How to help someone survive suicidal thoughts
By Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
The recent death of actor and comedian Robin Williams has shed light on the topic of suicide, an issue that people are often fearful of talking about. Stigma around suicide has deep historical roots. Throughout human civilization there have been periods where suicide was tolerated and there were movements to view it under a more compassionate light, but there were also times when it was considered a grave sin and even a crime. Some argue that it is a selfish act, and some believe that people are insane at the time they kill themselves.
Whatever values one has around the topic of suicide, no one would disagree that there is a great deal of pain involved; that the person is feeling immense waves of despair, hopelessness, loss, and desperation. The danger of viewing such individuals as being “crazy,” “weak,” “selfish” or “bad” is that it causes people to feel shame when they feel depressed, and hence do not reach out for help. After all, if you had intense chest pains, you would likely seek professional help. But if you’ve been feeling depressed, hopeless and suicidal for days on end, you might delay telling someone because you would be worried about what they would think.
The first step to understanding suicidal thoughts and feeling compassion for those that are experiencing depression is to address common myths:
Myth #1: People who feel suicidal are poor, crazy, and unsuccessful.
A simple Google search of people who have committed suicide will show that well-known actors, musicians, military leaders, athletes, writers, scholars and artists have taken their lives, including Vincent Van Gogh, Cleopatra, Kurt Cobain and Alexander McQueen. Depression also affects those who are wealthy, educated, and successful. Feeling extreme distress and emotional pain does not necessarily mean that someone is mentally ill.
Myth #2: If a person wants to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop them.
Studies show that most people seek medical help in the six months prior to their deaths. Someone contemplating suicide will have mixed feelings about killing themselves because it is not that they want to die, but they want the pain to end.
Myth #3: People who talk about suicide won’t really do it.
Take any statement seriously, even if said in a joking or casual manner. Statements such as “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone” or “I can’t handle this anymore” or “I just want to end it” should be taken as a clue that they are feeling pain. Do not dismiss the person as being dramatic or seeking attention. It could be a cry for help.
Myth #4: People who feel suicidal are only thinking about themselves.
Chances are, these individuals have thought about the people in their lives over and over again. Maybe they feel pain because they have lost someone due to death or a conflict. Perhaps they feel that they have disappointed others or maybe they are very angry with someone. They could be in great physical pain and want to end things, but are thinking about the effect on their loved ones. Emotional pain is often linked with feeling disconnected from others, so part of their recovery is to feel reconnected again and recognizing what they have to offer.
The second step is to know the warning signs:
- Talk about suicide, dying or self-harm (e.g. “I wish I were never born”)
- Interest in accessing pills, knives, guns
- Talk of feeling hopeless (e.g. “Things will never get better” or “I’m useless”)
- Expression of self-hatred or being a burden
- Getting affairs in order such as making a will, giving away possessions or pets
- Saying goodbye and acting as if they will never see them again
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Risky behaviour such as substance use or reckless driving
- Sudden sense of calm, relief or happiness because the person has made a decision to end their life
The third step is to start a conversation and offer support:
- If you are worried, say so. One of the most common misconceptions is that if you bring up suicide, it will give the person the idea. More often than not, your loved one has already thought of it. Be gentle in your approach and non-judgmental. Tell them that you’ve noticed a difference in them and you’d like to know what’s going on. Emphasize that you want to help and care about them. Point out that these feelings will pass and that with help, things will get better.
- Listen to what they have to say. Let them talk about their sadness or anger.
- Do not panic, argue with them, give them a lecture, or tell them to “get over it.” If they start to feel ashamed, they might never confide in you, or anyone, ever again.
- Do not try to come up with solutions for them. Their focus is on the pain right now; they are not in problem-solving mode. Do not blame yourself for not being able to “fix” things for them.
The fourth step is to assess the immediate risk for suicide. Ask them:
- Do you have a suicide plan?
- Do you have what you need to carry out your plan (pills, gun, etc.)?
- Do you know when you would do it?
- Do you intend to kill yourself?
If they have a plan, means, and time set, they are at a high risk for committing suicide. If they state that they will kill him/herself, the level of risk is severe. Call the Klinic crisis line at (204) 786-8686, dial 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room. Never leave them alone.
And finally, continue to offer your support as they recover and heal. Call and visit them, take them to doctor’s appointments and counselling sessions. Encourage them to make healthy lifestyle choices and to be part of their safety plan. Tell them to call you when they are feeling suicidal. It takes courage to help someone. Don’t forget to care for yourself too and find someone to confide in.
Sources: Helpguide.org, The British Journal of Psychiatry
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is the founder of Nexus Counselling and a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. She is a proud member of the Manitoba Filipino Business Council and a provider for the Blue Cross Employee Assistance Program. Cheryl has experience helping clients with issues such as grief, depression, relationship difficulties, parenting, aging and illness. She can be reached at (204) 297-6744 or firstname.lastname@example.org.