Teens in Crisis: What Should I Say to a Suicidal Teen?
Talking with someone about their suicidal thoughts is never easy. “I had family and close friends who didn’t know what to do and didn’t do anything. It was hard for me not to be resentful of that,” says a young woman who struggled with depression at the age of 14. “People react in different ways at different times, but also accept help in different ways. Some friends would try things and I would snap at them and they just wouldn’t try again. But others would keep trying until they found something that helped,” she says. “Sometimes people, not even close friends, would surprise you and give you exactly what you need.”
In an article for the Australian version of VICE magazine, writer Laetitia Laubscher interviewed young people that know, from firsthand experience, exactly how it feels when you’re having suicidal thoughts and the people around you don’t know how to help. Speaking anonymously, they shared their thoughts to make it easier for others to understand.
“If I let someone in on what I was going through, it would throw them off,” a young man admitted. “You don’t want someone to ‘feel sorry’ for you because you haven’t slept for days because of your anxiety. You want someone to be mindful of what you’re going through and how it [lack of sleep] would impact you.”
It’s difficult to know what a loved one or friend might need, Laubscher writes.
“It’s just about knowing the person and picking up on non-verbal body signals. You can ask what they need too, but it depends on the person or how fragile they’re feeling whether they can give you an answer,” a young woman explains.
“It is a fine line between being there to support you, but not babying you. I would get defensive if they tried to spoon feed me by saying stuff like, ‘Okay, it’s time to get up and go for walk.’ I’m an adult. Don’t take away my autonomy. Don’t make me feel like a victim.”
“Distinguish between facts and your opinion,” the young man adds. “Assuming you know what’s going on isn’t helpful. Instead of saying, ‘You’re this and you should this,’ you should say something like, ‘I can’t understand what’s going on, but what I see is this and I think this.’”
“You can’t assume how someone feels, even if you’ve had depression before,” the young woman revealed. “I used to hate people saying ‘I know how you feel, this is what we’ll do.’ It’s better instead to say, ‘What can I do?'” Sometimes, she explains, it not even about what you say, it’s more about what you can do for them. “What helped me was knowing that there were people I could call at 3am in the morning and they would come over and be there for me.”
Never wait for a crisis. If someone you know has expressed a desire to end their life, and you fear they may be carrying this out, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) right away. You can also take them to the closest emergency room. If the person is in jeopardy, but isn’t open to accepting help, call the police or 911.
How to Talk About It
Obviously, what someone may need or need to hear can differ from person to person, but there are some simple guidelines that may prove useful. Mentanoia, a non-profit online resource center, dispels some common myths and offers these 9 tips for worried friends and family members:
- Take It Seriously
Myth: The people who talk about it don’t do it. Studies have found that more than 75% of all completed suicides did things in the few weeks or months prior to their deaths to indicate to others that they were in deep despair. Anyone expressing suicidal feelings needs immediate attention.
Myth: Anyone who tries to kill himself has got to be crazy. Perhaps 10% of all suicidal people are psychotic or have delusional beliefs about reality. Most suicidal people suffer from the recognized mental illness of depression. But many depressed people adequately manage their daily affairs. The absence of craziness does not mean the absence of suicide risk.
Those problems weren’t enough to commit suicide over, is often said by people who knew a completed suicide. You cannot assume that because you feel something is not worth being suicidal about, that the person you are with feels the same way. It is not how bad the problem is, but how badly it’s hurting the person who has it.
- Remember Suicidal Behavior Is a Cry for Help
Myth: If someone is going to kill himself, nothing can stop him. The fact that a person is still alive is sufficient proof that part of him wants to remain alive. The suicidal person is ambivalent -part of him wants to live and part of him wants not so much death as he wants the pain to end. It is the part that wants to live that tells another they feel suicidal. If a suicidal person turns to you it is likely that he or she believes that you are more caring, more informed about coping with misfortune, and more willing to protect his confidentiality. No matter how negative the manner and content of their talk is, what they are doing is a positive thing and means they have a positive view of you.
- Be Willing to Give and Get Help Sooner Rather than Later
Suicide prevention is not a last minute activity. All textbooks on depression say it should be addressed as soon as possible. Unfortunately, suicidal people are afraid that trying to get help may only bring them more pain. They fear being told they are stupid, foolish, sinful, or manipulative. They fear rejection; punishment; suspension from school or work, written records of their condition, or involuntary commitment. You need to do everything you can to reduce their pain, rather than increase or prolong it. Constructively involving yourself on the side of life as early as possible will reduce the risk of suicide.
Give the person every opportunity to reveal their troubles and ventilate their feelings. You don’t need to say much and there are no magic words. If you are concerned, your voice and manner will show it. Give them relief from being alone with his pain. Let him or her know you are glad they turned to you. Practice patience, sympathy, and acceptance. Avoid arguments and giving advice.
- Ask, ‘Are You Having Thoughts of Suicide?’
Myth: Talking about it may give someone the idea. People already have the idea. Suicide is constantly in the news media. If you ask a depressed person this question you are doing a good thing for them. You are showing them that you care about them, that you take them seriously, and that you are willing to let them share their pain with you. You are giving them further opportunity to discharge pent up and painful feelings. If the person is having thoughts of suicide, find out how far along this idea has progressed.
- If the Person is Acutely Suicidal, Do Not Leave Them Alone
If it’s possible, try to take them somewhere for help. Detoxify the home.
- Urge Professional Help
Persistence and patience may be needed to seek, engage, and continue with as many options as possible. In any referral situation, let the person know you care and want to maintain contact.
- No Secrets
It is the part of the person that is afraid of more pain that says, “Don’t tell anyone.” It is the part of them that wants to stay alive that tells you about it. Respond to that part of the person and persistently seek out a mature and compassionate person with whom you can review the situation. (You can get outside help and still protect the person’s privacy.) Do not try to go it alone. Get help for the person and for yourself. Distributing the anxieties and responsibilities of suicide prevention can make it easier and much more effective.
- From Crisis to Recovery
Most people have suicidal thoughts or feelings at some point in their lives. Yet less than 2% of all deaths are suicides. Nearly all suicidal people suffer from conditions that will pass with time or with the assistance of an effective recovery program. There are hundreds of basic steps we can take to improve our response to a suicidal person and to make it easier for them to seek help. Taking some of the basic steps may save lives and reduce suffering.
The Steps to Recovery Could Begin Here
If someone you love is struggling with depression, bipolar, anxiety, or another form of mental health disorder, Discovery Mood can help. We’ve been guiding teens, adolescents, and their families to long-lasting recovery for nearly 20 years. Our unique personalized behavior modification programs offer multi-faceted levels of care in safe, family-friendly environments that simulate the comforts of home. These programs range from residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, to partial hospitalization for adolescents and teens that are struggling with depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, self-harm behaviors, gender identity, oppositional defiant disorder, eating disorders, and other major mental health disorders.
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VICE Australia: What to Say to a Suicidal Friend, From People Who’ve Been There, by Laetitia Laubscher. Retrieved October 20, 2016.
HelpGuide: Suicide Prevention – How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal and Save a Life, by Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson
Metanoia: What Can I Do To Help Someone Who May Be Suicidal? Retrieved October 20, 2016.