man burying his face in his hands

When Someone You Love Attempts Suicide

When the role of caregiver gets dumped in your lap after someone tries to kill him or herself, you may feel selfish for wanting to have someone care about your own pain. When someone you care about tries to end their own life, it’s also natural to to feel betrayal. In addition, you might feel fear, concern, anger, uncertainty and guilt. It’s OK. Even if they are still alive, you have some grieving to do. It’s such a bittersweet experience to live with someone who wants (or wanted) to be dead.

You have already seen them at their worst, and you will also see their small victories after a therapy session. You’ll see their joys and their pain. You’ll sit in the circle of grief with them as they cry over their own guilt. You will both experience moments of great relief when you can laugh at a joke or a television show and it somehow feels like you’ve been transported to a time when nothing seemed wrong.

Don’t skip over them. Let them all wash over you and learn from each experience and emotion. Being able to name your pain, your struggles and frustrations and even your greatest hopes will lead you toward a path for your own healing after nearly losing the person you love.

Life is stressful, no matter what. Yet, continuing to cultivate a relationship with a person with mental illness is a different kind of stress. There’s so much pressure to always have your sh*t together because you aren’t sure what kind of day (or hour) your loved one is having. Remember, friends, you are only human. Do everything you can do, but remember you can only do what you can.

Take time for yourself. Sometimes it’s impossible to leave your responsibilities. In that case, find moments of quiet to enjoy something simple, a cup of tea or a few pages of a book, even within your routine. Give yourself space to breathe and to grieve. It matters, and it can remind you that you are doing more than simply surviving the day.

A few reminders:

  • This is not the end of a life. This is the beginning of a new story.
  • You cannot change your loved one. You have to accept the brokenness and love unconditionally.
  • Do not carry this alone. Do not walk through this alone.
  • This is not about you, your loved one is responsible for his/her actions.
  • Show grace. Forgive the person for the suicide attempt.

Another important reminder is to set clear boundaries, even if they are only internal. When something frustrates you, you may want to speak up. I understand. Nothing seems worse than an old sore that’s been left to fester. Yet, when a person is actively suicidal, they have proven that rational thinking isn’t their strongest suit at this point.

When something hurts, many of us want to say so. However, sometimes walking away and allowing the moment to pass, letting yourself cool down and remembering this is not your fault is the best thing you can do. In this scenario, you offer your loved one dignity and respect by believing they do not need you to rescue them. Your ability to be OK doesn’t depend on their OK-ness.

Offer support, encouragement and love. However, you cannot heal or change anyone. You have to love them enough to trust they are capable of walking down their own path of healing.

Get Steve Austin’s new book, “From Pastor to a Psych Ward,” today on Amazon!

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Image via Thinkstock.


Close-up of a telephone receiver off the hook

From the Other Side of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Ring… Ring…

Anxiety builds as the line clicks and someone on the other end answers. They identify themselves as a crisis counselor of a local crisis center. The caller’s words don’t quite come out right on the first try, but a deep sigh has no trouble slipping out…

“What’s going on?” the friendly voice on the other end asks. The counselor is trying to connect, to get a better understanding of the situation.

Ring… Ring…

A father is in desperate need of some help for his daughter. She’s been texting him all night from her dorm room. She won’t answer his calls. Her last text just says, “Bye, Dad. I love u.” He’s keeping it together just long enough to type in the numbers 800-273-8255. He thinks those was the right ones. His breaths are coming in sharp, short wisps as the line clicks and someone answers his call.

Ring… Ring…

Another call. This one’s from a young man, just out of high school. He’s been sitting under a local bridge with a knife. He called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline about 45 minutes ago, was routed to his local crisis center and he’s been speaking with Megan. Speaking might be a stretch — he’s mostly been sobbing and wiping his face with his plaid sleeve. When she asks him if he’s thinking about suicide, he can only manage to nod and whimper a “yes.” No one had ever asked him this before and hearing it so clearly spoken made his muscles weak with relief. Megan gives him time to cry and listens, encouraging him to talk only when he’s ready. She’s been listening intently and giving him the space he needs to explain his reasons for wanting to die. He’s still not sure about going through with it and when Megan had asked him to put the knife out of sight while they spoke, he had complied, burying it under some loose gravel underneath his feet. And that was just it; he still wasn’t sure about going through with it. Megan asks him if he could spend some more time with her on the phone to talk about his reasons for dying, his reasons for living and a third option — staying safe for now. He really likes that last option.

