Opinion: My loved one has thoughts of suicide ... now what?
"Sometimes I think that maybe everyone would be better off if I were dead…"
Unfortunately, having thoughts of ending one's life is common. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that almost 4% of adults have had thoughts of suicide in the past year. Research also shows that most people share their intentions with someone else prior to making an attempt (Western Michigan University Suicide Prevention Program).
So how do you respond when someone shares this with you? What can you do to support a loved one who lives with suicidal ideation? Unless the person is in imminent danger, here are a few tips for responding in a way that can show your loved one that you are a safe space for them to open up to:
• Remain calm: Suicide is taboo in many cultures. Many people living with suicidal ideation worry about how their loved ones will feel, perhaps they will cry, get angry, dismiss them, panic or otherwise respond in a way that is unhelpful. Take deep breaths and focus on what this is like for your loved one. Remember that talking about suicide doesn't make someone more likely to attempt suicide.
• Show non-judgment: If it is difficult to understand your loved one's perspective, one of the best ways to show non-judgment is to really listen. If you still don't understand, it is OK to be honest about that, "I don't quite understand what this is like for you, but I am trying to understand; thank you for telling me." If you don't know what to say, it is OK to be honest about that as well, "I don't know what to say but I am so grateful you told me."
• Don't make it about you: Sometimes when a loved one tells us they have thoughts of suicide, it can bring up feelings of fear and failure in us. It is important to focus the conversation on your loved one living with suicidal ideation when you are with them.
You may have thoughts of "How did I fail my child/sibling/parent/family member/friend? Can I trust them to stay alive when I am not around? How is this happening?" Your feelings and worries are valid, so what do you do with those feelings?
Clinical psychologist Susan Silk can help us visualize this with "Ring Theory," which is basically, "How not to say the wrong thing:" If you draw a circle, the center is the person at the center of the current trauma. This is your loved one experiencing thoughts of suicide. Next draw a larger ring around the center. In that second circle, put the name(s) of those next closest to the trauma. This may be you. Repeat. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Depending on the situation, most likely parents and children before more distant relatives. More intimate friends go in smaller rings, less intimate friends go in the outer, larger ones.
• Now the rules: "The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, "Life is unfair" and "Why me?" This is about them. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings." In a nutshell, when you are with them, make it about them. Then, when you aren't, make sure you give yourself space to feel your feelings.
• Show/get support: It can be helpful to ask your loved one if there is anything specific you can do to help support them, which is often better than guessing what they want. You can also invite them to return and tell you if they can think of new ways you can support them. If your loved one is open to it, you can create a safety plan together. Try googling "Suicide Safety Plan Template."
Lastly, we aren't meant to do this alone. We can't support others when we don't have support for ourselves. Create a support system: people who can help support you, which includes, peer groups, support groups, online and social media groups, therapists, counselors, mentors, and 24-hour crisis hotlines out there. This is a starting point.
If someone is in crisis please call the National Suicide Prevention LifeLine, 800-273-8255. If someone is in imminent danger, please call 911.
Breaking the Silence
In 2019, newsrooms across Oregon joined together to highlight the public health crisis of death by suicide. Our goal with "Breaking the Silence" is to not only put a spotlight on a problem that claimed the lives of more than 800 Oregonians last year, but also examine research into how prevention can and does work and offer our readers, listeners and viewers resources to help if they — or those they know — are in crisis.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
Lines for Life YouthLine: 877-969-8491
Melissa Swan is a master's of social work student at Pacific University, with experience working as a support group facilitator for survivors of sexual assault and their supporting loved ones. She is a mental health counselor for people experiencing substance use disorder and is taking a course on suicidality in marginalized populations.
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