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The holidays are here, and it’s time to put out an SOS. Much like the signal transmitted by a ship in distress, this SOS is a call to action, a request for help:

Ashley Mills

Special to CalMatters

Start a conversation.

Offer a connection.

Save a life.

The 2020 holiday season will be unlike any other. We won’t be spending much, if any, time with loved ones beyond our immediate household. We won’t enjoy the freedom to dine inside our favorite restaurants or crowd store aisles in search of Black Friday deals.

But the pandemic, as dreadful as it is, gives us opportunities to do things we might not otherwise consider. Without all the travel, and with less time spent visiting face-to-face, why not invest time in connecting with people through a phone call or FaceTime?

Such connections are more important than ever this year. People are lonely. People are anxious. People are unemployed, overloaded, weary of home-schooling their kids, fearful of becoming ill and worried about what lies ahead. It’s been a stressful year for all of us, and for some it adds up to a recipe for despair – and potential suicide.

While the threat is real, you can make a difference. The holidays are the perfect time to reach out to family and friends, especially those who may be alone, hard hit by the pandemic, or vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Start a conversation, and when you do, listen for warning signs of possible suicide risk. Is your friend or relative communicating feelings of guilt or shame, of hopelessness, of being a burden to others, of not seeing a reason to live? Is he or she depressed, or unusually irritable, or feeling anxious and isolated? Is there talk of giving away possessions, or evidence of increased use of alcohol or drugs? Is there a mention of suicidal thoughts, or even an actual plan?

Offer a connection. Sometimes just the chance to express feelings, to say them out loud to someone else, can reduce a person’s risk of suicide. You can provide that outlet, and then help expand the conversation by asking a few key questions if you sense warning signs: “Do you feel like you don’t want to go on living?” “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” Depending on the answer, you can continue the dialog by exploring whether there’s a plan for suicide, an intent to act on that plan, and any steps that may already be underway.

Save a life. Expressing compassion to those in distress is key to helping someone at risk of suicide, and help is available. Confidential support can be found at any time through the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or by texting TALK to 741741. This resource is not just for those in crisis; it’s there to help people on the supportive end of the relationship as well. Once you’ve connected your loved one to a crisis line, be sure to follow up with calls or texts. They serve as a powerful reminder that you care.

As we experience the holidays in the time of COVID-19, have a happy holiday season and let’s keep the most vulnerable among us in our hearts. Let’s also remember that suicide is preventable. Listen for the signs of distress and respond with your own SOS. You can save a life.

About the Author 

Ashley Mills was the project manager for “Striving for Zero: California’s Strategic Plan for Suicide Prevention,” and she is coordinating the plan’s implementation. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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