When a friend admits to suicidal thoughts Keola uses the story of his own failed suicide attempts to help save his friend’s life.
It was three years since my last suicide attempt when a close friend knocks on the library window to get my attention.
Luckily I don’t have my headphones on so I notice him signaling me to come out. I find it strange that he can’t meet me in the library to talk since he can see I was in the middle of studying. Nonetheless, my hand is cramping and I need to take a break, so I pack up my things and meet him outside.
When we greet each other I can tell something is wrong. He is sitting nervously at a table near the library and looks out of sorts. I try to find out what he wants but before he can say anything he allows a group of students to walk past. Once they’re out of hearing distance he starts talking, but instead of letting me know what he wants he jumps around the topic until I ask him, “You don’t look too good. Are you feeling okay?”
This opens him up as he shares his darkest feelings and thoughts with me. I’m humbled by his honesty and trust as he lays bare his internal struggle with life. He feels overwhelmed and discusses his thoughts of suicide and, as I keep talking and questioning him, I find out how he plans on killing himself.
I sit there for what seems like hours with every word adding weight on my shoulders as I recognize that his life lays in my hands. I flash back to the time I was in his position and all I can feel is compassion. Without judgment or pressure I listen and then share my own story with him. I bare my soul as I hope to relay the message that he’s not alone. That the pain he’s feeling at that moment is not eternal and that life can get better.
By the end of the conversation I’m unsure of how to proceed. I’ve shared with him my story and now it was his choice to commit suicide or not. Should I let him go home? Should I call someone who can help? Who would that be? I hadn’t received any education in psychology or counseling so I made the mistake of not informing anyone else about the incident. Instead I asked him to call me when he got home and made him promise if he felt like hurting himself that he’d call me first. I assured him it wouldn’t be any trouble and that I felt responsible for his well-being.
He did call when he got home but when I tried to sleep that night I couldn’t help but roll around in bed. I wasn’t sure if I had made the right choice and all I could think about was the worse case scenario. When I awoke the next morning I quickly called his home and was happy to hear he was still okay. That was one of the longest nights of my life but in the end it was all worth it because the friend I helped is now married and has a child.
What would you do if you were faced with someone that is suicidal?
This is a question I was able to answer only because I had gone through it before and even then I had made the mistake of not calling the proper professionals to help. In some cases my situation might have ended tragically. There are many avenues for training and I’d encourage anyone interested to connect with a local suicide hotline for training or support. But here are four things that I learned from going through the experience of my own darkness and that of my friend.
1. Be aware. For many of us life is full of errands and deadlines involving our work and family. We are in such a rush to keep up with our chaotic world that we can easily miss people in need of attention. Unless we slow down we can fail to recognize someone’s cries for help that aren’t as obvious.
For example, when I tried to commit suicide I didn’t tell anyone my plans. However, I had shown signs of distress weeks before my attempt, which might have been recognized if people understood the warning signs. In comparison to my normal self I was withdrawn, I wasn’t sleeping much, and I constantly spoke disparagingly about myself. I was hoping someone would help me but nobody seemed to notice and if they did their concern was fleeting. It wasn’t until I tried to overdose on medication did people take me seriously and started providing me the support I needed.
Don’t let this happen to someone you care about. If you see signs like I exhibited or if you think the person you care about is acting out of the ordinary I would encourage you to have a talk with them. There is no harm in having a conversation that shows you care about them. It’s also important to note that there is a chance you may not notice or the person you love doesn’t show any signs. Not everyone does. Or when you talk to them, they still might not open up. This doesn’t mean you are responsible for their suicide.
2. Listen without judgment. Once you find those bread crumbs and you initiate the conversation, listening without judgment is one of the things I have found to be most helpful. I would encourage you to refrain from saying things like, “Come on life isn’t that bad” or “Suck it up.” No matter how good your intentions are you need to sit and listen to their story even when you don’t agree with it. Don’t minimize how they feel. Please remember that is their reality and the pain they’re feeling is real and there is no debate over that.
A big reason you should listen is to show that you care because when someone feels judged they are most likely to shut down communication or share only information that’ll be accepted. Furthermore, by listening you can pick up on bread crumbs that you need in evaluating how dangerous they are to themselves.
3. Ask questions. When you’re having a conversation with someone in distress it’s important to listen, which surprisingly involves asking questions. These inquiries can be used as a clarification on parts of their story you don’t understand. Keep these questions open-ended so the individual is allowed to share more information than just “yes” and “no”. Questioning not only helps you gain a better perspective on their situation, but it also gives the impression that you’re engaged with them, which I hope is true. Don’t fake it because it’ll show and that’ll make things worse.
Once they are done sharing their story you can ask these type of questions to help you gauge what you should do.
– Are you thinking about suicide?
– Do you know how you would do it?
– Do you know when you would do it?
These questions allow you to asses how much danger they are in. If the person has thought about it, has a plan and the means to do it their danger level is high. When this is the case you should call a local crisis center, dial 911 or take the person to an emergency room. No matter how they answer the questions though, if your gut says they’re in danger listen to those instincts.
4. Show support and follow up. What I saw in the case of my friend was that it helped that the support didn’t end once the conversation was over. Since you are the person they’ve confided in you they likely feel connected to you as my friend did to me. Perhaps you can help get them out on the other side of their dark days. This doesn’t mean you’re their counselor or responsible for their choices. However, following up with them is another show of support. Call them to find out how they’re doing and in the immediate week try to talk with them in person. The key is that they remember they’re not alone because they have a support system of people who care about them.
Taking these steps may be intimidating, but when confronted with a human being who is suicidal it’s likely that they need connection and conversation. I’m glad I took the time to talk with my friend and even though I made a few mistakes in my intervention I was able to get across to him that he was not alone. You don’t have to be eloquent or have a counseling degree to show someone that you care and if you’re able to convey this message you will make a difference. So put your screen down and take a look around, you may just find out that someone you love is in need.
Please, if you are having thoughts about suicide don’t wait until a friend is able to be there for you. Go to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or, find a resource in your country from this list of International Suicide Lifeline numbers. Talk to someone.
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Photo: Flickr/Hendrik Wieduwilt