Ring… Ring…

The sound of the crisis line ringing is one that comes with mixed emotions for anyone who’s answered the call. Crisis call center staff and volunteers from every center share a bond stronger than most — it’s made up of adrenaline, fear, wisdom, experience, expertise, unpredictability and hope. Every time we pick up that phone, our focus is on saving a life. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other end, we’re intensely aware they are calling us for a very specific purpose. They’re on the edge, the precipice of losing all hope. No call is the same and every conversation is different. And we’re meant to be the hope bearers, the light bringers. Our only job is to shine a light on the hope callers already have — and allow them to make it brighter. This bond is something that translates through the phone line as well; it connects us directly with the caller. Their fear, pain, anger and desolate sadness is something we accept and take on, feel it with them. We’re immediately brought closer to the human existence in that moment, both caller and counselor, as it is literally a tipping point. There are few other services in the entire world that do what crisis call center staff and volunteers do on a regular basis, which makes them all the more vital.

Working on the crisis line can provide someone with language to explain their own inner turmoil as well. Studies have shown volunteering in this capacity actually helps people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. There’s some shared experience here, not the least of which is why peer support lines and services are so important. Training and increased emotional capacity, understanding of resiliency skills, coping techniques, all form a junk drawer for these crisis counselors to rummage through during their own time of need. It helps to build confidence, not only in their ability to speak with others, but in their ability to fit in, to find purpose.

I purposefully do not refer to my lowest moments as suicide “attempts,” to avoid devaluing those who have struggled more or been through worse. However, I believe it’s important to talk about those two moments here, especially in the context of what answering crisis calls can do for a person. One of my moments involved serious self-harm that rapidly sped into “intent to die” territory. The other involved heights. Luckily, people were there in both moments to stop it all from ending. And both moments fled out of my memory as soon as they had happened. Only after receiving training and starting on the phones at my local crisis line, several years later, did I realize, “I’ve been where this person is. Was that really me? Did I really almost do those things? When I was going to kill myself, how did I not? How can that help this person?” The emotional intelligence was there, had always been inside, but now I had the language to package it in. That bubble wrapped package that had been stored away somewhere, deep in my brain basement, was what I had been using to help folks on the phones. Their pain was my pain. Their words were my words. Their relief was my relief.

Of course, this isn’t to say crisis center staff or volunteers are the only ones who can fight suicide every day. We all can. We all must. Even those with years and decades of experience in suicide prevention and research (including members of the American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and all the other major players, big and small) can play a major role in shifting the paradigm from suicide to suicide prevention. We can all start by listening. We need to listen to the voices of those who have lost loved ones — daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, co-workers, strangers. We need to listen to the voices of those who lived through attempts, as well as their loved ones. We have to listen to those who are struggling right now. Only by listening do we open up space for their voices to be heard and start to change the culture. Only by listening do we all learn and once we learn, we can start doing. These are the lessons crisis center staff and volunteers hear every single shift and every single time they pick up the phone.

Furthermore, crisis centers are typically not limited to just answering phones. Many train in suicide prevention and intervention to local schools, businesses and first responders, strengthening the overall resolve of their communities. Many are actively collaborating with local behavioral and health care organizations to build a strong foundation of continuity of care and follow-up. Many crisis centers have mobile outreach teams responsible for providing support to individuals in need where they are. Crisis centers all over the country are exploring innovative ways to provide suicide prevention and intervention services using leading edge technology like chat or tele-medicine. But many are completely unable to do these things due to limitations in funding.

