3 questions to ask someone if you think they might be suicidal
World Suicide Prevention Day is approaching on 10 September, which is also the same day as R U OK Day.
Suicide prevention is a topic massively close to my heart, having lost a couple of friends to suicide. A few more have made attempts to take their own life and I’m so grateful they are still around. I’ve also worked with a lot of clients in the field of mental health who are suicidal most of the time.
The suicide rate in Australia is now bigger than the number of deaths on our roads, and there has been an alarming increase is death by suicide among youth. In 2014 there was an average of 7.8 deaths by suicide EACH DAY.
The sad thing is, that feelings are temporary and CAN change. I’ve worked with many people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, and not one of them actually wanted to die – the reality of it is that they just don’t want to continue living the way they are living, and they can’t see a way out.
But there IS and CAN BE a way out for everyone who’s feeling this way. I’ve seen quite a few transformations now in people I’ve worked with and even for my own brother. My brother knew from the age of 13 that it wasn’t a case of if, but when, he would kill himself, and had 3 extremely serious suicide attempts. It’s literally a miracle that he’s still alive.
He never, ever thought things would change for him, but I’m so grateful to say that he’s now happily married with 2 young children. I’ve seen this amazing transformation in other people too – and if you’re feeling this way, it can totally happen for you too.
One thing I have learned in my years working in suicide prevention, as well as dealing with personal experiences with many people close to me, is that people are really scared to talk about suicide.
Suicide isn’t biased towards gender or other demographic – it’s a problem in every group of people across the world, and each year the problem has grown. We ALL have a responsibility to do something about it.
If you know someone who’s experiencing suicidal thoughts or who has made attempts in the past, chances are you spend most of your time tip-toeing on eggshells around them not wanting to say or do the wrong thing. I know that when my family was recovering from my brothers attempts, we were petrified of saying the wrong thing in case it led to him trying to kill himself again.
The harsh truth is that if somebody really wants to kill themselves, they will. Sure there are definitely things you can say to them that won’t help the situation (typical comments like “lighten up,” “just think positively” and “you’re slacking on your chores around the house” definitely won’t make them feel like they can talk to you about their feelings) – but don’t be afraid to ask blunt questions about their intentions.
The biggest question as a friend or family member of someone who is suicidal is usually along the lines of “is today the day?” or “are they thinking of killing themselves?”
I was so relieved to receive professional training in mental health around the topic of suicide prevention and be told that it is totally ok to ask direct questions like:
How are you feeling right now?
The campaign R U OK Day talks about this exactly – reaching out to have an conversation with someone you know isn’t doing ok, and asking them if they’re ok. Don’t wait for them to open up to you – reach out to them and ask. If they don’t want to talk that’s fine, but at least they know you’re willing to listen. Leave the door open for future conversations and let them know there is no judgement from you.
Are you having thoughts about hurting yourself, or killing yourself?
By asking this question, you aren’t going to make them more likely to go ahead and attempt suicide. The skill lies in asking this question in a very non-judgemental way, leaving them feeling safe in speaking to you about how they feel. Be prepared for whatever answer you get.
If they say yes, then ask them…
Do you have a plan?
By plan, I mean do they have the means to carry out suicide? Have they thought far enough ahead that they know exactly how they will do it and when? Have they considered the possible consequences such as who will find them? Have they made other arrangements such as writing letters to loved ones, do they have a will, what do they want done with their possessions?
Questions like this aren’t easy to ask, but it will give you an understanding as to how far they are in their decision to commit suicide.
Don’t ever try to ram your own judgements down someone else’s throat. This is their life, and you have no idea how they are feeling. We can show empathy, but don’t sit there and say “I know how you feel” if you’ve never been there yourself.
Talk to them about what they have tried in the past that may have helped them – counselling, medication, talking to people they trust, getting in touch with Lifeline or a suicide prevention service.
Let them know that although it is clearly very hard for them right now, there are people who care, and if they want help getting in touch with someone who can support them, you’ll be there (if that’s the truth – don’t make promises you can’t follow through on).
Tomorrow is a new day
There have been moments in counselling someone who is suicidal where we have come to an agreement that they promise to keep themselves safe that night, sleep on it, and come to see me again the next day. If someone is suicidal but also under the influence of drugs or alcohol, this will be amplifying their negative emotional state and it’s the worst time to make rash decisions and take actions that cannot be reversed.
The first time I came to this agreement with someone I was counselling I lay awake most of the night stressing about whether I would see them the next day – they did come in and I was so relieved. Over the years I have learned to let go of what the potential outcome might be. All I can do is do my best in trying to help someone, but ultimately I know that person will make their own choices, and if they 100% are committed to killing themselves then it will likely happen.
If I can leave the door open, and let them know I am there for them no matter what, then even if they do make an attempt, they’ll come back to chat to me if they wake up.
The worst thing you can do is be judgemental and isolate someone so that they won’t ever come to you for help. Social isolation, feeling judged and not having anyone they can open up to about feeling this way leaves people on their own with their thoughts and feelings, which is an awful place to be in.
If you or someone you know is struggling right now
Contact any one of the numbers below to get some support for yourself or someone you love:
Lifeline: 13 11 14 (Australia)
LIVIN – it ain’t weak to speak
Feel free to email me to chat through what you’re experiencing right now – firstname.lastname@example.org
Are you ready to stop struggling through life? Are you sick of feeling like you’re stuck in survival mode? Come and join my other members who are also on their journey From Surviving To Thriving.