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The Aspect of Suicidality That Suicide Prevention Campaigns Are Missing

Robin Williams was a beloved, constantly smiling comedian. Kate Spade designed bright, vibrant handbags that seemed to befit her sparkling personality. And, in one of the last known photos of Chester Bennington, the Linkin Park frontman smiled brightly alongside his family.

But all three stars, who died of suicide, tragically exemplify what suicide prevention campaigns miss — suicidality can be masked behind successful careers and bright smiles. Despite the many media portrayals of troubled, suicidal teens clad in dark clothes, suicidality doesn’t always look the way our society expects.

And that is the innate danger of many suicide prevention campaigns.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and suicide prevention organizations worldwide will empower suicide attempt survivors and their loved ones and share prevention tips to help identify suicidal individuals. To Write Love On Her Arms will unveil their yearly Suicide Prevention Month theme, and social media feeds everywhere will be flooded with lists of suicide warning signs and stories of strength, survival and resilience. But will we truly understand how to prevent suicide when all of the warning signs we hear target only one presentation of suicidality?

Many of us will learn that we must watch for loved ones expressing sadness and hopelessness, heed caution when our friends with depression begin giving away their possessions and check in with melancholy family members when they make drastic changes to their appearance. However, a substantial portion of suicidal individuals present with “smiling suicidality,” and because of the symptoms prevention campaigns ask us to attend to, these hurting individuals remain at high risk for suicide.

“Smiling suicidality” often presents in people with “high-functioning depression.”  Many of those who smile through their suicidal thoughts are career professionals, high-achieving students and seemingly present loved ones. They may seem to excel at everything they do and may appear eager to lend a hand to friends who are hurting, even if they neglect their own needs in the process. They may present themselves as confident, poised and professional in order to deflect from their battles with suicidal thoughts. And they may have conditioned themselves to believe that they must smile through their pain in order to survive, so they may be less likely to reach out for help than those who openly express their depression symptoms.

While suicide prevention campaigns do an exemplary job of laying out exactly how to help “classically” suicidal individuals, they often leave those with “smiling suicidality” completely out of the picture. The danger of this messaging is apparent.

This September, instead of painting just one picture of suicidality, suicide prevention organizations should raise awareness of how often suicidal thoughts arise in outwardly positive individuals who appear to be thriving in life. They should encourage us to not only check in with our friends who openly talk or post about their depression symptoms but also to reach out to our loved ones who constantly seem to stay positive. These campaigns must emphasize that suicidality can “look” like a sad, reclusive individual or a driven, organized corporate leader and target their prevention strategies toward people from all walks of life. Otherwise, suicide prevention campaigns will miss the Chester Benningtons and Kate Spades of the world — the smiling, outwardly jubilant achievers — and the world will tragically lose more valuable lives to suicide.

Photo by Mike Austin on Unsplash