3 Guidelines for Helping Someone With Suicidal Thoughts
Your goal seems simple: you want nothing more than to help your friend, family member or loved one who’s thinking about suicide. And if the person is coming to you to talk, they’re looking for your help. But when something as heavy and emotional as suicide becomes the subject of conversation, wires of communication can get crossed and even the best of intentions can fall flat or, at worst, do more harm than good.
Suicide is difficult to talk about and we often don’t know how to address it unless we’re trained mental health professionals. The stigma around suicide is so powerful that it prevents people from opening up their hearts, being honest about their struggles and sharing their experiences in order to help others. I’m writing this article not only in honor of Suicide Awareness Month, but also to help address this stigma. I was a former mental health worker, so I have been on both sides of the conversation: helping those struggling with suicidal thoughts and allowing myself to be helped while in crisis.
From my experience, I have found the following perspectives and strategies to be helpful when talking with someone who is thinking about suicide. There isn’t a magic phrase or a “one-size-fits-all” approach for discussing suicide, but these guidelines can help steer the conversation in the direction of growth, transformation and healing.
1. It’s not about you.
Someone struggling with suicidal thoughts is not looking for you to rescue them. They may often ignore your advice, no matter how clever or simple you think the solution may be. Recommendations such as changing diet/exercise habits or just “putting yourself out there” are likely to go unheard. Those suggestions fail to address the central problem: a toxic internal critic that has hijacked the person’s sense of identity. When the person is in distress, imagine talking directly to their internal critic– the voice that encourages the suicidal thoughts. Conversations with the critic don’t always to come to a neat conclusion, but they are so important because the internal dialogue that is constantly bottled up is finally spoken aloud. As Mr. Rogers put it, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”
2. Be present and reflect.
Someone thinking about suicide is in need of a warm and supportive mirror: someone who can hear their most self-critical thoughts and not flinch or over-correct by offering empty praise. This requires you to hold up a mirror to the person, reflecting back what they say to show that you understand. You can say something like, “I hear you saying….” or, “It sounds like you…,” before reflecting on the content that they’ve shared. This practice can relieve the fear that they may have about being misunderstood or unreachable. Once you’ve held the mirror, come out from behind it and be present with the person. Dive deeply into their experience and feel what they feel, even if it’s scary or uncomfortable. The person in crisis is sharing the most vulnerable part of themselves with you, and if you want to help them, you need to sit with them in the feeling. This is the true meaning of compassion, derived from the Latin, “with pain,” or suffering with another. From this compassionate place, you can share a touch of your light that feels genuine, authentic and healing. Then, transformation can begin.
3. Your offers of help need to stem from a place of compassion, not only from a powerful urge to fix the problem.
A suicidal person may not ask for help because, according to their internal critic, they are unworthy. Sometimes the critic is so ingrained that they may refuse any kind of help you offer. Your offers of help should stem from a place of compassion and a powerful urge to fix the problem. Offers come after you’ve met the person in their pain and shown them that you understand through reflective listening. The offers should be specific and timely. For many struggling with suicidal thoughts, an offer to “be there whenever you need to talk” isn’t strong enough to sway the critic. Putting a timestamp on your offer may help the person see beyond their present pain and entertain the thought of surviving another day. For instance, in non-emergency situations, you might say something like, “Let’s talk more about this tomorrow, what time should I call?” The second example is much more likely to receive a positive response, and may help save a life.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as an ally to someone thinking about suicide is that you are not responsible for bringing the person out of their suicidality. But you can help them with your loving attention, compassionate support and acts of kindness.
Unsplash via @ Eric Ward