Let me ask you a question. If a loved one were in extreme pain and suffering excruciating agony, would you call a doctor or phone 911? No doubt you answered yes. In many ways, a loved one who is considering suicide is going through a similar agony. The only difference is that he or she is suffering from a psychological pain which is making their existence unbearable. That is why you must help.
Here are ten tips to help you reach out and support a loved one who is talking about suicide. I am not a psychologist but I am merely offering some advice which is advocated by most of the suicide prevention agencies. This is important, I feel, as our attitudes to mental health are still in the middle ages. Also, the CDC reports that in the USA, there were over 8 million people who reported having suicidal thoughts last year. About 25% of those had actually moved on to the planning stage.
1. Don’t brush it under the carpet
Once your loved one starts to make remarks about ending it all, it is important to sit up and take notice. Something is terribly wrong and the subject must never be a taboo. A life is at stake here. You need to show that you have heard their cry for help. Being there means being prepared to talk about it.
2. Talk to them and listen attentively
The worst thing you can do is to try and talk the person out of the idea of suicide. This will probably have a negative effect because the person will feel like they are not understood. They really believe that nothing can lift them out of their despondency and hopelessness. You are there to listen and to try tounderstand why they have arrived at this point.
First, you need to give the person your full attention. Make sure you are not distracted by your cell phone. Lean forward and keep eye contact. It is important to ask about the reasons and then repeat them back. This shows you are actually listening! There is no need for any judgmental comments or cheerful platitudes, so avoid these at all costs.
3. Show empathy for them
All the experts recommend that we show empathy rather than sympathy towards a friend or loved one who is suicidal. Dr. Robert Firestone has explained that the person has converted all the negativity in their lives into a sort of destructive and terrible self-critical “anti-self” which takes over completely. That is why they need to discover their real selves. By being close to them and giving them the support they need, we can help them along the path to survival and life.
4. Ask if they have made any plans
You could ask if they have actually made any plans about how and when they plan to commit suicide. If you think there is any imminent danger of an attempt, then you should call the nearest National Suicide Helpline in your area.
5. Ask about how they have coped with suicidal thoughts up to now
For many people, suicidal thoughts are nothing new. They have been over this ground many times. You could ask them how they managed to cope by not attempting suicide at various times in the past. Psychologists recommend homing in on the positives which persuaded them that it was not worth it.
6. Agree on an action plan
A friend of mine who is gravely ill once told a doctor that she was going to end it all. His reply was, “Well, that is one solution. Now let’s talk about other solutions.” This is the key to developing an action plan with your loved one. You plan out a series of things that have to be done. You both make a commitment to carry out certain tasks. Ask him or her to repeat back what you have agreed on. They will value the structure because they feel they are falling to pieces. You can agree that your loved one will promise not to harm himself in any way for a specific period. This is just the first step. You can try repeating the agreement out loud as this will reinforce the message that you are both in this together and are totally committed. Make sure they have the telephone numbers of the helplines as this will be part of the back up plan, should they feel that they cannot make it and you are away.
7. Encourage them to recall happy moments and hope in life
You can help a loved one by helping them develop coping strategies. These can include having a box with treasured souvenirs which they can look at which will remind them of the reasons to live. These may be favorite photos and other mementos of happier times. Psychologists often refer to this as a “hope kit.” Another good strategy is to get them to make a list of reasons for living. Both these tasks serve the purpose of moving away from being totally passive which fuels suicidal thoughts.
8. Discuss a safety plan
This can include a list of things to do to cope with overwhelmingly negative thoughts. It could be an outing, sports, cooking, watching a funny video or just going for a walk. Make sure they have your number to call or another trusted friend or relative. They also need the suicide helpline number (International Association for Suicide Prevention). Staying safe and staying active should be key elements in your action plan.
9. Encourage them to achieve mini goals
The action plan will contain mini goals so that the enormity of the task does not overwhelm them. We are there to encourage them to learn skills and coping mechanisms to help with each suicidal crisis. The process is an ongoing one but the sense of weathering the storm will be a forceful message that staying alive is worth it after all.
10.Try to help them see long term goals
When the immediate crisis has passed, it is important to look at long term goals. These may include getting help and treatment from a mental health provider or a support group. While you cannot fulfil this role, you can at least be there and help them move forward in taking the first steps. Offer to go with them to their first appointment, if they are okay with that.
As suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the USA, it is better to be vigilant rather than let things drift.
Let us know in the comments how you have helped a loved one who has talked about suicide.
Featured photo credit: Talk/ Matus Laslofi via flickr.com