Suicide attempts themselves are often impulsive acts, but they may follow days or weeks of warning signs. Sometimes it’s only with hindsight these signs can be seen for what they were, but sometimes they are more transparent.
There’s no more transparent a signal than someone who starts talking about suicide. It can be such a shock to the person they confide in that there may be an attempt to deny or diminish the message altogether. However, whilst the act of suicide is usually isolated and lonely (most men take steps to ensure they won’t be disturbed during the attempt) most again will have raised the subject in some form to a close friend, relative or confidant.
Following disclosure of suicidal thoughts the key message is to act. This is a man who feels he has exhausted all options, that no matter what he says or does his future is bleak and pointless. Yet, perhaps in a last call for help, he is sharing his innermost sense of hopelessness with a person he trusts. It may be an unwelcome burden and hopefully one most of us will never need to encounter, but if you do here are a few tips to consider:
The conversation is about him: his feelings, his views, his beliefs about what is happening and why. Don’t spend energy trying to think up meaningful things that you hope might tip the balance in your favor. It’s unlikely that he wants your advice at this point because this is most likely a highly emotional moment for him. Everything it means to him about being a man and a person of value has been stripped back to a point where he now feels vulnerable and exposed.
Don’t contradict his views, don’t argue and don’t try to make light of what he’s saying. Encourage him to talk and to express his feelings. Some men can talk, others can’t. Even for those who can it may not be easy, so expect silences, perhaps some stumbling over thoughts or retractions of previous statements. This is quite normal and, in its way, may be the very start of a therapeutic process. Remember this is most likely the first time he has expressed his feelings, so a jumble of emotions is being considered and expressed. What he says at first may sound odd, perhaps a little superficial even, but he’s just scratching the surface of much deeper issues.
The word “suicide” may not actually be mentioned but there is nothing stopping you from asking. If you reach a point of ambivalence where he says “I’m not sure I can go on like this”, or, “it’s just not worth it”, then you are quite entitled to clarify the situation by asking “are you thinking about taking your own life?” This will not put the idea into his head and he will either dismiss the idea immediately or give some indication that this is in his thoughts.
If it becomes clear that suicide is on his mind, ask for details. What is he thinking of doing? When? Where? If he can answer some or all of these questions it is very clear that he is seriously considering suicide.