My last piece on suicidality was on the ways having to stay silent in the workplace makes being suicidal considerably harder. Let’s assume, though, that you want to remove the stigma around being suicidal or mentally ill and someone actually shares with you that they are suicidal. Today I want to talk about what happens then and what, in my experience, are good things to do when talking to someone who is suicidal.
First off, I don’t want this to come across as strict orders that you need to obey. Situations are different, people are different. Especially if the suicidal person expresses their preference for how they are treated. The most important thing is how you and the person who is telling you about their suicidality establish your mutual boundaries. I’m just hoping to give my own observations on what are helpful starting points. I’m not a mental health professional but I have experience in being on both sides of these conversations and I did run all of my points by a licensed therapist who has relevant experience.
So someone has confided in you that they’re suicidal. This is generally a good thing. Given the stigma involved, discussing being suicidal is very difficult and takes a certain amount of courage and trust. If the person trusts you enough to tell you, that probably bodes well for their future health. Why? Because in many cases being suicidal is about feeling trapped, or like you have no options, or even a general feeling of hopelessness. One thing that helps cause a lot of the feeling of isolation and hopelessness is not being able to talk about it; hence why I maintain that the inability to make room for suicidality in the workplace endangers laborers. On the other hand, talking about how you feel can lessen the feelings of isolation and being trapped. That’s why I say it’s a good thing if someone comes to you to talk about being suicidal.
It’s okay if it’s scary to find out that someone you know wants to kill themselves. It’s a normal reaction. On the other hand, try to not take this out on the person who is suicidal. Don’t tell them that they shouldn’t have said it. Don’t launch into a speech about how much they have to live for or how their feelings are wrong and they should just wait them out. Assume that the person talking to you has, at worst, ambivalent feelings about attempting and quite likely doesn’t want to attempt at all. I know from my own experience that when I have seriously had a plan and wanted to carry it out, that is not the time I tell someone how I’m feeling. The time I want to tell someone is generally days/weeks/months before the point of wanting to seriously attempt.
I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to back out of the conversation. You totally can! My partner and I have similar mental health issues and we have an understanding that the other person can walk away from a discussion of suicidality whenever they need to. What’s important is how you extract yourself from the discussion. Personally, I think it’s best to make it very clear that they’re not doing anything wrong by telling you how they’re feeling, but rather that you personally cannot deal with having the conversation at that time. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong if you can’t handle a conversation about being suicidal. It can be incredibly upsetting and, if you have mental health issues yourself, can cause your own stability to spiral down. It’s good to take care of yourself. Like my partner points out, it’s a lot like the messages on airplanes about how you should afix your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else with theirs. If you have an emotional or mental breakdown from someone talking to you about how they want to die, then it doesn’t do anyone any good. Get your own mask on first.
Another thing that I want to emphasize is that it’s okay to set boundaries, even with a person who is suicidal. I want to be explicit on this point because unfortunately abusive and violent people tend to “take themselves hostage” and make veiled threats about how if you don’t do this or that for them then they’ll have no choice but to kill themselves. I personally believe that most of those threats are hollow, but if you’re in a situation like that it won’t feel like a hollow threat. I promise, though, that you still have the right and the ability to negotiate boundaries.
Let’s say that you don’t need to back out of the conversation, what then? Well I think at this point the most important thing you can do, as obvious as it may sound, is really listen. You’re not necessarily being asked for help or for advice. For me, I’ve dealt with periods of suicidality so many times since I was 4 years old that I don’t really need advice for how to deal with it. What I need is a sympathetic ear to help me feel like I’m not carrying the burden all by myself. You don’t need to figure out how to solve the person’s problems. If the person wants advice, they’ll probably ask for help. I swear that there’s a certain boldness that comes from being in such a dark place and once you start talking you can be more blunt than usual. Listen carefully, and respond as seems appropriate. Try to listen completely before responding and don’t think you need to jump in and offer a solution.
The last thing I want to address is a misconception I’ve seen a lot: when someone tells you that they’re suicidal their life is not suddenly your responsibility. Their decisions are still their own. Pretty much nothing you could say or do short of “yes I think you should kill yourself here’s a convenient means have fun” is going to be the last straw that causes someone to decide to attempt. Most of us who’ve dealt with being suicidal are actually pretty resilient, despite the common perception that mental illness is a kind of weakness. I’ve lived through people saying the wrong thing to me when I was suicidal.
In summary, listen, don’t panic, and compassionately step away when you need to. That’s the start of how to talk with someone who’s sharing that they’re suicidal.