I am writing this post as part of a Suicide Prevention Blog Day Campaign. World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10.
USC’s MSW Programs Blog Day.
Three summers ago I was having lunch with my friend Ronalda and trying to figure out how to stop her from wanting to kill herself. She had spent most of that year in hospital from repeated suicide attempts. She told me she was going to try again. This time she felt her plan would work because she’d figured out what to do from her ‘failed’ attempts. I believed her.
I thought if there was a way to stop her, her husband, daughter and psychiatrist must be already doing it. I decided to go with what I knew. We didn’t have the same mental illness but I’d talked myself out of suicide dozens of times. I listened to her seemingly reasonable reasons for dying and I offered up what I used to say to myself.
I could tell from the way she wasn’t really listening that she wasn’t interested in being stopped. She just smiled as if to say “nice try but don’t bother”. She just wanted to have a nice lunch.
I felt useless.
I also felt conflicted because I know that suicide seems a reasonable option when you’re in unfathomable emotional pain. The thought of peace being that close is so tempting. I wanted her to find peace. I just had no options for her other than the one she had already thought of.
She killed herself less than 2 weeks later.
She was 48. (The rate of suicide for women peaks in middle adulthood.)
The following year I made a commitment to work in mental health peer support. As part of my training, I had suicide intervention training. Never before have a taken a course requiring so much Kleenex.
Here are some snippets of what I learned:
If you think someone may be considering suicide, ask them bluntly. Blunt questions are more likely to lead to an honest answer.
If you ask directly about whether they’re thinking of suicide, they’ll feel relieved that they can talk openly. Don’t ask in a way that says “Oh please let your answer be no”.
People at high risk of suicide have a plan and maybe even a backup plan, they feel desperate and in unbearable pain, have few resources or coping skills, find suicide to be familiar (they’ve attempted before or are comfortable with the idea) and have received mental health care.
Spend time listening to their reasons for dying and for living. They’ll want to talk about dying first. Don’t be too anxious to get them talking about living. Eventually ask about their reasons for living – they may not have bothered to think of any.
The goal is to create ambivalence – for them to want both dying and living.
The ultimate goal is to help them develop a safeplan and follow up with them on their commitments.
As I went through the training, I kept wondering if I could have stopped Ronalda. I don’t know. If I’d had this training back then, it would have been a different conversation. But I just don’t know.
I do know that if I find myself in this situation again I won’t feel so useless. Maybe I’ll even make a difference.
About the Author
I promote peer support and encourage people on their recovery journeys. My plan with this blog is to build a community of like-minded individuals offering ideas and encouragement from their own experiences. My master plan is to help create psychologically safe and supportive workplaces. I live in Calgary, Canada.