It’s horrifying when someone you know kills him or herself.
But it can be almost as bad when that person talks about suicide. Many, many more people talk about it than do it, which leaves an appalling dilemma: do we take them seriously? If not, how do we handle the threat? If we do think they intend to kill themselves, what do we do?
Often, not having recognized that the person is actually depressed – especially among young people, for whom depression sometimes takes different forms – we dismiss the threat as an “attempt to control us.”
Experts suggest that we take all threats of suicide seriously. It is not a good thing to say, “Hey, I don’t think you’re going to do that.” It is a good thing to say, “Let’s get you some help.”
That help can take all sorts of forms. It can be an immediate visit to a psychiatrist, or a hospital, or a psychotherapist. It can be a promise to find someone for the person to talk to. Experts also suggest that it can be a good thing to say, “I want you to promise me something: Don’t do anything terrible to yourself until we get a chance to get you some relief.” In fact, some therapists even make a “bargain” with the depressed person: “Promise me you won’t try anything that will harm you, and I’ll work with you to get you feeling better.” Surprisingly, even with those who have really meant to kill themselves, this promise can sometimes work to stave off the attempted suicide.
And as Edwin Shneidman, founder of the American Association of Suicidology, has said, “A suicide postponed is a suicide prevented, even if only for a day at a time.”
All of this can be very difficult to achieve. If you’re the parent of a teenager with whom you have been struggling – to fix up his room; to produce better grades; to stop experimenting with drugs or alcohol – the threat or perceived threat of suicide can be not just frightening, but infuriating. Everyone may be angry, so offering help in a way that is perceived as help may be difficult.
For friends of teens, who like to think of themselves as macho or impervious to death, the threat of suicide may seem like an idle boast.