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5 Things Not to Say to Someone Struggling With Suicidal Ideation

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Suicide is a topic that can frighten even those of us who live with mental health challenges and chronic illness. For those who do not have the luxury of our sometimes-complex lives, it can bring on even more fear.

Loved ones and friends often try to help the best way they can. Unfortunately, many can unwittingly make us feel worse. Here are five things not to say to someone with suicidal ideation and five things that could prove more helpful:

1. “I thought you’d moved past this.”

Friends and loved ones may say this in an effort to point out that you have come so far, and that you don’t “need” to go backward. They usually mean to give you a nudge to “get yourself together.” Sadly, this can remind us that we have really “messed up,” and that we may never be able to get it together.

Instead: After you know they are safe and no longer in harm, talk to them about everyday things. We feel bad enough, so a helpful distraction while knowing you care enough to be there can speak volumes. If we are unable to say much, sit with us in silence. Your presence during the silence can be a stronger nudge to our more healthy selves than anything.

2. “You’re always so positive! I am not sure I really believe who you portray yourself to be!”

Please remember there is a reason it is called mental illness and not hypocrisy. How someone behaves, thinks and feels when they are well could very much be the polar opposite of what they look, sound and act like when they are not. This does not mean they were “faking it” when they were well. It is simply a symptom of the illness, not a representation of who they are as a person.

Instead: Feel welcome to let them know of any positive and encouraging emotions they have given to you and those around you. Let them know in an uplifting way. They may still be in a low place when you are sharing, but when they start to rise again, they will remember your encouragement, and it can help them see daylight again.

3. “Why haven’t you been taking care of yourself? What have you been (or not been) doing?”

A lot of us struggling with suicidal thoughts feel terrible for making our loved ones and friends worry. Even with every part of our wellness plan kept, these thoughts will still come. If they open up to you or are brave enough to seek professional help, don’t berate them by making them feel they haven’t done enough, even if perhaps they didn’t. They need to feel safe, not attacked.

Instead: Give them space to have the moments they need to get themselves together. (As always, their safety is first.) After my last hospitalization, a close friend of mine took me to lunch. It was probably three weeks after my discharge. He took the time to tell me how he felt about me going into the hospital for suicidal thoughts. However, he took responsibility for his feelings and was sure not to “blame” me for them. After expressing himself to me, he then asked me how he could help and what signs to look for. He even took the time to help me work through what I did and did not want to happen next time. With his kindness and safe invitation, I was able to call him the next time I was “in a bad place.” Not only did it keep a potential emergency from blowing up, it kept it to just a weekend of much-needed downtime.

4. “Your family will miss you if you take your life.”

In a wonderful story with rose-colored glasses, that would be everyone’s reality every minute of every day. There are lonely people in this world who have family at birth, but not in life. For some, family dynamics (or lack thereof) are the trigger for the event. Step out of your discomfort long enough to really listen to them if they are talking. If they are telling you they are having issues with their loved ones, that may not be the time to remind them of how they would be missed.

Instead: Listen, Listen, Listen. Perhaps you are following a handbook, or trying to think of what would help you. In that very moment, the need for them to be heard may be greater than their need to feel “missed.” Once you really hear them out, you may just learn that nugget of hope needed to help them turn their gaze from the darkness to the light.

5. Do not make derogatory statements about how real their suicidal thoughts are, especially to their friends.

As loved ones in an urgent situation, there is a need to vent, to get out your own anger, fear and frustration. This can be even more needed when you have been dealing with someone in recovery for a long time. Yes, it’s hard. How much harder do you think it is for the individual living with their illness every day?

Instead: Seek out a support group, therapist and a support system of your own. Be assured that if you choose to use their support system for your own, you may cause a rift in your relationship. Therapeutic groups and therapists have confidentiality agreements and are there to support you. The support system of the person you care for is going to be loyal to them. They may hear you out and even comfort you, but they will “protect” their friend, colleague or client by sharing anything you have said or done that they feel may trigger them. They are, after all, human and probably just as afraid as you are.

While there are many more things you probably shouldn’t do or say in this situation, these few may help you and your loved one get through future bouts with suicidal ideation with more ease. Please remember that, in my experience, we really don’t want to die; we just really want the pain and disappointment to end. You can help by being there, being honest, and being just as brave as you would like us to be. It helps. Trust me, it helps.

Photo by Leighann Blackwood on Unsplash

Originally published: January 13, 2020
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