Don’t Talk About It!


Here is one of the big myths.  I’d say one of the top two. It goes like this:

If you think someone may be suicidal, do not talk to him or her about it!  It will propel them into attempting suicide.


What’s this myth all about?

There is no getting around it. The possibility of suicide is frightening - even to experts; even to experienced psychotherapists.   Someone attempting to take his or her own life is a harrowing thing to contemplate, and because of that, most people feel intimidated by the topic and believe they are ill equipped to offer even simple help to someone who may be stuck and suffering. Because of this, the entire subject has spawned myths that leave everyone unnecessarily hesitant and fearful.  From time to time, I’ll blog about the most prevalent ones, and this is the perfect fallacy with which to begin.

Where do we start? First, is with your expertise.  Truth is, you don’t have to have any.  You don’t need a Ph.D or a Master’s in Social Work to help someone who is suicidal.    You don’t need to do dream analysis or fashion some fancy interpretation that has to do with someone’s childhood. You don’t have to be a therapist to be a friend.

So, what kind of tools are needed?  Simple, your own humanity.  Just yourself, unadorned.  Maybe another way of saying it, is that you need heart and a pair of feet.

The Heart Part:

This has to do with vulnerability…ours!  One of the most popular TED lectures this past year, and recent New York Times Bestselling book, is Brené Brown’s, The Power of Vulnerability. In it, Brené acknowledges that so much of our world is ambiguous and unpredictable, just by its nature, that the most authentic, and useful response, is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  She writes:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. It is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy; the source of hope, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose … vulnerability is the path.

What does that mean?

It means, keeping the conversation open, despite the fear. Much of the conditioning one receives in western culture teaches us to keep a tight lid on our emotions and not show much; to gather a cloak of protection around us in the face of what we don’t know or what we can’t control. Helping someone who may be suicidal, or in any kind of emotional pain involves the opposite.  People who are caught in suicide’s horrible sway still share their most salient qualities with everyone else – they are people who have emotions, who, most often, have very good minds that have become caught in a deep trough.  Their thoughts, which tend towards worry, loop over and over, predicting defeat or loneliness.  And, most often, they have great hearts, often very big and empathic hearts, that have constricted in fear.  Sound familiar?  Is there anyone for whom this hasn’t been true at some time or another?  True, their loop is tighter and the gravitational pull towards the negative can be much, much greater. But it’s all still very much human.

So, what can I do?  It’s simpler than one thinks.  You don’t have to take on the whole of someone’s problems.  And, you don’t have to fix anything.  You just have to help them, get help.  If you sense that someone you know or love may be suicidal, tell them. Let them know your sense of them, your guess that maybe they have been thinking of suicide and you are concerned and want to help.  That’s pretty much it for the ‘heart part’.

Again, our fear is that someone will run away screaming, tearing their hair and clothes.  Usually, there is quiet acknowledgement, maybe even relief, some conversation…and then the next part…the feet.

The most skillful thing we can do is tell people we will help them find help…usually in the form of:

  •         a suicide hotline (800-273-8255, National Suicide Hotline)
  •         the name & number of a therapist,
  •         and a simple plan to be safe until then.

It may go something like this:  I know you’ve been thinking about this, and I’m concerned for you.  Can I help connect you with someone?  I’ll stay with you as you make the call.  I’ll drive you to your new therapist.  I'd like to check in with you on the hour for awhile, until you feel safe. Who else can we include in this to make sure you are safe for now?

Is it foolproof?  No, nothing is, even for therapists.  Does is have the capacity to break through layers of protection and cloaking (see, my last blog, The Mask)? Yes. Surprisingly and powerfully so.  All that’s needed is for friends and loved ones to lean in a bit, push past the fear that arises in everyone about suicide, and try to connect with the person in pain. You don’t even have to be good at it.  The heart part - the authentic intention to connect and engage - will outweigh any skill that you do or don’t have.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about people who began their turnaround, their road back to life with the simple, humble overture from others. It’s extraordinary sometimes, how little, has accomplished so much.