Four years ago, my mother committed suicide. I still struggle coming to terms not only with her death, but with my family's wider history of suicide. My maternal grandfather and great-uncle died by suicide, my sister made an attempt, and I have struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts since puberty.
When I talk about these things, people shy away. It's a frightening subject, but if we want to help people who are suicidal, we need to understand what suicide really means, how it works, and how to respond to people contemplating it. Remember, talking about suicide does not cause someone to be suicidal. If you're worried about someone, it is safe to bring up the topic of suicide.
Suicide is the act of taking one's own life, and suicidality - the tendency toward or risk of suicide - is an illness like any other. Some people have this sickness temporarily, others fight it their whole lives. In my family, it's hereditary. All too often, it's fatal. It takes over your mind and body and you die from it. When that happens, as a society, we tend not to talk about it too much. It’s a very quiet killer, rendered quieter by stigma, taboo, awkwardness, and misconceptions.
Suicide is not selfish. Imagine that your thoughts and emotions make up a house. My mother's mental house faded around the edges. Room by room, the space available to her shrank until she was left a hallway, trapped in a narrow place. It's not that she was thinking of herself; it's that she couldn't think of anyone, anything.
It’s nobody’s fault when this medical condition takes hold. As many as one in six people become seriously suicidal at some point in their lives. While it is not directly caused by depression, anxiety, drug use, or other risk factors, about 90% of suicidal people have mental issues that involve or worsen seriously suicidal thoughts. These issues can be treated.
If someone brings up the topic of suicide with you, don't panic. Don’t lecture, and don’t make demands. Start by listening. Someone reaching out to you is a very good sign. First of all, it means they trust you. Second, if an individual is sharing these thoughts with you, there is something stopping or delaying them from completing suicide. It is safe to ask, "What's stopping you, and how can we focus on that?"
Here are some other “do’s” and “don’ts” for such a conversation. We all need to be ready to support our friends and family.
Do try to have the conversation in private. Don't promise to keep the contents of the conversation private, though. It's important that you be willing to get help if someone you know is in crisis.
Do try to say something, even if it's "wow, I'm sorry," or "well, crap." You don’t have to instantly become a perfect therapist. A friend of mine reached out to some of her friends, and they reacted with silence. "You could have heard a pin drop," she told me. "Nobody said a thing." It made her feel distanced, alone.
If the person you're talking to mentions a certain means of committing suicide, it's safe to bring up ways to remove or limit that means. "Do you want me to keep your gun for a while? Do you keep ammo in the house?" "When you say you're thinking about swallowing pills, are they pills you have? Can you get someone to dose out a week at a time instead of having the whole bottle around?" "You mentioned slitting your wrists. Is looking at knives or razors hard for you? I can come over and help you get those things out of the house for a while. Want to go shopping for an electric shaver together?" Bringing this up is not harmful and will not give anyone ideas. Don't press for action, just let them know there are options.
Later, check back in. Be ready for things not to suddenly be better. The mental issues surrounding suicidality don't go away quickly. If you can, try to communicate that it's okay to still be struggling.
There are many resources for those who are suicidal or talking to people who are considering suicide. America's Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and anyone in crisis can use their online chat to talk to a counselor. Similarly, IMAlive is an online chat-based Hopeline staffed by trained volunteers, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center's Hopeline phone number is 1-800-442-HOPE (4673).
If you're suicidal, there are people who can help. If you are not, the odds are that somebody in your life will be or has been before, and you can still help by being willing to educate yourself and others, and being willing to say the word "suicide."
When someone brings up thoughts of suicide to you, you have already done something right. You’re the one they trust, you’re the one who feels safe. "Suicide" is a scary word, but talking about it doesn't kill you, and being ready to listen might help someone live.
Every time you share this post or other information on suicide, you help to fight the stigma, break the taboo, and dispel the myths. Feel free to link back to this. Feel free to comment here with other links and resources and stories. Feel free to talk to me about suicide. Feel free to comment anonymously on this post (trolling and hate speech will be deleted).