People who admit to having suicidal thoughts are saying, “I just want the pain to stop.”
I should begin by saying I respect the pain and loss anybody reading this may feel over the death of a loved one by suicide. I also respect the anger felt, even the outrage of those left to pick up the pieces. I respect the helpless fear, even the panic that can make some of us say or do what may turn out to be the exact wrong thing to say to a person who is thinking about suicide. Different people have a variety of reasons why they are against suicide; for some, they know how it feels to lose a loved one to it, or fear they might, while others have religious reasons, or they simply value human life as precious. I want to assure you, I respect the pain and sadness, the horror of the Supportive Person, and the Ones Left Behind; but I have to ask this question: do they, do you, respect the pain, sadness and horror of the afflicted person who sees suicide as a possible choice?
Right about now, the outraged and the religious objectors are usually already tuning out to prepare their usual salvos to refute or discredit what I want to impart. Relax; this isn’t a “pro-suicide” essay. The only “pro-suicide” stuff I’ve ever seen were bullies who try to goad a person in pain into killing themselves. What their sick motives may be, I don’t feel qualified to speculate; I’m usually just trying to avoid them entirely. (Aside: Some people being bullied can’t avoid them; they invade their social media pages and personal lives, 24/7/365. It’s not just a schoolyard plague anymore). So before anybody thinks, “NO, suicide is NEVER a choice!” I’d like to let you know that attitudes like that can be just as likely to push a person to commit suicide as any other bullying act. I can’t stop anybody from thinking that, but I hope to help others understand that actually saying it can harm the person they want to help.
Today I read a no doubt well-meaning statement (not sure if it’s a quote to be officially attributed or not): “When you’re sad and want to die, remember people who are dying but want to live.” With respect, and while I don’t wholly disagree with this sentiment, it probably means nothing to a suicidal person and won’t likely help them at all. In my opinion, this sort of sentiment only makes the person saying it feel better. It is horrible that people who want to live are fighting a terminal disease, knowing they won’t live much longer. Those people may be entitled to a feeling of sadness or even bitterness over the topic of active suicidal ideation in somebody who is not fighting a terminal illness. Yet for the suicidal person, this concept doesn’t help them so much as it probably makes them feel more guilt, which may only add to their pain.
One main aspect of suicidal ideation is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even in cases where undiagnosed mental illness is present, nobody just wakes up one day and feels drawn to commit suicide. There is a reason, a root cause, a catalyst. The catalyst creates pain and sadness, trauma, emptiness, loneliness, or hopeless feelings in a person, the sense of being trapped. This is how the personal abyss inside a person begins. How deep does it go, how dark does it get? That depends on the catalyst and the feelings it creates, and every person is different.
There are signs, even if nobody sees them, they are there. Was your son happy at his last school, but now having moved to a new school, he is quiet and withdrawn, maybe seems down? That is a sign. Does the new neighbor’s daughter cry or go stiff and afraid if you try to hug her for bringing you a flower to welcome you to the new subdivision? That’s a sign. There are many different signs, some more obvious than others. A desire to give away all prized possessions, or loss of interest in formerly loved activities and things, even people; these are BIG signs.
The reason signs are so important, is that often the person having suicidal thoughts isn’t talking about it to anybody. They may feel afraid to speak out; for some the fear of being institutionalized is very real, or they fear the person causing them the pain is the one who will be believed over them. Sometimes they feel guilt or shame for their suicidal thoughts and feelings, and/or they think nobody will believe them, or worse, nobody will care. These “nobody will care” feelings may not be correct, in the sense that loved ones probably do care, but that doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t very real for the person drowning in them. A really big and common silencer is the “I am a burden, they’ll be better off without me” feeling. It is insidious, very persuasive, and hard to ignore or beat back.
How do you get the silent suffering person to speak out and share what is wrong? Be the sort of person they would feel safe sharing their pain with. Be the nonjudgmental friend or family member they can trust with their horror. Have the strength to listen without letting your fears or panic make the person retreat from opening up. In cases of abuse within a family or circle of friends, be prepared to deal with the fact that somebody you care about may be the one harming the person you’re trying to help.
Not every person who had a teenage breakup will turn suicidal, and some things that may seem like signs might be curable with a chat and hug, but other problems a hug won’t—can’t—cure. Also, adults can feel suicidal at times too, for many of the same reasons. Adults can be bullied, as well. So can very young kids. Child abuse of all kinds, as a child, or as a teen or adult, is a big factor in suicidal ideation in many people.
What helps a person considering suicide to choose to remain alive? Usually four main things:
I. LISTEN and UNDERSTAND.
Listen to what they say, and try to understand. If they trust you enough to share their pain and feelings of hopelessness, shelve your fears for a moment, your panic, your pain and listen to their pain. Help them to feel you hear them; you are trying to understand their point of view, their feelings. This is not the time to share your feelings, or your reactions. The idea of sharing this, trusting somebody, and then feeling unheard or pressured in any way is horrific and can push the thoughts of suicide further, not dissipate them. Especially since the person may not be actively suicidal at the time. Perhaps they tried to speak up only after the intense feelings have temporarily subsided. If they feel unheard, they may not speak up in the midst of fighting suicidal thoughts again. Remember it is the suicidal person’s perception of being heard that counts, more than your feeling that you listened. Ask them if they feel you understood them.
