by Mikayla Williams
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Of course we can wear our teal/purple ribbons and hope that if someone is feeling suicidal that they will approach us for help. It isn’t common, though, for someone to openly broadcast their plans of suicide. It’s important to know what you’re looking for. Comments like “I wish I didn’t exist – I’m just a burden” and “things would be better if I wasn’t here” may seem harmless, but should not be dismissed – any suicidal ideation should always be taken seriously as this IS their way of asking for help. They may be giving away their possessions as a sort of parting gift. Maybe they’re acting recklessly – even subtly; they may be driving without a seatbelt, doing dangerous activities that may be easy to write off at first glance. Some of these behaviors may provide a rush of emotions for someone who otherwise feels numb, and others may be an attempt to release intense emotional pain. When you notice someone struggling emotionally and then suddenly appears to “get better”, code red – this is not a sign to back off because they’ve come out of their depressive episode. This could mean that they’ve decided to attempt suicide to end their suffering, and feel a sense of relief. They could isolate themselves from everyone or could express loving goodbyes to others like it’s the last time, because in that moment, they may feel that it is. The more blatant signs, seeking means to complete suicide (pills, gun, something sharp, other substances), expressing a deep sense of hopelessness, having a preoccupation with death, and explicitly stating that they want to kill themselves, also need to be looked out for. Keep in mind – if someone really wants to kill themselves, they will, and you are in NO way responsible for that choice under any circumstances. It’s also extremely easy to miss all of the classic signs, especially with those closest to us. Knowing how to help may give us some peace of mind, though.
How to help:
- Don’t hesitate – ask THE question – “are you afraid that you might kill yourself when you’re alone?” or “are you thinking about killing yourself? Talking about suicide does NOT make suicide worse – it can be quite the opposite, actually. Talking is a relief, and can help them feel accepted and less alone.
- You may not be a trained mental health professional, but you can still assess for safety. If the answer to the above question is anything but no, ask if they know how they would do it. If they have a realistic plan in place, it’s likely time to call a suicide prevention hotline or the police, and not leave their side until you know that they’re safe.
- If you know they aren’t in any immediate danger, you can give them some space and simply offer to come over with some to-go food and to watch a movie on the couch with them, like – “hey, I know things have been hard lately. We don’t have to talk, but I want you to know that you don’t have to go at it alone and I want to come over with your favorite to-go food and watch a movie of your choice with you on the couch. Is that alright?”
- Don’t tell them that others have it worse, or to ‘get over it”. In a state of depression, it feels like sitting at the bottom of a dark, dreary well. Yelling down simplistic statements at them will only make them feel more alone. While we’re at it, don’t tell them to find the silver lining. Sometimes, life just sucks – and that’s okay.
- Empathize. This is different from sympathy. Connect with them from a place of equality. Let them know that while you can’t possibly understand exactly what they feel like, that you know it must be hard to feel suffocated by depressive thoughts.
Above all, facilitate a welcoming and patient environment to offer yourself as a source of support, letting them know that you are there for them when they are ready to talk and that they do not have to go through their pain alone. Together, we can end the stigma.