Talking to a Suicidal Person
By: Beth McHugh 2007
Dealing with a person who is having suicidal thoughts is thankfully not something we have to deal with every day. Consequently few of us are prepared should such a situation arise. In How to Help a Suicidal Person, we looked at ways to address the immediate situation of dealing with an at-risk person. Today we look at further themes in helping a distressed person.
Listen non-judgmentally. In dealing with a potentially suicidal person, respect is paramount. To reach a point of thinking about ending one’s own life, the person has lost respect for themselves, so they most certainly need yours. This means listening to what they have to say in a non-judgmental manner.
Suicidal people are not weak. Indeed, they have probably struggled on against enormous pressures for some time before coming to the position you now find them in. Please be gentle with them, and do not label them weak, even in your own mind. Each moment they stay alive, they are fighting to stay alive, as they have lost their natural instinctive survival drive. The drive to survive at all costs is extremely strong in all life forms, and no person overcomes this instinctive drive without having encountered overwhelming life difficulties. On the contrary, for the suicidal person, suicide is seen as a means of coping.
Try not to be critical of them, or express frustration at the way they are thinking and feeling. This only serves to make the person feel even more isolated and abandoned. Avoid statements such as “pull yourself together” or “cheer up.” These two statements together constitute the most negative and harmful words that one person can say to another who is suffering mental illness. They are also the two most telling statements of the speaker’s ignorance. Naturally, if the person could “pull themselves together” or “cheer up” they would have done so long ago, without any assistance from you. What they now need from you is your compassion, your time, and your respect.
For the same reason, do not point out that other people have their problems, or that people in Africa are starving. The person you are talking to is trying to stay alive. So do not burden them with other people’s problems, or worse, try to minimize their problems by comparing them to those of others.
We will discuss helping the suicidal person in coming blogs.