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How To Help Someone Who Is Suicidal
...And no, it's not by posting the Suicide Prevention Hotline to your social media feed.
By joepeacock Posted in Blog on June 8, 2018 0 Comments
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On May 30, 2011, I tried to take my own life.

The last thing I did before I committed to killing myself was throw my phone into the river behind my house… So, telling me to call the suicide prevention hotline wouldn’t have helped. Not right then.

Not to say that it wouldn’t be well-intentioned, or coming from the right place. It just wouldn’t have done any good, at the moment where you really wish and hope it will.

And there’s the problem.

If you are posting to people who are depressed and suicidal that they should reach out to someone and ask for help, you’re probably doing so out of a place of love and compassion. But, you’re also probably doing it from a position of confusion and helplessness. You don’t know what else to do, and you can’t really get your head around it, so you’re doing what you think is best in the situation and hoping for the best.

It makes sense. The only trouble is, you can’t out-logic an emotional act. It’s not possible. And the bigger the act, the bigger our instinct is to try and help, and when we’re thinking logically, that usually means getting more impassioned and louder and more visible to the person (or persons) who we perceive is in trouble. Only, our timing is off, because it’s only after they’ve attempted suicide (and unfortunately in a lot of cases, succeeded) that the idea to help someone who is suicidal comes into our mind.

This is not a bad thing. It is not a wrong thing. It’s a human thing. It’s also not the right thing.

When people are suicidal, they are not rational. Taking your own life is not a rational decision. It’s a thoroughly and deeply emotional one, and it usually starts from a place of loneliness, isolation, inescapably, and pain. In that state, it’s not easy to reach folks, especially with words. With logic and reason. With anything less than stopping them.

The time for words is well before the suicidal part. It’s in the depression part (which is still deeply emotional, and requires finesse, but reaching out to people who are depressed is the exact right thing to do). It’s before the depression, during the isolation. It’s before the isolation, when they feel segmented and unloved and unaffiliated from any group, despite wanting to be those things.

Complicating the situation a bit more, some people want to be alone. These people are not depressed because they want to be alone. They are not lonely, just alone. And trying to tell the difference when you’re not that way is tricky at best.

So, what are you to do?

Posting the Suicide Prevention Hotline is a step. It’s not the most helpful step, but it’s better than sitting idly by while someone else suffers. Telling them what to do — even in the nicest sense — is also a step. Telling them to just reach out, or to get help, or to ask you for help, or to tell you what’s wrong… Those are still “better than nothing” but they’re also not the most helpful thing.

I know, it’s weird. But until you’ve been there — not just imagined it, okay, but REALLY been there with a gun to your head or a knife at your throat or pills in your stomach… You don’t know what you’re dealing with.

If you’ve had suicidal thoughts, you know that the desire to end your pain is the real goal. And here’s a fun stat: nearly 100% of human beings have wondered what it’s like to kill themselves.

But thinking about suicide and wanting to actually kill yourself are not the same thing. At all. Any more than sadness is the same as depression, or as coffee is the same as espresso, or Cup O Noodles is the same as the ramen you get in Japan. It’s just plain not. Looks the same, seems the same, and if all you’ve ever known, you might be excused for confusing them.

So that’s why I wanted to write this; for those of you who think you get it, or don’t get it at all, but want to help all the same. What I’m about to share with you isn’t meant to discourage you. It’s meant to give you a perspective so you understand what you’re dealing with, if and when you attempt to help.

  1. Suicidal people want out of whatever pain they are in, and they cannot imagine a future outside of that pain. Or, believe the work it will take is not worth it, or is Herculean in effort and unachievable). (Aside; Yes, some want attention and validation. They’re their own case. And to try to lump all suicidal thoughts into the same category is folly, as I mentioned above. Let’s not do that right now, okay?)
  2. They can’t see, hear, or think what you are trying to tell them when they’re suicidal. The only things going through their mind is a) it hurts so much and b) make it stop.
  3. They’ve already considered everything there is to consider, from their own vantage point through shit-colored glasses, and what they saw put them in the situation of wanting to end their own life.