Crisis centers are vital in our constant, ongoing struggle to end suicide. But many go from month to month wondering if they’ll be able to stay open or if they will have to reduce the number of phone lines they operate. Many wonder if another round of funding cuts at a state level will affect them again. Many wonder if they will be able to pay their staff through the next month. Crisis centers are vital in our constant, ongoing struggle to end suicide. We can do more and we can do better. Again, everybody can play a part here. Call your local crisis center and ask how you can help. Maybe it’s donating time or money. Maybe it’s helping with an upcoming activity. Get involved and stay involved. Participate in a training and continue to educate yourself on things that are constantly changing in this field – terminology, intervention resources, best practices, media recommendations and all the other things. Participate in the ongoing Lifeline #Bethe1To campaign. Share, like, tweet, comment all over social media about suicide prevention. Make it normal to talk about suicide prevention. Talk to each other. Listen.

Ring… Ring…

Author’s note: Special thanks to Amelia Lehto for the writing prompt and her ultimate compassion; Bart Andrews for his wisdom, leadership, and always inspiring thoughts on the powerful bond between caller and counselor; Dese’Rae Lynn Stage for her strong message of healing, hope, recovery, and lived expertise; Shye Louis for her constant support; April Foreman and Tony Wood for creating a place for everyone to feel heard; every person who chooses to share their story; and to all the heroes who answer calls, texts, chats, emails, and door knocks every day.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

anderson cooper at tulane university

To Anderson Cooper, From a Fellow Survivor of Suicide Loss

Dear Anderson Cooper,

You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. But we do share something in common. We are both survivors of suicide loss. In 1988 you lost your brother Carter to suicide, and 17 months ago, on April 20, 2015, I lost my father.

In just a few days, you will join Martha Raddatz at Washington University in St. Louis to moderate the second presidential debate of 2016. This is a chance to speak to some of the biggest challenges our country is facing and open up a dialogue with each candidate as to how they might solve those issues — or at the very least, tackle them in such a way as to make a meaningful difference. And so, as a fellow survivor of suicide loss, I am asking you to raise the issue of suicide.

Every day, it is estimated that we lose 117 people to suicide — people like your brother and my father. And every 12.3 minutes, another family in this nation is left to navigate the painful aftermath your family and mine have faced. You probably understand better than most in the media, every person who dies by suicide is more than a statistic; they are parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends and neighbors.

The most recent federal data analysis tell us suicide rates in the United States have surged to a 30-year high. The same research showed an alarming increase in suicide among girls 10 to 14, whose suicide rate, while still very low, had tripled. The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, rose by 63 percent over the course of the study, while it increased by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age. And men over the age of 75 have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

Add to that the fact that we lose 20 veterans a day to suicide, and that the suicide rate among female veterans is six times higher than the rate of non-veteran women.

Anderson, these are statistics, numbers, and they are staggering to say the least. But they are so much more than that. These are the casualties of a war that is being fought in the dark. These are deaths so often cloaked in shame, stigma and silence that those of us left to grieve a suicide loss often find ourselves feeling alone and isolated in the experience. But you can help to change that.

Don’t you think it is time we shine a national spotlight on the realities of suicide loss, Anderson? Don’t you think it is time that any conversation about our nation’s health care includes issues of mental health and suicide prevention? Isn’t it time we normalize those conversations as part of our national dialogue? And I might add, isn’t it time to change the discourse in the media and on the campaign trail when it comes to the language we use, being mindful not to belittle and further stigmatize those living with mental illness?

It’s been 17 months since I lost my father to suicide. And not a day has gone by when I have not tried to make some meaning come from his death. I have shared my story openly in the hopes that doing so can help spare another family the pain mine has endured, a pain you are intimately acquainted with.

You told People magazine in a March 2016 interview that your brother’s suicide had a definite impact on your career:

“I started going overseas and going to places where life and death was very real and where people were suffering tremendous losses. Hearing their stories and hearing people talk about it sort of helped me to get to a place where I could talk about it, I think.”

This Sunday night, with millions of people watching, you have the chance to further the conversation about suicide in this country. The struggle of those who die by suicide is very real, and families like yours and mine are living with tremendous loss. You’ve learned to talk about it, and so have I. So let’s use what we have endured to make a difference. Let’s talk about it. Let’s ask our nation’s potential leadership to talk about it. The spotlight is yours to shine. As a fellow survivor, I hope you will use it.

