It is important for everyone to learn a little bit about suicide prevention. Yes, I really mean everyone. The reason is that people who are considering suicide are more likely to reach out to a trusted friend or family member than go to an emergency room or mental health professional. Add to that the isolation and intense medical environment created by COVID-19 and this may be even more likely. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to be helpful. You just have to know enough to feel equipped and empowered.
The broad impact of this virus is placing some people at added risk for a suicidal crisis. There are so many things to consider, but, for our purposes today I just want to provide you with three of the most important concepts I’ve learned in my training as a therapist. It is my hope that even knowing these few things will help you feel better equipped to recognize and help someone in distress.
Many people who are suicidal don’t want to die, they just don’t want to live. I know that sounds like semantics but it is not. I have sat with a number of people over the years who said, “I do not want to die, but I can’t live like this.” Our bodies are deeply ingrained with a bunch of mental, emotional, and physical survival mechanisms that are designed to prevent our death. The level of psychological distress someone has to be in to overcome these stop guards is immense. Focusing in on their mental and emotional pain rather than our fear in hearing it moves us in the right direction. Simply listening and being present in their pain is “doing” something. Unless they are at immediate risk to harm themselves it’s okay to breathe, listen, and then find a way to get them professional help through a therapist or medical center.*
The other two concepts I want to share are language cues. They are things to listen for that may help alert you to the possibility that someone is experiencing a suicidal crisis.
Listen for hopelessness. When suicide feels like a logical solution, it is as though the distressed person has put on horse blinders. Psychologically, they can only see the problem in front of them and any belief that there is another path, solution, or option is lost. They have, quite literally, no hope for a change in their circumstances.
With the transition between the end of the school year and summer, I have heard from several people this week who are experiencing sadness as they consider how COVID-19 may affect us into the summer and fall. While it is very common for us to feel somewhat overwhelmed at how long things could be affected, most of us have hope that somehow/someday/someway we will figure it out. For someone considering suicide, this is not the narrative. You may hear things like, “I don’t think I’ll be able to do this for much longer” or “If we are isolated again, I won’t be able to make it”. Listen for phrases that indicate they do not think they will be able to adjust, cope, or that life will not be sustainable in future conditions. It is our hope to get them to pause their plan long enough to gain a new perspective through appropriate care.
Listen for “perceived burdensomeness”. This type of language is a tell-tale sign of someone in crisis. Perceived burdensomeness is when someone has convinced themselves that the world, their loved ones, their business, their spouse, or children will be “better off without me”. As the term suggests, they perceive themselves to be a burden. It is an insidious lie that tricks their mind into believing that they are truly helping people by not living any longer. And it’s dangerous because it allows the distressed person to have a “good” reason to take their lives.
With the loss of a job, income, identity in wealth, career, or ambition, it is easy to see how the extended effects of COVID-19 could create an opportunity for someone to think that they aren’t as valuable as they once were. If they can’t do as they did before or pursue the goals they had it can be challenging to rework a new sense of purpose. These distressed individuals can believe that having one less person to care for, the assistance of their life insurance money, or the freedom from “dealing” with their despair is a gift.
Okay, I know this is heavy stuff. I am a licensed mental health professional and my heart almost always does a quick flutter when I encounter a suicidal crisis. But, we must remember that with the right resources, suicide is one of the most preventable forms of death. It is very, very possible for people to recover from feeling this way. And to that end, the very best thing you can do if you find yourself in this scary, sacred, precarious place is…
Ask the question. I know it’s hard. But, there is zero evidence that asking someone about suicide makes them suicidal. Does it make you uncomfortable? Sure. Does it create an awkward moment? Possibly. Does it give the person the message that you care, find them valuable, and want to help? Absolutely.
Asking the question is the caring thing to do. But more importantly, it may just give that precious soul the window they need to see that someone cares, and the freedom or opportunity to say “yes, I need help”.
Be present folks. If this hideous virus has taught us nothing else, we have become beautifully aware of how slowing down, listening, and paying attention can benefit us. May we be able to do the same for those around us. It just may save a few lives.
*If you or someone in your life is experiencing suicidal thoughts, here are some resources to find the help you need: