Sunday, September 3, 2017

Suicide Awareness - The First of a 7-Part Series

"Don't preach or attempt to educate. The reality of suicidal feelings will dwarf and distract from your efforts."

What Do You Say to Someone Who Wants to Die?

Some time ago a relative of mine—I’ll call her Laura—went through an existential crisis after taking a hallucinogen. Although Laura did not “go crazy,” she began to believe that everything and everyone around her was unreal and therefore meaningless. She thought about this constantly for weeks and couldn’t get it out of her mind. It was such an agonizing thought that it made her—an ordinarily happy, upbeat, and energetic person—suicidal. She mostly stopped eating and sleeping and lost almost twenty pounds in the space of a few weeks. She was in a psych ward for several days and followed that with an outpatient program. Then, slowly, she recovered.

In this first of several suicide awareness posts, I’ll try to offer a very basic response to the question in the title. r/TapirSignal and /r/SparlockSignal provide a comprehensive guide to understanding suicide in their sidebars, and /r/suicidewatch also has many resources. For a basic and inexpensive one-hour tutorial on how to talk to a suicidal person, you can also see My posts won’t attempt to replicate those efforts but rather will be a hit-and-miss personal reflection about what helped and did not help my relative Laura and my friends Carol and Tom, all of who experienced suicidal crises. I’ll share in this entry some aspects of communication and support that have been helpful to us. By far the best guide for us and probably for anyone else, however, is what we can learn from listening to and accepting the suicidal person and responding to what they tell us about their own experience.

Listening vs Fixing

When a loved one’s life is at stake, we urgently want to solve the problem. But helping a suicidal person isn’t a quick fix; it demands more of a “listen, don’t fix” approach. Since people experience depression differently, the best guide for those who want to help is the suicidal person him or herself.

  • Listen and empathize. Simply acknowledging difficulty affirms a suicidal person’s experience, builds trust, and encourages them to open up further
  • Ask directly whether the person has been thinking about suicide, and if so, whether they have a suicide plan. If the answer to either of these questions is yes, seek professional help immediately. Do not phrase the question as a negative (“You haven’t been considering suicide, have you?”) Instead, ask straightforwardly whether they have been thinking of suicide. For most suicidal people, it’s a relief to hear that question.
  • Be available
  • Check in at the times when someone is likely to be most distressed
  • Express love

  • Preach or attempt to educate. The reality of suicidal feelings will dwarf and distract from your efforts
  • Contradict what the person says. A suicidal person’s beliefs may be highly inaccurate; depression can distort a person’s perceptions until they become entirely subjective, and objective “reality checks” may seem to invalidate their experience. While a therapist may be able to help with cognitive behavioral therapy, most of us probably can’t reason a very depressed person out of their irrational thoughts, and we don’t have to. All we have to do is acknowledge and respect them.
  • Put them down, accuse them of faking, or tell them to “snap out of it.”
  • Offer advice, unless the suicidal person specifically asks for it.


When you’re around a person who is suicidal you may want them to feel that you understand, that you’re not overreacting or being insensitive, that you “get it.” That’s only human, but it’s misguided. Your job is not to prove that you understand. Your job is to listen, to empathize, and to offer whatever kind of support the suicidal person can use. Even if that means backing off once they are out of danger.

People who are suicidal are experiencing feelings and perceptions that fortunately are unusual. Most of us can’t fully understand and will never be able to. Even if you’ve been suicidal yourself, to say that you understand may be perceived as denying the uniqueness of the other person’s experience. It’s much better to ask how the other person feels, or to express empathy (“That must be hard”) than to assume you understand. Simone Weil expressed this beautifully:
The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?”
Tapir Signal is looking for volunteers in a variety of areas including housing, employment, and other practical concerns as well as LGBT issues and suicide awareness. Suicide awareness volunteers must be 21 or older. They should be mental health practitioners and/or have personal or close family experience with suicide.

If you are in need of help, you can reach us here.

If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-784-2433.

If you are LGBT+ and need to talk, please contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 or find them online here.

Know you are safe and among friends and we will do whatever we can to help.

Lastly, if you would like to be involved or volunteer, you can reach out to us here.

No comments:

Post a Comment