Suicide is a topic outside of most people’s frame of reference. It’s a hard thing to understand and it can leave people feeling out of their depth if the subject is raised. There are wide ranging and misguided views as to what is happening when someone talks about ending their life. Some people go on the attack. They feel anyone who mentions suicide is attention seeking or manipulative. Others might seek more information. If they discover an attempt has been made before they may feel justified about pushing it to one side because they believe it’s unlikely to come to anything.
We know that for many people suicide appears an entirely rational conclusion to the situation they find themselves in. They are usually not psychotic but they may (or may not) be quite depressed. The idea that someone who is truly serious about suicide will just go ahead and do it is something of a fallacy. The fact is most people who go on to end their life have, at one or more points, indicated their desire to die. It may come out in conversation that they see no point in living or going on. This is a red flag. It tells the person they are speaking to that their frame of mind is such that suicide may be attempted.
People who have been discouraged or recovered from suicide attempts will mostly say the same thing. They didn’t really want to die but they couldn’t carry on as they were doing. It demonstrates that active suicidal feelings, for the vast majority are a temporary situation, which with the right support will probably pass.
Giving support to someone who feels suicidal requires a combination of tact, sensitivity and openness to their views and beliefs at that time. It is not the case, as some people think, that talking about suicide only encourages it to happen. The person who feels suicidal is reaching out. They may be questioning, almost thinking aloud and looking for alternatives, but it isn’t really your job to supply them. The best thing you can do is be yourself. In situations like this you aren’t expected to come up with a form of words that will turn everything around. Your body language and interest will show that you are concerned. The person may want to vent their frustration and anger or they may be particularly calm because in their own mind the decision is almost made.
You may feel a peculiar level of burden that someone has confided their intentions. However, whatever the outcome it is not your burden to carry. You can only try to persuade the person to seek professional help. You can empathise but point out that suicidal thoughts do pass. You could be with them as much as is practical and you could rally support from others. You might suggest they speak to an anonymous person on the end of a suicide hotline. Ultimately you are not responsible for the actions they choose, but you have at least provided support, showed concern and encouraged the use of options that may help them navigate a particularly dark path.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.