— Lifeline (@800273TALK) September 7, 2016
When someone we know feels suicidal, we can feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness, shock, fear and devastation—especially if we don’t really know how we can support them or whether to act on what they have told us by contacting a family member, friend, doctor or mental health professional.
One thing that often goes unmentioned is that it can be an emotional roller-coaster for the ones who are close to those who are suicidal, as well as for the ones experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings. This isn’t taking anything away from the depth and extent of suffering the suicidal person is going through—however, it is important to understand and consider that everyone has emotions, and they are all valid.
It isn’t being self-centered to admit to yourself (or others) if you feel immensely affected by what someone else is experiencing, particularly if you are closely connected to the person or highly empathetic. Whenever possible, try to contain your own emotions and focus your attention entirely on the person who feels suicidal.
It is important to remember that when someone opens up to us about how they are feeling, it is far more terrifying for them to express to us what they are experiencing than it is for us to hear it—and also, keep in mind that they are placing a great deal of trust in us at a highly vulnerable point in their lives.
Often, those who are feeling suicidal aren’t able to accurately describe the range of emotions, feelings or even numbness that has taken hold of them—and although they may hope that others can understand it, they often don’t understand it fully themselves. With many, the first time they speak out about how low they are feeling is when they have reached a point where they believe that suicide is their only option—and some people won’t talk to anyone about it at all.
Here are a few notes worth considering when supporting someone who is having suicidal thoughts or feelings:
Don’t believe the myth: “If they talk about suicide, they won’t do it.” When someone reaches out to communicate that they are feeling suicidal, never make assumptions about their intentions for telling you. Take their words seriously, listen intently, seek professional help, or ask for support from a friend who you can trust. If you feel you need assistance or guidance, seek professional advice, and never pass it off as attention-seeking.
Don’t believe this myth either: “If they want to commit suicide, there’s nothing you can do to change their minds.” Although we aren’t responsible for anyone else’s actions or behavior, we cannot just assume that there is nothing that we can do to help and support someone to encourage them to do whatever it takes to alleviate what they are going through. Even if seems like the person has made up their minds that they wish to end their life, we should never give up hope or silence the belief that their intentions could possibly change.
Create a safe space to allow the person who feels suicidal to talk freely, openly and in confidentiality—and always listen attentively. It is important to listen carefully to everything that is being said, and also to be quite patient while they are talking, without trying to give too much advice. Just allow the person as much time as they need to release pent up feelings or whatever is weighing heavily on their mind. Observe body language, and watch for signs of distress so that you can learn as much as possible about how they are feeling, and then you can then make a rational judgment about whether to urgently call for further assistance. It may just be that the person with suicidal thoughts or feelings just wants someone to talk things through with, and in this case, alerting authorities or friends or family could create unwelcome drama and attention that could cause just cause distress.
It isn’t easy discerning whether someone is having suicidal thoughts and wants to communicate them to relieve some of the tension, or whether they are planning on acting on them, but the more we tune in and really listen to what they are saying and have empathy so we have a fair idea as to how they are feeling, we will be in a more balanced position to make decisions.
It is always worth remembering that just because someone seems calm on the outside, it doesn’t mean they aren’t in deep despair and serious angst within. Ask questions if you are unsure, and don’t take a chance if you suspect there may be extreme hidden feelings and intentions that they haven’t spoken about.
Talking in-depth about suicide can help someone to feel safe, secure and cared for—although they may only feel this way temporarily before the underlying emotions and feelings sweep over them again. Therefore, it is still worthwhile to mention to them that professional longer-term assistance is an option to consider, as well as remaining as a constant, reliable branch of support for them to turn to whenever they need to.
Try to remember that suicidal thoughts can last a long time. Saying “Just get over it” won’t achieve anything and will not be helpful or beneficial to anyone. There is no set time span for how long someone may be feeling suicidal for. The thoughts could last a moment, an hour, a week or for years. Each person is unique, and it is not our place (or anyone else’s) to determine how long suicidal thoughts and feelings will exist for.
