by Leo. D Edwards MSW, RSW PhD
Registered social worker, clinical therapist and academic
I’ve not always been comfortable talking about suicide. Just the thought of it would muster up unpleasant and sometimes graphic imagery of suicide scenes from the movies and sometimes flashbacks from the unfortunate experiences I witnessed firsthand across my life journey.
Suicide for many is a difficult topic for discussion and even more complex for some to understand. Our minds are filled with all kinds of questions; what could have gone so wrong that someone felt that they needed to end to their own life? What was that person thinking? How selfish can they be? The truth is many of us at some point in our lives may have had thoughts of hurting ourselves, I know I have! Yet many of us will deny this truth because it is uncomfortable and seems reckless and weak. What is evident is that avoiding the truth of our distress will not help or bring “freedom”.
There is no refuting that it is sometimes difficult for us to be honest with our feelings and emotions. It is sometimes difficult for us to open up, it is sometimes difficult to know who and where we can turn for help, especially when it seems that all is lost. I suspect a good place to begin is by really trying to be honest with our feelings and maybe bringing some understanding to the complex realities of suicidal risk. The intent here is not to be clinical or diagnostic but all the more a subjective and informative sharing that would hopefully allow us to better understand and support those living on the edge.
Before we even begin to address the fears and hopelessness that surround suicide we must first address the language that is commonplace in our communities. People no not COMMIT suicide! People complete suicide or can be dead by suicide. What people can commit are robbery and other crimes. To criminalize suicidal thoughts, behaviours and attempts is an incredibly exclusionary practice and is isolating for the person that may have attempted the act. This may also lead to the unhelpful scrutiny on friends, family and the community of the person that may have successfully completed suicide. I believe if we begin to use language for suicide that is more rooted in compassion rather than condemnation and stigmatisation that it may be a step towards creating an environment where people might be much more open to share and talk about their emotional and mental health challenges.
On this note allow me to lay out a brief explanation on suicide before getting to how we can support those that are struggling.
- Suicide thoughts or ideation – at this stage people would have had thoughts of ending their life. They may say stuff like I wish I can go to bed and never wake up. At this stage they may be dealing with something that is causing some distress. They may not be in a good place, but at this stage, it is highly unlikely that this person will complete suicide.
- Suicide plan – at this stage suicide thoughts are a bit more serious in that the person now has a plan. The plan does not have to be elaborate or well-thought-out. It can be simple and impulsive, but any ideas on how you intend to kill yourself are enough evidence to take it seriously.
- Suicide attempts – at this stage the person would have obviously done something to intentionally end their life and is more likely to attempt again. Support and reassure the person that they are not alone is paramount.
How can you help?
- As I have mentioned above, we need to develop a different relationship with suicide; one that is not criminalized, stigmatized nor shameful. A good place to begin is with our language. You must first cancel your judgement. You cannot be helpful if you are also being judgemental, “point blank”!
- There is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent someone from completing suicide except for being present. This is a “jolting” declaration but it’s the truth. Your responsibility is not to save a life, your responsibility is to show up for that person, ask questions, and be a good listener. You can reassure that person that you care and that there is hope and maybe, just perhaps, that person may decide to choose life.
- Assuming you are not judgemental, asking the right questions (or sitting in respectful silence) and you are being a good active listener, you can then assume that you may be able to help. Although it may be helpful, you do not need to be a trained psychologist, therapist or social worker to help someone living with suicidal ideation. You can be a good uncle, a good friend, a good neighbour. Showing up for that person without judgement will signal that you care.
Without recreating the wheel, I have found this website to be helpful in recognizing the warning signs and kinds of questions to ask when someone is struggling with suicide.
On a side note, we must be very intentional with our response(s) to supporting people and families that are experiencing suicidal attempts. The masquerading of the deceased is never helpful to grieving and mourning family and community. I think we really need to become more mindful and to respond with much more understanding and compassion.
The only thing we should be sharing in great abundance on social media is love and respect with each other.