Sincerely Yours,

Deborah Greene

Image via Wikimedia Commons / Tulane Public Relations

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

A version of this post originally appeared on Reflecting Out Loud.

stressed out students reading a book

What NMU Students (and Everybody) Should Know If They're Struggling

Dear Northern Michigan University,

You’ve gotten some heat recently for a policy threatening students with disciplinary measures if they share suicidal thoughts with their peers. This policy is a violation of first amendment rights, which you certainly know by now, but beyond this, it’s life threatening. I know you’ve acknowledge a mistake and I know you’re sorry, but I really want you to understand why isolating struggling students from their peers is so dangerous.

In my experience, people who don’t want to stay alive need relationships more than anything else. It’s hard to understand, but some of your students spend each day looking for a reason not to kill themselves. These students need something to live for. They need other people. They need to remember there are songs to sing and books to read and places to go and friends to meet and laughter to share. One of the most painful parts of crippling depression is the belief that you are wholly alone. It’s not easy to break free of this trap under the best of circumstances. It’s close to impossible for students who aren’t able to share their story — or experience the benefit of learning their feelings are neither unique nor permanent.

Asking for help is not easy. It’s not easy to call your parents and tell them you don’t think you belong in this world. It’s not easy to dial a seven-digit number and tell a voice on the other end you need to make an appointment because you think you might be depressed. No matter how long you’ve been seeing your therapist, it’s never easy to look them in the eye and tell them you’re planning to kill yourself. It’s not easy to tell even your closest friends that you’re not OK. But it’s important. It’s very, very, very important. There may come a time when a student needs help and the only person she can talk to is her best friend, or her roommate, or her RA, or the kid sitting next to her in math class. I don’t want her to fear punishment. I want her to know that she is brave. She needs to be heard, and sometimes her peers will be the only ones there to listen. Her peers have love and compassion to offer. Give them the chance to prove that to her. Give them a chance to remind her that she is part of a community, that she is among friends, that others have walked this path before her and others are walking with her now.

She needs to understand that even though she may feel like this is the end of her life, it’s just the beginning. The world is full of sharp corners and dark clouds. We all get hurt. We all lose things we didn’t think we could ever live without. To students who are struggling, know that you are not alone. The darkness sits in the bottom of your stomach and every day it seems to get heavier and after you carry it around for so long you forget what it felt like to live without it.  But someday, maybe just for a minute, the darkness will lift. That weight will get a little lighter as you surprise yourself with a genuine laugh or linger in the warm sunlight or look in the mirror and recognize, if only for a moment, the pair of eyes that stare back at you. There will be days when you don’t feel so heavy. If that day doesn’t come today, you have to hope it will come tomorrow. Those days are coming and they may not last long, but they will be beautiful and they will be worth it. I promise.

There is so much life to be lived. Northern Michigan University students deserve all the opportunities to be reminded of that by anyone and everyone who cares, including their peers.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

An old picture of the author's son

There Were Times I Didn't Know If My Son Would Live to See Another Birthday

My son turned 21 last month. There have been many days in the past when I did not think he would live to see another birthday. He lives with severe depression, suicidal thoughts and sometimes psychosis. He lives and he is thriving. Some days I don’t know where he finds the strength, yet he does. He is a fighter.

There have been times when he has said to me:

“I don’t want to start over, I just want to finish.”

“I don’t want to go on, I just want to give up.”

“I don’t want to feel this way anymore, I just want to die.”

And he’s kept fighting. He has gone on to establish a life for himself, a life that he has chosen on a path of his making and he is happy.

A year and a half ago, my son was struggling to find a reason to live. In the past I would have jumped right back into my co-dependent relationship with him, but this time I didn’t. I stepped back instead of charging forward. I stood by my boundaries instead of caving in. I took a risk instead of taking over. And because I did, and because of the steps he took, something shifted in him. He changed, he grew and he found a reason to live. This was not an easy thing to do for either of us.

