“It is critical to rebut hopelessness – to be aggressive. When persons are acutely depressed, they can only relate to the dark side; their judgment is totally distorted. Those closest to them must direct them to the sunlight once again.”
– Dr. Andrew Slaby & Lily Frank Garfinkel (1994, p. 136)
It’s unlikely that you could say anything which causes a suicidal person to suddenly see the light and realize how crazy this idea is. But you can say things that might pierce holes in the canopy of darkness that currently shrouds their life. Talking someone out of suicide is a matter of opening a sliver of hope in their otherwise bleak perception of things, then working to widen that sliver into a path that they can use to crawl back from despair. Here are some discussion points that can plant that sliver of hope.
Is there anything that still brings you joy?
It’s possible that the person might respond to this question by saying “no,” but this is a lie tainted by depression, and it’s your job to help remind them of some of their favorite things in life: A sports team, a particular hobby they have, or even a love for animals or kids. Remind them about positive memories pertaining to their various interests, and compliment them on any talents they have. If possible, try to make arrangements that will get them involved in these activities.
If you had a magical wand that could change your life in any way you wanted, what would it take to make you feel happy again?
What would be your ideal life? Questions such as this accomplish several goals. First, it gets them thinking more critically about precisely what it is that is missing in their lives. Second, by having a discussion about their ideals for happiness, it unwittingly plants even the smallest amount of hope into their psyche and reverts their thoughts from negative ruminations to more positive ones.
Finally, by inquiring about their idea of a good life, it opens the door for discussions about what could be done to start heading in this direction. It may open opportunities for you to plant other ideas they haven’t thought about or talk about substitutions for what is currently missing.
Engage in a little role play
Engage in a role play scenario whereby the suicidal person plays the role of prosecutor, trying to persuade a jury that he or she is deserving of a death sentence. Meanwhile, the other person plays the role of the defense attorney, countering these arguments and challenging the validity of the statements she makes. It’s a technique often used by cognitive psychologists that can help people see the irrationality of their beliefs.
Brainstorm for better solutions
In a casual tone and without lecturing, help them envision other paths forward that will end the despair without ending their life. Approach suicide as if it’s a potential solution, and then try to find better ones.
- Help them try and see scenarios under which their circumstances could improve.
- Bring up potential changes they could make in their life. For example, a teen who is deeply depressed because her mother is relentlessly pushing her towards a certain path in life may be unburdened simply to hear someone say that she’s not obligated to live her mother’s life. To a child whose always been subjectected to a “my way or the highway” approach, it may be the first time anyone has told her that she has another option besides miserably doing as you’re told or death. A teen devastated by bullying may not realize that home schooling could be an option. All people, but youth especially, tend to get so bogged down by their life as it is that they simply don’t consider the possibility that there are other options for how it could be. And even if they recognize there might be other choices, they can’t comprehend how they might get there. You need to help illuminate these paths.
- Pretend you’re kids again, and simply daydream about what could be. Tell them stories about other people who have been in the same position and talk about how things turned around for them. For example, author J.K. Rowling was living in poverty on government assistance. Her books had been rejected by numerous publishers. In her lowest of lows, she was thinking about suicide. Not long thereafter, she finally caught a break. Her books took off to become a whopping success, enriching the lives of hundreds of millions of readers and making her a billionaire in the process. Had she given up at her low point, she never would have discovered the success that was right around the corner. Not all of us can be a runaway success like J.K. Rowling. But it’s quite common – almost universal, in fact – for people to find that their circumstances improve if they can just wait it out. The waiting can be excruciating, but it also holds many potential payoffs.
- Talk about life in cycles. Help them understand that for as low as they feel, it’s a virtual certainty that this despair can’t last forever. That’s the way life works. It ebbs and it flows, and there will eventually come an end to these feelings that doesn’t involve death.
Pledge your help and support
All conversations should end with you pledging your help and support to try and get them through this. Accomplish this with a simple and sincere statement: “I don’t know in what ways I can help, or even if I can help at all, but I do know this: I want to ride this storm with you and help in whatever way I can.” Don’t pretend you can instantly fix things for them and don’t make it sound like you’re riding in on a high horse to save the day and rescue them from despair. Simply pledge to stand beside them and share in their struggles. Knowing that someone is there who knows they are hurting and wants to help can make a big difference.
Try and get them to make a pledge to you
In addition to your own pledge of support, you should try and get them to make a pledge to you: “Promise me that you won’t do anything without talking to me first.” If they refuse to pledge such a thing don’t push the issue (you can’t force them to), but explain that if they ever get to the brink like this again you really, really want to know about it, and would appreciate the opportunity to try and help them through it.