When people talk about suicide, it stirs up something deep in us.
It is incongruent with our biological instinct for survival. We know that something is wrong.
If we love the person, or even care about him, we may start to panic.
What if I lose him?
We may not trust ourselves to help lift him out of the pain. And worried and helpless up against darkness that he is facing. We don’t know what to do or what to say.
But we know we have to do something.
As a therapist, I have talked to thousands of people about suicide over the 20 plus years that I have been practicing. I haven’t lost anyone to suicide, but I stay vigilant and meet each new disclosure with my full attention. Each person is incredibly valuable and I don’t want to lose anyone.
I’ve seen people in the most intense pain that you can imagine and I see them afterwards, when they feel better. Seeing this process so many times, I have the retrospective view of the next person coming in. Things change. People get better.
I know you want to help your friend/child/lover/parent get to that “better” place. And there are things that you can do that will be invaluable to helping them and bring the two of you closer together. Thank goodness.
Here are 7 ways to respond when someone tells you she is thinking about suicide.
1. Stay calm.
“Suicide” has a way of freaking people out. But when we freak out, it becomes about us and not the person who is suffering. They feel lost, invisible, and shamed when we freak out.
Unfortunately some professional questioning sounds more like concern for liability than compassion for the person. Most of my clients who have been suicidal, have had experiences with people freaking out. They are afraid they will be locked up and so stop talking about themselves.
I’d rather keep them talking.
Call 911 only when the person is in imminent danger. (i.e., bleeding severely, taken some pills, missing, on a ledge, or waving a weapon around.) Your friend texting that she “doesn’t want to live like this” does not need the police to barge past her parents, cuff her and take her alone in the back of a squad car to the hospital.
If you are a teenager and your friend tells you that she is suicidal or thinking about suicide, see number three on this list.
Loads of people think about suicide. First and foremost it is an expression that you don’t want to feel this pain anymore. That is a normal response to pain. It would be weirder if someone wants to feel this bad.
When you were in pain, haven’t you ever thought about escaping somehow? Maybe you never said it out loud, but this person feels the same. Surely, you can understand?
People who think of suicide are usually scared by their thoughts, because they think it is “messed up.” This entices fear and shame on top of what they were already feeling, making them spiral further down and intensifies everything.
We want to ease this fear and shame immediately. Tell them there is nothing to be ashamed of. You understanding and staying calm will go very far in helping them begin to feel better, fast, so that you can get to the reason they were upset in the first place.
Assuming that they want attention misses the mark. I don’t think in these terms. This person probably feels invisible and isolated. Please give them attention, right now.
People don’t want to feel bad. I think about what is absent but implicit in people wanting to escape pain: They want to feel better. It’s very understandable.
Acknowledging and validating that they want relief will help them feel understood and this makes so much difference.
3. Tell someone.
This is too heavy to deal with alone. Never promise your friend that you will not tell anyone.
If they say, “I have something to tell you, but you can’t tell anyone.” Let them know you can’t agree to promise that until you know what it is. Say you can’t keep a secret if someone is in danger.
If you are young, tell a trusted adult. A teacher or counselor if you are at school, or your parents if you are at home. Your parents and you can decide to let your friend’s parents know. Your friend already might have a counselor and her parents can call that counselor, keep a watch on her, and get her some help.
Sad as it may be, some parents are abusive and so not trustworthy. I understand. There is usually someone in her life that can help and she will be able to tell you who. A grandmother, aunt, teacher…find someone to tell. But don’t do it alone, your parents and or someone at school can help you.
4. Touch them.
Sometimes a kind word and a hug can do wonders. Being close to another person can feel so good.
Many people who are overwhelmed by their emotions can use a good cry in caring arms. They desire this, but they might not ask.
Being overwhelmed by depression can make you feel so alone and disconnected. Touch grounds us and makes us feel connected. Don’t hesitate.
5. Stay with them.
Stay with your lovey or arrange for someone to be with him or her until they let you know their desire to die passes.
Listen to them. But also distract them. Try to get them to laugh. Among my clients, laughing with a friend is the most common way to pass out of thoughts of suicide. It may not make the problem go away, but it helps pass the time, until a mood can lift.
Let them know there is nothing more important than being with them in that moment.
Let them know you love them and what you love about them. Make a list. Watch this video.
6. Ask why they haven’t
Most people say, “I want to die, but I don’t want to die.” This makes so much sense to me. They just want to feel better.
When someone talks about suicide, before I ask about a plan, or whatever, I ask why he hasn’t.
This is really what we need to know. People who think about suicide don’t commit suicide for a reason. And you bet I want to know that reason! When I ask this question, I find out the most fascinating things that all touch my heart.
Their response says something about what is important to them. Important enough to live for. This is what I want to bring out in the open: his love and commitment to this priority. There’s a story about this important thing and I want to thicken it up and make it shine so he commits more fully to living.
Maybe it is not wanting to leave his family. This is beautiful and noble. This tells me so much. I don’t invalidate this gorgeous love by telling him that he needs to want to live for himself. Or that he has to find out why he wants to die. I know why he wants to die. He doesn’t feel good.
I want to know why he wants to live. To hear more about it and let his words and his care for that thing float around the room, come around him in a big hug and make him want to live even more! I’m in awe of why he wants to live, so that awe is reflected back and he is in awe too.
This will stop him faster than any safety contract that focused on disembodied, imposed skills.
Love people up to you instead of worrying down to them. Jodi Aman
7. Make a plan
Rather than a safety contract, I make a plan of what to do. This plan includes
1. Distraction- have something enjoyable to do to pass time.
2. Company- tell someone immediately and spend time together until it passes
3. Call me- I encourage people to call me when they feel like dying. Anytime of day or night.
My freshman year in high school, I lost a friend to suicide. I cared about Mike deeply and reeled with shock when he died. I didn’t even know he was struggling. If fact, the last time I spoke to him, I talked about myself.
Maybe if we had texting back then, or Facebook, we would have been closer, and he would have shared his depression with me. Maybe I could have helped.
Many more friends in high school disclosed their suicidal thoughts to me. Thank God, no one else died. Probably more felt this bad but didn’t tell me. You never know what someone is going through since people hide their pain so well. Whether they told me or not, I hope my kindness or smiles came to them when they needed it most.
A few years ago, I made peace with Mike. Instead of feeling shame that I was so selfish only 4 days before he died to dare speak about my own problems, I accepted his message from heaven that I helped him feel valuable and loved when he needed it most. I released his spirit that was held in my shame and re-committed to standing closer to people when they are in pain.
Don’t let worry take you over, choose love instead. If you seek help and that person is responding out of fear, don’t give up, find someone else.