Your job isn’t to tell them how to fix their lives. Your job is to get them to not end it. It’s all about right now, right this very second, every second until they’ve gotten past it. This might take minutes, or hours, or days.

It’s work. Some of us aren’t up to it. And that is okay. But if you choose to take it on; if you make a public display of being an ally or boast wildly on Facebook and Twitter and whatnot how to fix what’s wrong, and it’s as easy as asking for help or dialing this number… Know that you aren’t helping. You’re going through the motions of helping, and I understand it.

But you’re not helping, any more than telling the person in the horror movie they shouldn’t go upstairs. You’re not in the house, and they can’t hear you through the screen.

Suicide prevention is not an armchair activist’s hobby. It’s a real job, and it is going to take grit and determination and physically showing up. It’s going to take so much more than wishing, because if wishes worked, everyone I’ve lost to suicide would come back to life.

If you know someone is actively suicidal, call the police, and then go over to where they are (or call someone close to where they are) and stop them. Bust in the door. Do what you have to do.

If you know someone who seems suicidal and/or depressed (Another side note: THEY’RE NOT THE SAME THING, more on that in the, oh, 12 or so articles I’ve written on the topic), You need to be the one to reach out. Not them.

Not fair? Of course not. All of us are charged with taking responsibility for ourselves and taking care of ourselves. And here you are, faced with someone who isn’t going to do that. If you want them to stick around, you need to be the one to do save them. And I hate that for you, because I know that situation way too well — both from the suicide side and the savior side.

But this is the reality you’re in. You can preach at them to get help and tell them how to solve a problem you don’t have any experience fixing, and they’ll not listen one bit because they’re busy planning something far more convenient, quicker, and permanent.

Or you can do the work, even if it’s not yours to do. So how to do that:

  1. Telling someone “Hey, It seems something isn’t okay. I want you to know that if you ever need someone to just be not okay around, I’m here. And I’ll listen if you want to talk, or we can not talk at all and just have some coffee. Whatever you need in your moment, just know you have someone willing to share it with you” is a good start.
  2. Being present is even better. Show up. Take them out to dinner, coffee, shopping, ice cream. They need to leave the place they are where they feel comfortable working through thoughts of killing themselves. They MUST have an environment change. The cave — be it their apartment or bedroom or a literal cave — is a place of isolationist empowerment. It reinforces whatever narrative is going on in their minds that guides them down this path. You have to take them off that path.
  3. Encourage, and if necessary, force them to get help. The help will work. They need two things before they commit however: the desire to work on the program, and something to live for when the program is over. If you want to be that something, that’s going to help. If you can rally those somethings (kids, loved ones, and so on), even better. Do the hard work of educating those folks on what helps and doesn’t help. You can’t literally force pills down their throat, but you can force their eyes open to a goal to work toward.
  4. Empathy. Not enablement, or babysitting, or even a 100% feeling that you get it. They just need to know you care, and aren’t going to use that against them.

And one thing not to do: remind them of all they have to live for, or tell them how great they have it… you have no idea if that perfect marriage is actually poison, or if that high paying job is a hellhole, and you might be pushing a bruise. And even if they’re 100% peachy keen, don’t for a second think they haven’t already thought about them – they have and they want to die anyway.

Suicide sucks. Period.

Wanting to help is a big thing, and I really am glad you do. And if what you just read seems weird or strange or revelatory, that’s okay — this shit is not rational or common sense. It’s not logical. I hope to God you can’t relate, and never have to.

But reality is a funny thing. It doesn’t care about what makes sense or not. It’s just reality. And in reality, there are people in your life who may end up in a position where they wish to harm and kill themselves. In this situation, they aren’t rational or logical. But they are real.

And so are you.

So do something about it.



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