Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Help suicidal people with love, not condemnation

Recently I have seen a social media post going around that uses the hashtag #SuicideAwareness. It starts out with, "Wanna kill yourself? Imagine this." It then goes on to paint a horrible caricature of the impact an individual's suicide would have on the lives of others. Family members, friends, enemies, teachers, community members, etc. would end up with painfully shattered lives. The blame for this is laid squarely on the shoulders of the person considering suicide.

While the long post ends with encouragement such as, "Don’t end your life, you have so much to live for," and "I’m here for absolutely anyone that needs to talk, no matter who you are," the main gist of the post is that you are a bad person for contemplating suicide. It seems telling to me that I have mostly seen this post re-posted by people that have never personally grappled with suicidal thoughts in a serious way.

The post seems to have been written with good intentions. But I feel that it fails to comprehend the real reasons people become suicidal. It may actually encourage rather than discourage suicide. I am no expert on the subject but I have learned a thing or two from working with professionals that have helped loved ones who were suicidal.

Very few people that are suicidal really want to die. They find themselves in intense pain that seems inescapable. They feel that they are out of options. Nothing else they've tried has worked. Now they are down to their last option. Most already find that option horrifically distasteful. But they will take that route if there's no other way.

Of course this is an irrational approach. Of course there are other options. But a suicidal person's state of mind prevents them from comprehending those paths as viable alternatives.

Our son has confided to us that he has pulled back from the brink of suicide a number of times because he didn't want to cause his loved ones pain. This shows that the power of love is pretty strong. The referenced post plays on this innate human love, but it does so by using a shaming approach that seems detrimental to the intended message.

Most people contemplating suicide already know it's bad. Most already feel that they are bad for having suicidal thoughts. They don't want those thoughts but they can't get rid of them. It seems to me that making a suicidal person feel even worse for experiencing those pervasive thoughts is more likely to add to their pain, which already seems unbearable to them.

Years ago a young man in my young adult ward took his own life. I felt angry (a common stage of grief). In retrospect I can see that I was selfishly concerned about how this man's death impacted me. I have noticed that the referenced post usually pops up in the aftermath of a suicide. Maybe re-posting those hard words is a response to the anger stage of grief. So I guess it's understandable.

But I really wish people would learn more about suicide. People with suicidal thoughts don't need our anger or our judgment. They need help. The vast majority of people contemplating suicide can be saved with a little effort.

According to Mental Health America "Eight out of ten people considering suicide give some sign of their intentions." SAVE.org says that 80-90% of those that seek treatment are successfully treated. This means that there is hope.

If you become aware of someone exhibiting suicidal warning signs, stay with them and get treatment for them. Call the suicide hotline in your area, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), call 911, or accompany the person to a hospital emergency room. Do this even if it's socially awkward and even if you don't know the person well. You can save a life.

The National Institute of Mental Health says that warning signs include:
  • Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
  • Talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no reason to live
  • Making a plan or looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online, stockpiling pills, or buying a gun
  • Talking about great guilt or shame
  • Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
  • Feeling unbearable pain (emotional pain or physical pain)
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Using alcohol or drugs more often
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Taking great risks that could lead to death, such as driving extremely fast
  • Talking or thinking about death often
  • Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from very sad to very calm or happy
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Putting affairs in order, making a will
Ask questions if you see any of these signs. Do not expect suicidal people to respond to a blanket invitation to chat. Be pro-active in asking questions.

Our family has learned that it's not just OK to ask blunt questions; it's necessary. People are sometimes afraid that asking direct questions about suicide might encourage suicidal thoughts, but research has found quite the opposite. Don't freak out and don't act judgmental. Act with care and concern. Some of the questions you can ask are:
  • Are you contemplating suicide?
  • Do you have a plan for harming yourself or taking your own life?
  • Do you have access to weapons, sharps, alcohol/drugs/chemicals, or other things that you might use to harm yourself?
  • Are you safe with yourself?
Let's face it; suicide is a scary topic. It hits lots of emotional and moral buttons all at once. We never like to have our lives touched by suicide. But the reality is that some people around us struggle with suicidal thoughts. We can't expect them to think rationally about the matter, so it's our duty to step up and help them. We are more likely to be successful when we approach this with loving concern.

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