“When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.” ― Kay Redfield Jamison,
When I was in training to become a student counselor in college, we were taught how to respond to persons who seemed to be suicidal. Some things we should look for included: 1) Sleeping an inordinate amount of time or not sleeping at all; 2) Showing no concern for hygiene; 3) Skipping meals; 4) Excessive drinking or using other drugs. To an extent, these behaviors can be exhibited in any college student, in any one for that matter. But if they were prolonged and pronounced, we should have a close conversation.
When I have talked with someone who was suicidal, I tried at first to assess options. “What can you do to feel better, to have more hope?” Often they have been unable to express anything, saying things like, “I’m just hopeless. I have no reason to live. I am a burden to my friends and family.” When I have heard those things, I popped the essential question, “Are you going to kill yourself?”, and the follow up if they say yes, “Do you have a plan?”
This is what I have been taught about suicide prevention. This is what I believe to be the best approach. Look at changes in lifestyle, in mood. Talk about life and death perspectives, listen for signs of hopelessness and despair. When we do these things effectively, both on a personal and public scale, we will surely reduce the number of people dying by suicide.
But can it eradicate suicide? Not at all. No parent, no loved one should carry the burden of doubt that if they could have been more perceptive, been there when most needed, noticed the signs and responded sooner, then there would have been a different result. This is a natural feeling for loved ones left behind, but it is far from objectively true.
Each suicide is absolutely unique, there is often no way to anticipate it. For me, it came after an extended period of feeling great. I had a sudden set-back and in no time at all had taken enough pills to kill me. For others, they hide for days or weeks, preparing themselves for the act, feeling shittier and shittier. Still others take a dramatic leap.
One thing I caution people to avoid doing is thinking that the person who attempts suicide is just trying to get attention. In a sense this is very true. But it is attention desperately needed for a pain inside them that keeps growing worse, that won’t go away.
We all need to pay closer attention to each other, for sure, but particularly to those who are hurting emotionally. It can often consume our time and energy. We may need to take breaks from time to time if it becomes chronic. In fact, I recommend to persons in great emotional pain to have a phone list of loved ones they can call, so they don’t wear one person out. Or become dangerously needy on that one person. Nobody can meet all the needs of anyone, as much as we want. When we try, in fact, we may send an unintentional message that we can save a loved one from harm, even self-harm. Our relationship becomes sort of a life-or-death pact we are bound to lose.
Have you or has someone you know been impacted by suicide? How did you deal with it?
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, I pray you reach out. To a friend. A pastor. A counselor. They should connect to professionals who are trained to best respond to such situations.
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