II. FIND the ROOT CAUSE.
Find and then reduce or remove the root cause, if possible. After listening, trying to understand, next try to find the root cause, and then work on finding ways that may reduce or remove the pain and sadness, or the trauma, or emptiness, that is making that person think of suicide as a way to make it all stop. Ask questions; what happened or changed that began their pain? Is it bullying? Are they struggling with a mental illness (previously diagnosed or not)? Are they dealing with past or present trauma, like having been raped, or are they a survivor of child sexual abuse? There is a root cause (there might be more than one). Until the cause is dealt with, the effect can’t easily be stopped or changed. Some things can’t be removed. Some damage, like child sexual abuse, has no real cure. Some mental illnesses have no cure. Yet reduction of pain can be achieved in many cases with therapy, medication, change of environment, better support system, etc.
III. BELIEVE THEM.
Believe the root cause they tell you. Especially in cases of bullying, abuse, and trauma. For those who insist that some victims lie or “cry rape”, if you want to help a suicidal person, shelve that and believe them. If they were faking it, they probably wouldn’t feel suicidal. If somebody you love says another person you love is abusing them? Believe them. Suicidal ideation is a very good indicator they are telling the truth. Extremely rarely, very little children can get the perpetrator mixed up, it happens, but that’s an investigation issue. For the abused child in particular, their need to be believed is vital, even if the perpetrator they name causes you pain.
IV. Be their SUPPORT SYSTEM.
A good support system, be it family or friends, fellow survivors, etc. is a great and necessary thing for most of us. It is especially vital for a person having suicidal thoughts and feelings. Even if you once used one of the non-helpful things below in talking with that person, you can change and learn, and do better next time. The hard part is gaining their trust if you’ve made it waiver before. Even this can be corrected, though; just explain how you know you didn’t handle it well before, you weren’t prepared, but you are now, and you want to do better to help, and to listen. Most people with suicidal ideation problems who have tried to share their pain, do want you to listen; assure them you intend to now, even if you were less than prepared once before.
CAUTION: other people who have had suicidal thoughts before, or even attempted suicide, can be a helpful part of a person’s support system as they deal with suicidal thoughts, just as other abuse survivors can be an amazing help to survivors. Exercise caution when a member of a support system may also have suicidal thoughts, however. There are times when both people may be in a bad spot at the same time and hearing somebody else’s feelings of hopelessness and pain may be dangerous for a person having similar thoughts and feelings. (As I deal with bipolar, I sometimes have to distance myself from another person expressing depression thoughts and feelings, or suicidal ideation).
Things that definitely don’t help a person considering suicide:
- Guilt trips (There are too many types to list, most below are also guilt trips)
- Pep talks (Vapid or heartfelt)
- “So-and-so has it worse, so get over it.”
- “It’s against God’s plan for you.” (Not everybody believes in your religion, nor do they have to)
- “But you’re a beautiful girl/boy/man/woman.” (As if physical beauty was a ward against pain)
- “You have so much to live for.”
- “So many people love you.”
- “But your life is perfect.” (Seriously? Suicidal ideation is a sure-thing bet their life isn’t perfect)
- “Think of all you would miss out on.” (Like the pain and sadness?)
- “We would miss you.” (Sounds loving, but sounds to the suicidal like more guilt)
Notice how there are only four major steps for what helps, and ten for what doesn’t help? There’s more than ten, too, those are just a few of the ones I’ve encountered personally throughout my life. As I said above, I don’t want to shame anybody who may have used one of these ten examples; I want to help others see how those things make a suicidal person feel. If the goal is to help them, then listening, trying to understand, finding and changing root causes of pain, and being a part of their good support system is the way to help.
People tend to have a high drive to live, to survive. It can be very difficult psychologically and physically to carry out a successful suicide because of this. People who have suicidal thoughts don’t “want to die” as much as they “want the pain to stop”. Even if they say “I want to die”, they could likely stop the suicidal thoughts and feelings if their pain were to stop.
I have endured many years, almost two decades, of intense child sexual abuse, incest, torture, and most other kinds of abuse that adults can inflict on a child and teen. I have endured shame and guilt over things my abusers forced me to do, to myself and others. I suffer from rapid cycle bipolar, and various forms of physical, emotional, and mental damage from my abuse. Debilitating phobias, flashbacks, and a vicious complex PTSD problem compound the rest into a mess that often leaves me just trying to breathe from moment to moment. I have fought suicidal thoughts and feelings off and on since I was four years old. I have attempted suicide and survived more than a few times. I have come close in ways that would not have failed, and managed to stop, to survive. The reason I have survived? I don’t want to die. I want the pain to stop.
If you want to help a loved one who struggles with suicidal ideation, for any reason, any pain; please learn how to help them in a way that really helps them. Listen, Understand, Find a Root Cause and Reduce or Remove it, and be part of a good Support System. It bears repeating, because suicidal thoughts repeat too, until the pain stops.
If you suffer from suicidal ideation, you aren’t alone. Research the problem, find your root cause, and try to find a trusted person to speak to, or talk to a trusted therapist or counselor. You can find a way to stop the pain, or reduce the ravages of mental illness or abuse. Even if you feel nobody cares, somebody does; even if it’s just me. I care. For you. Because we share a similar pain, I care about you. I don’t need to know you to care about you.
If you want to stop suicide, don’t judge or guilt or shame us; please help us stop the pain. Please hear us. We just want there to be no more pain.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
Read more on Suicide.
Image credit: Megyarsh / Flickr