Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK have increased 25% since the recent deaths of two very notable people. The highly publicized deaths have shaken people with shock, fear, and awareness. The increases in calls are from friends of people they believe are in crisis and from people in suicidal or other emotional crises.
I support anyone who reads this short blog to investigate information about suicide and emotional crises. The warning signs for suicide are well researched and simply enumerated on several sites.
Most of us intuitively know when a friend is troubled. No one has to be trained to be able to pay attention to one’s own intuition. We do need, however, to be supported in breaking the rules of social decorum. We need to be able to take the risk of using our voices even if we are mistaken about someone or something.
If you suspect intuitively that something isn’t “making sense,” seems “off,” or just “doesn’t feel right,” trust that sense enough to ask about the other person. Let them know that you are afraid to ask, even, and still ask about them. Being afraid and still risking reaching out is notable as a form of caring to a person who is hurting.
Share your concerns.
Share your concerns, and share what you have noticed about the person’s external behaviors. Don’t tell them what they feel. Share what you have noticed and see. Let them tell you about their internal thoughts and feelings. While it is a risk, you have taken the first step in connecting to a person who might be experiencing a significant experience of alienation and isolation.
Meet them “where they are.”
Secondly, meet them “where they are.” That can mean listening to their experience, hearing the story of their sense of things, or asking more questions to see if they will share more. Don’t fix, minimize, or tell them they are wrong. Listen and ask more.
Thirdly, if you are alive, you know what emotional pain is. From that awareness, offer what one suicide prevention expert calls “unadulterated empathy.” Listen to how you can relate, i.e., understand what the other person might be feeling and how they could feel that way.
Empathy doesn’t mean you start telling stories. It is more about you being able to grasp how the other person could be in pain. Empathy can begin reconnection. People in crisis often have toxic shame, self-blame, and a sense of being the only one. Depression, addiction, and anxiety illnesses (all very real problems that people blame themselves for when they are not the cause; they are sicknesses) can drive a person toward self-contempt and isolation. Empathy can, at least, temporarily ease some of the sense of “being the only one.” It can form a “connecting door,” so to speak, out of isolation.
Ask the scary question.
Fourthly, it is very appropriate to ask the really scary question: “Are you thinking about harming yourself?” Regardless of the answer, whether it is “yes” or “no,” support them in reaching out for help with people who know more than you know about how to move through very, very difficult times. Let them know that you will stick with them, and plan on taking time to follow up. Get some numbers of specialists. Use your resources. Talk to someone who might could help. You are not the answer, but you are caring enough to help seek out help. You have stepped into a friend’s life when you respectfully keep their problems confidential, but not a secret.
You cannot truly be responsible FOR another person, but you can be responsible TO them—to express concern, to risk questions, to express understanding, to seek help, to be involved. It makes sense in today’s world to have the number of the suicide hotline or the name of a qualified therapist in your purse or wallet. In no way am I suggesting that these four steps are the answers to complex and serious problems in your friend’s life. They are, however, very real steps you can take to express the love you have for a friend.