Social Support Key to Recovery from Suicidal Thoughts

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an email or a comment left on this website about suicide.

Recently a young military veteran named “Joe” reached out. Joe is depressed and unable to work because he has chronic back and leg pain

“The thing is, I’m just about to turn 28 and can’t fathom how I’m supposed to go on like this for another year or two let alone trying to live my life for the next 60-70 years,” Joe wrote. “I’m not going to do anything yet but I have been seriously looking into euthanasia. I haven’t been able to have a real conversation with anybody about it, not even one of my 5 therapists or my wife, because I already know their reactions.”

Joe said he felt very rational about his decision but was anxious to talk about it “without being thrown into a straightjacket.”

Joe’s instinctive urge to talk with someone could be the key to working through this difficult time in his life, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Toronto. They analyzed a survey of 635 Canadians with chronic pain who had seriously thought about suicide to find out what qualities made those thoughts go away. Suicide “ideation” disappeared in about two-thirds of them.

Having a social support network – someone to talk to – was the key.

“The biggest factor in recovery from suicidal thoughts was having a confidant, defined as having at least one close relationship that provide the person in chronic pain a sense of emotional security and well-being,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, a Professor of Social Work, Medicine and Nursing and Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging.

“Even when a wide range of other characteristics such as age, gender and mental health history were taken into account, those with a confidant had 87 percent higher odds of being in remission from suicidal thoughts compared to those with no close relationships."

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People with pain who stopped having suicidal thoughts were also significantly more likely to be older, female, white, better educated, and more likely to use prayer and spirituality to cope with daily problems.

Living in poverty and struggling to pay basic living expenses were barriers to recovery from suicide ideation. Poverty can severely limit access to healthcare, transportation and social activity.

"Clearly we need targeted efforts to decrease social isolation and loneliness among those experiencing chronic pain. These participants reported that pain prevented some or most of their activities, so they were particularly vulnerable to social isolation,” said Fuller-Thomson. “More awareness by the general public that mobility limitations associated with chronic pain can make it difficult for individuals to socialize outside the household, could encourage friends and family to visit and phone more and thereby decrease loneliness."

PNN’s recent survey of over 6,000 patients and healthcare providers shows how pervasive suicide is in the pain community. Nearly half the patients said they have considered suicide, while nearly one in four practitioners said they have lost a patient to suicide.

The good news is that public health agencies are finally starting to pay attention to these issues. Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned doctors not to abruptly discontinue or rapidly taper patients on opioid pain medication because of the risk of suicide.

“(FDA) has received reports of serious harm in patients who are physically dependent on opioid pain medicines suddenly having these medicines discontinued or the dose rapidly decreased. These include serious withdrawal symptoms, uncontrolled pain, psychological distress, and suicide,” the agency said.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, support is just a phone call away. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has trained counselors on duty 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.