate Action
Aside from the warning signs listed above, there are four suicidal behaviors that rise to the level of an emergency. If you or a loved one starts to take any of these steps, seek immediate help from a health care provider or call 911:
- Collecting and saving pills or buying a weapon
- Giving away possessions
- Tying up loose ends, like organizing personal papers or paying off debts
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
How to Intervene
While the display of one or a few of these signs may not necessarily signify a person’s desire to end their life, it is important to acknowledge any mental health related behavior change and intervene with your friend or loved one. Simply saying to the person “I’m here for you” or “tell me what’s going on” can let the person know that they are not alone and that others care for them. When in doubt, suggest they get professional help by referring them to a trained mental health professional. Psychology Today is a great resource to help someone locate a therapist in their area.
Help is Available
Experiencing suicidal thoughts and attempts can be scary and may feel like the only way out of persistent feelings of hopelessness and depression. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, know that help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.
National Association of Mental Illnesses (NAMI)
Suicide is Preventable
Davidson, J. R. (1996). The Association of Sexual Assault and Attempted Suicide Within the Community. Archives of General Psychiatry, 53(6), 550. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830060096013