My son had spent 17 months in residential psychiatric treatment, he had learned many positive skills to help him cope and he knew the boundaries that were in place. I wanted to coddle him and protect him, but that was no longer healthy for me and no longer helpful for him. He had to take responsibility for himself. It could have been the wrong choice, but at that moment it wasn’t the wrong choice.

I recently asked my son about that difficult time in his life and he said, “I never want to be in that place again.”

September was Suicide Awareness Month. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention the warning signs of suicide are:

*Talking about death and dying

*Reckless behavior

*Withdrawal and isolation

*Giving away possessions

*Saying goodbye

*Sleeping too much or too little





Knowing the signs of suicide can save a life.

Remember suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. No one knows what life will bring in the next hour, day, week, month or year.

I love my son very much and want the best and brightest future for him. A future that he choices for himself and one that creates happiness and peace in his life.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

man with his head resting on his hands

When the Suicidal Thoughts Don’t Go Away

I’ve written about the topic of suicide before, specifically attempts and aftermath. This time, I would like to go back to the thoughts that can lead to suicide attempts and completions. The first time I was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and intent was on Halloween of 2014. Everything seemed to happen all at once, and I ended up pleading with my father to take me into the hospital for an evaluation because it was becoming so overwhelming.

Hospitalization for mental illness is a totally different can of worms we can look at later, but for the sake of clarity, let’s just say the goal for mental hospitals is to stabilize and move on. The most common are probably 72-hour holds, but this is only three days. Then, you’re back in the real world feeling burnt out and unmotivated to an intense degree.

What happens when the thoughts that got you sent to the psychiatric hospital don’t go away? Perhaps forever?

In my case, those thoughts are old friends. Since before my first attempt at 13 years old, I have been having a constant barrage of suicidal ideation. Those thoughts never truly go away for me. I try to not dwell on these thoughts, but they continue to stick around. Whispering insidiously in the back of my mind, fanning the coals until they become flames again.

The way I look at it, there are two types of suicidal ideation: passive and active. Passive ideation, to me, is not a danger zone. If I get hit by a car or something like that, then it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. However, I don’t have a plan or a time table. The majority of the time, my thoughts fall into this passive category. Just lingering in the back.

On the other hand, active ideation is not only concerning but also extremely dangerous. Every time I attempted suicide, my thoughts fell into this active category. When I reach this stage, those thoughts turn into hallucinations, and my psychosis hits full swing (psychosis is also a topic for another time).

My current job as Director of Health at Colorado State University puts me in situations that have the possibility of being extremely triggering and can throw me off my groove to the point where I’ve spent 30 out of 40 hours in bed in a two-day time period. You couldn’t tell just by looking. The only thing out of place were my beat up slippers I wore to every meeting in a week.

The struggle that each of us faces is different. The old stand-by for trying to “help” people with mental health issues is to say, “Oh, but so many people have it worse than you. Why should you be sad?” However, this is not only wrong, but it can also be dangerous. Plenty of people in the world have worse lives and situations than I do, but pain, especially mental pain, is extremely relative. In other words, I feel pain in my own way, just as you feel pain in yours.

The point I’m trying to make is this: We have been told since we were small not to judge a book by its cover, and this remains a lesson we can continually learn. Just because I can put on a happy face and tell awful puns doesn’t mean I am not embroiled in my own battle against an adversary that has come dangerously close to winning multiple times. Just because I showed up unshaven and bleary-eyed doesn’t mean it wasn’t an uphill struggle to even get to the office.

The same applies to others. Family members, friends, community members, strangers, they all have a story. We would be doing each and every one of them a grave injustice by not taking the time to listen and believe.

It is our duty as citizens of the world and stewards for mental health to create a world that can be free and beautiful. A better world where everyone is treated with the dignity and love they deserve. The time has come for a permanent revolution in our hearts and minds. We can create this world, but it all starts with a single act of defiance against a culture that demonizes or pities mental illness. Writing these articles are my act of defiance. You are not alone, and I hope you can find yours as well.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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