Suicide is something that scares people. You friend, mother, brother, colleague slips into depression. The next thing you know, they are suicidal. It seems so intimidating, unknown. You feel you don’t have the words to say or you are worried you will say or do the wrong thing. I want to share some insight from my time struggling with suicidal thoughts to help give you some information that may help someone you know.
Don’t abandon your loved one – The worst thing you can do to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts is to abandon them, withdraw. People don’t usually commit suicide when other people are present. Your abandon just makes their shame and pain greater. It reinforces that no one cares and people wouldn’t miss them if they were gone. Go sit with them, watch a movie, just let them talk.
Don’t try to tell them why they shouldn’t commit suicide – When someone is in that dark and deep a place, telling them not to will go in one ear and out the other. Stay away from things like, “how could you think about doing this to your family, don’t you care about us, suicide is selfish.” These common comments do not register because this person’s brain is no longer thinking rationally. Let them know that you don’t know what they are going through but you see their pain and you are here for them no matter what.
If you suspect someone is suicidal, talk to them directly before you go behind their back – Not everyone who is self harming is suicidal. These are two totally different situations. Some people cut themselves to release pain or to allow themselves to feel something, as the numbness sets in. You can simply ask the person if they are suicidal. If they say no, you can ask them to explain how they are feeling. If they say yes, you can ask if they have a plan. Having a plan makes it much more likely the person will carry out their suicide. At that point, you need to encourage that person to seek a professional counselor and a psychiatrist. A general practitioner is not specialized enough to handle the significant nuances of severe mental illness.
You asking a person whether or not they are suicidal is not going to make someone carry out their plan – If anything, it will give the person an outlet to share their pain and no that someone cares. You need to be ready for whatever they and react without judgement. It can feel painful to hear a loved one wants to leave this life and you behind. However, with the significance of the illness in this moment, you can not make the situation about yourself and your feelings. This individual needs all the love and support you have to give.
Don’t try to fix the problem – Unless you are a trained professional with experience with mental illness and suicide, do not offer solutions. This is an area where people over step and can lead to hurting the person instead of helping. Seek professional counsel and advice. While a pastor may be a good support person, they do not have the medical treatment knowledge to give sound medical advice.
Don’t tell the person to have more faith or pray harder, this is a measurable observable illness – Just as you wouldn’t tell a diabetic not to take their insulin or a person with vision impairment to take off their glasses while driving, mental illness of this severity needs chemical intervention. The brain neurotransmitter imbalances that lead to suicidal thoughts are measurable and observable on scans of the time. Their brain is not making enough of the chemicals needed to feel hope and joy. They are likely lacking in serotonin and dopamine. They may even need medication for mood stabilizing, if rapid changes in mood are triggering suicidal thoughts. Encourage medical intervention while continuing faith practices the person has always followed. They should not be abandoned but should also not be used to replace proper medical care. This illness is the same as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other illnesses that we take medications for. Just because you can’t see the problem, doesn’t mean it is “all in their head.”
This person is not feeling pain and sadness like you are, you are not stronger than they are – Anyone is capable of feelings of suicide with the right combination of life events and chemical imbalances in the brain. When are trauma or significant life event occurs, the brain reroutes its pathways for preservation. Suicide is an extreme version of fight or flight. In this case, the brain is experiencing so much pain and anxiety it can not process it. Therefore, the brain tells the person to run but to an extreme. Death may feel like the only way to escape the unbearable hurt and their brain is reinforcing this belief. Your loved ones body is literally propelling them towards this option and it may consume their thoughts.
You do not understand unless you have been there – Even the best psychiatrist has only read about the experience of suicidality and has only observed patients. Unless you are a survivor of a suicide attempt or a thought disorder that led to suicidal ideation, do not share what you think you know. It may lead to more harm than good. Sharing about another persons experience you read about does not help. Telling the person a story about someone that “had it worse” only leads to feelings of greater pain and frustration. It makes the individual feel like you are invalidating their experience.
If encourage you to share this today. You never know who may be experiencing pain and suicidal thoughts. You never know who may have a loved one who is struggling. This person is not selfish. They are sick, as you can be sick. Their illness is real and needs treatment. Do not abandon people suffering with mental illness or stigmatize them, it only makes them worse. Don’t try to fix them. That is not your job. Lay aside your feelings and judgments and try to approach them with love and acceptance. Validate their pain and be there for them in whatever capacity they will allow. If you loved one has attempted or is currently planning a suicide attempt and hasn’t received medical help. Get it for them today, you just may save their life.