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  • Writer's picturePaula Fontenelle

What should I do if a friend is contemplating suicide?

In my previous post, I talked about warning signs, so the natural question after that is: what should I do if I believe that someone is thinking about suicide?

The first thing to do is to be direct about it. No beating around the bush. There is a myth about suicide that if you bring it up you could put the idea in someone's head. The opposite is true. Being open about it will possibly bring relief to the person. When this is done properly, that is, without judgment, this attitude will help validate what they are feeling. I have seen it happen firsthand.

One day, I received a call from a friend that I had not seen for a while. At the time, the theme of suicide was quite familiar to me. I had already published my book and knew of the warning signs, so a few minutes talking to her were enough to sense that something was off. I can’t recall what she said, maybe it was the sound of her voice, but I remember what I did. “Are you calling to say good-bye to me? Are you thinking about suicide?” I asked.

She burst into tears and explained all the details she had carefully prepared so that she could end her life the following week. After listening to her for a long time, I assured my friend that although I could never truly know what she was feeling, I could tell that she saw no way out of her situation. This is relevant because a suicidal person often has a constricted view of the problem. Their sense of hopelessness interferes with their perception. By acknowledging that, you build a solid foundation to start a constructive dialogue.

The next step is to try to identify where they are in terms of planning. Think of self-inflicted death as a continuum that starts with thoughts, which can be situational or frequent, and moves toward ideation, attempt and completed suicide. Being able to determine in which stage the person is will define the type of intervention needed.

My friend had already bought a lethal amount of medication, a ticket to a city far from where she lived and had a day and time set for the attempt, so I knew that it was an emergency. At the same time, I felt that after we talked, she was more serene and calm. I asked her to give me a chance to set up an appointment with a psychiatrist, and three days later, she was diagnosed with depression.

Most suicides are associated with a mental disorder that is either inadequately treated or remains undetected. In her case, I could see many symptoms of depression, so it seemed the best course of action at the time. This happened eleven years ago. She is still alive and well.

Be proactive. Many times, after listening to someone who is in distress we say things like “if you need to talk to someone, call me” or “I’m here in case you need a friend.” Instead of waiting for them to take the initiative, do it yourself. Be present. Send a text, call them, show them you mean it. Pain immobilizes people. They may be feeling alone or thinking that no one will understand what they are going through, so if we keep a distance, we may validate this belief.

Try to broaden their support system.

Nothing is more healing than feeling loved.

Involve friends, family members - with consent -, mental health services (in schools and colleges, for example), and religious communities, if that’s the case. Helping a suicidal person is an extremely stressful task. No one should do it alone.

Finally, a few tips on what to avoid:

  • Right and wrong statements, like "You shouldn’t” or "That's not true.”

  • Even if you feel shocked, try not to show it because it can keep the individual from opening up.

  • No clichés, such as "you have everything to live for” because it can reinforce the shame and guilt they are probably already experiencing. The same applies to statements like "You will hurt your family," "Suicide is for cowards," or "Suicide is the easy way out.”

And remember:

Self-preservation is the most primal of human instincts, so any inclination toward self-inflicted death must be taken seriously. 
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