The discussions you have with someone who is thinking about suicide needn’t follow any set script, but you should try and touch upon the following subjects of conversation:
What problems are you having?
This simple, non-judgmental statement should start off the conversation. Not “what’s your problem?” or “your problems can’t be that bad,” just a simple, non-judgmental inquiry into the struggles they are facing.
Don’t say “I know how you feel!”
Teens hate it when adults claim to know how they feel. so instead say something like “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now” or “Try to make me understand what you’re feeling.”
How long has this been building?
How long have you been thinking about this? Is there something that recently happened, or is it a bunch of smaller issues that have just progressively gotten worse? By asking them how long they’ve been mulling over this thought, you can get a better idea about the nature of the crisis.
If the answer is not long, then…
- Don’t you suppose life could change for the better just as fast as it changed for the worse?
- Is this one crisis really so big that it should end your life?
- How long do you feel is an appropriate time to wait in order to allow things a chance to get better?
If it’s been building for some time, then…
- It must not be any particular thing, but the accumulation of many negative things. Could fixing just some of these problems tilt things back in a positive direction? How many would need to be fixed?
- If some issues can’t be immediately rectified, are there ways to better deal with them? What about ways to balance out the pain with more positive experiences?
Do you feel there’s something wrong with you individually, or is it just circumstances?
People who become suicidal often believe that their problems are intractable – something that emerges because of who they are rather than the circumstances they are experiencing.
They may believe that there’s a part of them that is fundamentally wrong (sexual identity issues?) or inadequate (I’m too ugly to ever find love) or that they are simply built in a way that will prevent them from ever being happy (too sensitive, too attuned to the problems of the world) and so on. If a person believes that there is some aspect of themselves that is simply incompatible with the world, you need to find this out and try to erode such a belief. Talking about specific problems until you’re blue in the face won’t make a bit of difference if the suicidal person believes that inherent flaws in themselves are what create these problems.
If they mention anything or engage in a discussion on this topic, you should. . .
- Listen carefully and non-judgmentally, encouraging them to explain what they feel about themselves is wrong and why they are different.
- Don’t argue their conclusions outright, but challenge them passively. For example, if a teen insists she is ugly, you might respond with something like, “it’s shocking to hear you say that, because I’ve always thought you had a special kind of unique beauty about you. I know other people who think so too. So what leads you to the conclusion that you’re ugly?” This way you’re not openly calling her belief silly, but you’re still challenging it and directing the conversation towards how these ideas were implanted.
- Don’t try to insinuate that these traits are common or that everyone feels the same way as she does. It’s not true, and it only reinforces the idea that something is wrong with them. After all, if everyone feels these things but only she is suicidal, then there must be something screwy in her head that makes her want to die over things everyone feels. You should, however, point out that everyone at one time or another has their own unique set of qualities that seems to create conflict with the world. There are people who are narcissists, some people are highly sensitive, others struggle with depression, each person has different insecurities, and so on. Then talk about what qualities in themselves are giving them trouble and encourage them to think about how this might sway their thoughts.
How to stop someone from committing suicide
What do you hope to accomplish?
To someone considering suicide, death is a solution to the problems they are experiencing. So to understand their frame of mind, you want to understand what they believe this solution will accomplish for them. It can be as simple as putting an end to the pain or as complex as believing that by removing themselves from the equation it might unburden family members to live a happier life free from the responsibilities of caring for them. It might be a way for an isolated teen to shock others into noticing them – a sort of “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone” or “I’ll make them notice me” type of scenario. Each of these scenarios presents a different set of symptoms.
As you discuss what they hope to accomplish by committing suicide, you should also try to work in talking points such as . . .
- What do you think happens when you die? Do they believe in an afterlife and plan to go to heaven? Becoming a free spirit to wander the universe? Or do they view death as simply an abrupt end and eternal darkness?
- If they were wrong about this belief, would it change their thoughts about killing themselves?
- How do you expect others to react? If they were to react differently, would this change things?
- If such and such issues in your life were to be resolved, would you still be considering suicide?
What are the ripple effects?
Without lecturing them about how their suicide might hurt others, have a discussion to help them envision the consequences; not just immediately but far into the future…5 years, 10 years, and so on. How would it alter the Universe in terms of any future children they might had, the lives those kids might have lived, and any good that might have been accomplished?
If it’s a young person, ask them to imagine their ideal mate, the one they might meet and marry 10 years from now, and how disappointed that person would be to lose the love of their life before they even met. How different that person’s life would be. It’s a non-judgmental way to try and get them thinking about the potential consequences beyond the immediate and present.
Help them see depression as a separate condition
Talk to them about how the brain works. About how certain chemicals can work to keep us from thinking clearly, or how self-reinforcing cycles can start in our head that make things seem worse than they really are. Try to help them see depression and despair and mental illness in general as a condition to be treated, much like you would a cold.