“What’s wrong,” I asked my friend Jasmine* one summer afternoon while we ate popsicles on her front porch. We were sixteen and lived close enough to each other that I was allowed to drive my parents’ car over to see her. “Nothing, I’m fine,” she said.
But I knew Jasmine wasn’t fine. She had recently confided in me that she’d been raped by a boy in her youth group before summer vacation began. It was a boy she’d known her whole life—someone she’d very publicly had a crush on and had fantasized about. Someone she saw nearly every day during the school year.
Jasmine never reported the rape.** She was too ashamed and afraid that everyone would think, she got what she wanted. Jasmine swore me to secrecy.
I never knew what to do or say to her. It was difficult to know what questions to ask. Although I wanted to help, I was afraid if I brought it up too much, I might accidentally re-traumatize her. A few weeks later, Jasmine attempted suicide.
We live in a world in which silence often surrounds the topic of suicide, particularly within the context of domestic and sexual violence. These are frightening topics. Survivors have often experienced incredible trauma, and people who want to help are afraid to make things worse.
You might think, “If I bring it up, I could hurt them by reminding them of a horrible experience.” But the data tell a different story.
The statistics on sexual violence, domestic violence, and suicide:
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the likelihood that a person will suffer suicidal or depressive thoughts increases after sexual violence:
- 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
- 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
- Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime.
According to a recent joint study between UNC Chapel Hill and the Injury Prevention Research Center, intimate partner violence is a precipitating factor for 4.5% of single suicides.
Survivors of domestic and sexual violence are clearly at an elevated risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts. Traumatic experiences often lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. And, it turns out, the silence isn’t protective. It’s a problem.
Instead, if you suspect a friend or family member of being at risk for suicide, you should ask them, gently and directly, “are you thinking about suicide?” Questions like, “are you considering hurting yourself?” can help, but do not be afraid to use the word suicide. Putting it out on the table can be more productive and healing than you might imagine.
Why asking about suicidal thoughts helps:
When you ask the question, “are you thinking about suicide?” this lets the other person know you aren’t afraid to talk about it. There is so much shame and stigma surrounding sexual and domestic violence and suicide that the victim/survivor may feel afraid to ever bring up their feelings. Asking the question can open the door to a supportive and non-judgmental conversation.
Be willing to have the conversation. Listen to what the other person says. You don’t have to fix their pain. Just listen. Do not ever promise to keep their thoughts of suicide a secret. If they share about their pain, thank them for opening up to you. Let them know you’re proud of them for sharing. In her book You Can Help, survivor Rebecca Street says, “[‘I’m proud of you’] are among the most healing words anyone can hear. They still bring tears to me.”
There exists a commonly held belief that asking about suicide may increase a person’s suicidal tendencies. However, studies show that the opposite is true—asking does not increase suicidal tendencies. Instead, it can decrease suicidal ideation and increase the likelihood that someone experiencing suicidal ideation will find a path to help.
September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. At Safehouse, we want to encourage you to be the one to ask. For more information on the Five Action Steps you can take when communicating with someone who may be suicidal, check out www.bethe1to.com.
If you or someone you care about is considering suicide:
Remember you are not alone and you are not going to feel this way forever. Many people have been in your shoes and have gone on to find help and healing. Help is available. Please reach out for support. Here are some options you might consider:
- For immediate help in a crisis situation, call 911.
- The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Simply dial 988.
- Chat online with a trained RAINN staff member.
- Reach out to a trusted friend or family member.
If you have experienced or are experiencing sexual or domestic violence and are need local help, please call SafeHouse of Shelby County’s crisis line: (205) 669-7233 (SAFE)
* Names and identifying details have been changed. Jasmine has given permission for this story to be shared. It was a long road, but she eventually got help and is now doing well.
** Note: As is extremely common, the perpetrator never faced any justice for his crime. Two out of every three sexual assaults go unreported.