Editorial: Understanding Suicide: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Nour Z. Suid, PsyD, is a Licensed Professional Counselor who was born and raised in the Virgin Islands. She graduated with her doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Naturopathic Medicine.

Mental health services are available in the territory, which includes Mind Body Health and Psychology. (Photo by Nour Suid)

As in many jurisdictions of the world, the U.S. Virgin Islands sees far too many people taken before their time through suicide, oftentimes born out of depression that goes untreated along with other mental health conditions such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Anyone can be affected by a mental health condition, including all ages, genders, and cultures. Virgin Islanders are struggling to cope with depression and other mental health conditions yet do not seek help due to the stigma associated with mental illness. 

“Depression and other mental health conditions are real illnesses that can be managed if addressed,” said Sheena Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist at Mind/Body Health & Psychology and professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. 

“In the Caribbean, like many other places, suicide is a taboo topic. Between mental health stigma and the perception of people who end their lives as weak, we simply avoid talking about it. It doesn’t help that many of us have been told that mentioning suicide or asking someone if they feel suicidal will encourage them to attempt it. But talking about it creates the opportunity for someone who might be considering ending their own life to start the conversation and get help,” said Tamara Mohammed, a Licensed Professional Counselor who is co-owner and clinical director of Greater Changes on St. Croix.  

Families and friends tend to go through the five stages of grief/loss. First, denial and isolation, where the individual learns about the loss and denies the situation. “This is not happening; this can’t be happening” are thoughts that often come to mind. Second is anger; this anger may be directed towards the deceased loved one, family, friends, strangers, or objects. Third, bargaining; during this phase one, may secretly make a deal with God or use “if only” statements such as “if only I had talked to them more,” “if only I had sought mental health help,” “if only I had known” etc. Fourth is depression; there are different types of depression that one can fall into. In this stage, there are feelings of sadness about the deceased. Fifth, finally, is acceptance; this stage is often confused with the belief or idea that everything is OK and the individual is “OK” with what has happened. However, this stage is more about an individual accepting the reality for what it is, accepting that they have lost a loved one. 

“When I first heard about his death, I did not believe it. I was in denial for quite some time. This was someone I knew from a young age and he never showed the signs. I just wish I would have reached out to him. Maybe if I did, he would still be alive,” said a Virgin Islander who lost a friend to suicide.

“Some of the important signs or symptoms friends and family should be aware of when they have a loved one experiencing suicidal ideation include isolation or withdrawal from others, hopelessness, mood, and behavioral changes, self-harm, risk-taking behaviors, and threats to harm oneself. Also, they should be educated on the fact that often, if your loved one is being vulnerable enough to tell you they’re feeling this way or threatening to harm themselves, they may be telling you as a ‘cry for help, and this is not to be ignored” said Dylan Nieves Palma, a Licensed Professional Counselor who was born and raised on St Thomas and owner of Dylan R. Nieves Therapy, LLC

 It is also noteworthy to mention that having a conversation and asking someone directly, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” will not put the idea in their head but will reduce your friend or loved one from feeling isolated,” added Walker. 

Remember, each person can experience and show different signs. Just because someone is showing one of these signs does not necessarily mean they are suicidal. The same goes the other way around – just because someone is not showing one of these signs, it does not mean they are not depressed or thinking about suicide.

Do not let the stigma stop you from getting the help you need, the help you deserve, the help that could make a difference in your life, the help that could save your life, the help that could educate you and provide you with coping tools. 

“Two coping tools I have found to help individuals is to use grounding techniques and reframing, as often these thoughts will pass in a few minutes. My two favorite grounding exercises are ‘5-4-3-2-1’ grounding and using temperature to ground (like squeezing an ice cube). These can help bring your focus back to the present and stop those negative thoughts from spiraling,” said Palma. 

“You can engage in healthy activities, like exercise, and encourage them to participate in joyful activities. Just having compassion and holding an open mind and heart to discuss their feelings can be tremendously helpful. This could be the first step in ensuring their safety. Just by staying connected through sincere communications with your friend or loved one can serve as what we call ‘protective factors’ against suicide. If your family, friend or loved one tells you they are thinking about suicide, try to encourage them to continue to talk to you about what they are feeling until you are able to seek help from a trained professional,” shared Walker. “You may say validating statements like, ‘It must feel very dark for you to feel this way,’ or ‘I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you,’ or ‘I am with you right here and right now.’”

While experiencing symptoms of mental health can be challenging to deal with, it is important to remember and keep in mind that you are not alone in this fight. Many others are also experiencing symptoms of depression or other mental illnesses, and resources are available to you. It is okay to seek professional help. There are people who care about you and want to see you succeed. You are stronger than the depression and the negative thoughts that you are experiencing. You have the strength and resilience to overcome and fight the battle with depression. You do not have to go through this alone. 

It is also important to replace negative thoughts with positive ones or just practice positive affirmations on a regular. Positive thoughts or words of encouragement examples are “I am worthy,” “I am loved,” “I am enough as I am,” and “I deserve happiness,” Practicing positive thoughts can help someone with mental illness stay balanced and decrease negative thoughts. 

It’s important to learn the warning signs and identify resources like the 988 national crisis hotline, local counseling agencies, and emergency services in our community to help someone who might be considering suicide. If someone you know tells you they’re going to end their life, taking action can look like calling 911 or getting them to the nearest emergency room for immediate help. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s a conversation we need to have – and it can save a life, according to Mohammad.

We need to do better for our community and end the stigma around mental health. We need to create a culture of openness and support when it comes to an individual who is struggling with mental health issues. We need to let them know it is okay to not be okay and that they are loved and cared for. That they are not alone in this battle and that there are resources as well as professionals who can help them. That it is okay to seek that type of care if needed. If anything, asking for help shows strength, not weakness. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. 

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, there are several locations one can go to get help. A couple of offices include Mind/Body Health & Psychology, Greater Changes, Helping Hands Family Center, Ashar Counselling & Psychological Services, Island Therapy Solutions, Synergy, Insight Psychological, Department of Mental Health, and East End Clinic. Individuals should also talk to their primary doctor if they are not sure where to get help, as their doctor will be able to send them referrals. 

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 anytime.