Take care of yourself too. When we are offering support to someone who is suicidal, we can feel severely impacted emotionally, mentally and physically. We may give so much time, energy and attention to them that we forget to take care of ourselves. It is vital to remember to “Put your oxygen mask on first,” as when we neglect ourselves we will start to feel low and we can very quickly and easily fall apart at the seams, rendering us unable to adequately care for the one we hope to support. Do not be afraid to ask for professional help or guidance if you need it, contact one of the numbers below, as there is help and support available for those who are and caring for people who feel suicidal.
Try not to take it personally or portion blame. Although it is tempting to believe that we could or should do more, it is important that we don’t make the suicidal thoughts all about us, and carry a burden of guilt which will likely just make the person we are supporting feel worse. We can torture ourselves thinking of ways we ought to be there more, or how we should try to fix someone else’s situation. However, ultimately offering unconditional love, understanding and non-judgmental words of support is often what matters most. We may not always know the right things to do or say, but we cannot judge or condemn ourselves for this either. Someone’s suicidal thoughts and feelings are about them, not us, and although we can be thoughtful, caring and support them as much as we are able to, it is not the place for blaming or shaming for what we (or anyone else) did do, didn’t do or could have done better.
Understand that you may say the wrong thing without realizing it. This is a highly sensitive time for the one who feels suicidal, as well as for those who care for them, and this means that emotions can be spiked and certain words may trigger anger or resentment at times, causing arguments to erupt. Not everyone knows the right thing to say at the right time—therefore, it is important to accept responsibility for something that might be said in the heat of the moment, as well as realizing that things may be taken out of context or received differently than how they were meant. Open minds and hearts will open communication, and if armed with an abundance of compassion and apology, they can clear misunderstandings. Explain what was meant, and start the conversation over by asking the person how they feel and what they need from you.
Never make light of their situation or feelings, or tell them that there are other people worse off than they are. When someone is suicidal, it means that their worries, fears, concerns, emotions, feelings, thoughts and beliefs have all accumulated ,and the weight feels too much to continue carrying. No one gets to judge whether what anyone else is experiencing is mild or severe, as no one knows every detail of anyone else’s life, their individual capacity for coping and how their mind processes and processes with it all. Each person is different and what one person may handle easily, another person may struggle to deal with.
Do not leave someone who is critically suicidal alone. If there is reason to believe that there is a risk that someone you are with is about to attempt suicide, take them to the nearest hospital or call for emergency help (numbers below), and do not leave them on their own even for a moment. It only takes a second for someone to seriously injure them selves. Remove any obvious instruments, chemicals or medication out the way that could cause harm and remain in close contact, even if they say they want to be alone or go to the bathroom. If they do insist on using the bathroom alone, and you are unsure that they will be safe, ask that they don’t lock the door; keep talking to them the entire time, and don’t take any chances while waiting for professional assistance to arrive.
We don’t have to have all the answers or resolve every problem, we just need to let those who are struggling know that they aren’t a burden—that we want and we choose to be there for them, because we deeply care. We can check in on them as often as possible, even if it’s just a text or phone call, if we can’t visit. The most important thing is that we lovingly show up, with warmth, compassion, empathy and openness in whatever way we can. Communicate in a manner that expresses that you are there to talk about anything that they would like to discuss.
The most important thing to remember is that no one should have to experience suicidal thoughts and feelings on their own, so in the with tenderness. Let the person who feels (or has felt) suicidal know that you are taking what they have told you seriously, and that you are on their side permanently, with patience, care and without judgment.
For support and assistance in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In an emergency call 911.
For support and assistance in the UK, call 111 or contact a local accident and emergency center, and ask for details of the nearest CRT (Crisis Resolution Team) team. In an emergency, call 999.
For support and assistance in Australia call, 13 11 14
For worldwide online support, click here.
Author: Alex Myles
Image: Twitter @800273TALK
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina