Suicide Prevention Month: Empathy and Support in Moments of Crisis?

by Sep 30, 2020

In the time it will take you to read this article (about 12 minutes), 1 person will have died by suicide (Center for Disease Control Prevention). Notice I did not say “committed” suicide. If you think about it, what other acts do we often say one “committed”? A crime? A sin? A person who dies by suicide is neither criminal nor sinner; they are a human being, like you and me, who was in so much pain they were determined to find relief in any form.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and has become a public health crisis. It is preventable and talking about it can save lives. Each one of us has a responsibility to prepare for when someone close to us needs our nonjudgmental empathy and support. In this post I hope to change common perceptions and misconceptions of suicide. But most importantly, I hope to help you feel a little bit more confident supporting a loved one through what may be the most difficult time of their life.

Myth: Suicide is a selfish act.

Fact: People who are contemplating suicide want connection to others and to feel accepted. They are simply in so much inner pain that they doubt the ability of others to help or they perceive ending their life as a way to get some relief from the pain without becoming a burden on their loved ones. The kind of heavy depression that contributes to suicidal thoughts is a mental illness that discourages connection and encourages isolation. Sitting with someone as they experience that kind of suffering is an act of deep caring.

Myth: If someone is set on ending their life, there’s nothing a person can do to stop them.

Fact: People who are considering suicide are fairly ambivalent about death. It’s that they are in so much pain and inner turmoil that they have become fixated on one means of ending their suffering. If they knew there were other ways to ease their intolerable suffering, in time they might open up to the possibilities.

Myth: Talking about suicide makes it worse.

Fact: When someone is in so much psychological pain that they are considering ending their life, the stigma of suicide often prevents from them from reaching out for help. They want to talk; they aren’t sure if it’s safe to do so. It is difficult to admit—even to people we love and who we know love us—that we are struggling with mental illness. Imagine trying to work up the courage to tell that person you don’t want to live anymore because you can’t imagine living this way any longer. The fear and stigma that person experiences is powerful. Acknowledge their pain and ask the question that can start a lifesaving conversation, “Are you thinking about ending your life?”

What to Say

It is not easy to sit with someone in pain. We feel helpless; we want to fix or solve the problem; we want them not to hurt any longer. Not knowing what to say can compound these anxious feelings, so here are some recommended ways of asking about suicide and providing support.

“Are you thinking about ending your life?”

As a crisis counselor for the Crisis Textline, I was trained to ask every texter about the risk of suicide and move through a series of steps if there is an affirmative answer. But anyone can ask the first, most important, question. I encourage you to practice saying it out loud in a variety of forms to help with the initial anxiety of being in a crisis situation: 

“Are you in so much pain that you are thinking about killing yourself?”

Being direct and clear is important. If we allude to suicide but don’t directly ask, then ambiguity can cloud our efforts. “Are you thinking dark thoughts?” is vague, and “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” won’t make sense to the person because they see suicide as an end to the pain, not the cause of it.

“Are you considering taking your own life?”

If the answer is “yes,” or “sometimes” then you can seek the following resources on behalf of the person. Both the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Textline are prepared to support third party callers/texters, which means we are trained to help you support your loved one through the conversation.

Resources for Reaching Out in Moments of Crisis

  • 911: If there is an imminent risk and you are concerned for the person’s safety, you can call your local law enforcement agency. They are trained to help.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255
    • Veterans press “1”
  • Crisis Textline: text HELLO to 741741

Resources for Better Understanding and Empathizing

Self-Care for the Caring/Caregivers

Now, just as I have been told each time I learn and discuss suicide prevention, I encourage you to take a moment for yourself. Suicide is a heavy topic and it may be helpful to do some intentional breathing, debrief with a friend or colleague, or journal for a minute. Do whatever you need to do to process any emotions or thoughts that came up as you read this—including this acknowledgement: Thank you for being open to learn more and join the ranks of millions of Americans committed to suicide prevention.

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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