“I want to kill myself.”
Those five words are a shock to hear, a dreadful pronouncement from a friend or family member you do not want to lose. You recoil at the thought. How could they want to die?
As unwelcome as those words are to your ears, your loved one has handed you a gift. He or she is letting you in. By telling you they want to die, they are giving you the opportunity to help.
What you say next is very important. It could lead to your friend or family member letting you in even more – or shutting the door. Understandably you are full of emotion, and you might have many thoughts, some helpful, some not.
Here are 10 common responses that can do harm. First, a caveat: In general, these statements can convey judgment and foster alienation. But, depending on the context, some people might respond positively to at least some of these responses.
- “How could you think of suicide? Your life’s not that bad.” Perhaps on the outside the suicidal person’s life does not seem “that bad.” The pain lies underneath. It can greatly help a suicidal person to feel understood. This sort of statement conveys disbelief and judgment, not understanding.
- “Don’t you know I would be devastated if you killed yourself? How could you think of hurting me like that?” Your loved one already feels awful. Heaping guilt on top of that is not going to help them feel soothed, understood, or welcome to tell you more.
- “Suicide is selfish.” This inspires more guilt. Two points are important here. One, many people who seriously consider suicide actually think they are burdening their family by staying alive. So, in their distressed, perhaps even mentally ill state of mind, they would be helping their loved ones by freeing them of this burden. Two, isn’t it a natural response to excruciating pain to think first of helping oneself escape the torment?
- “Suicide is cowardly.” This inspires shame. It also does not really make sense. Most people fear death. While I hesitate to call suicide brave or courageous, overcoming the fear of death does not strike me as cowardly, either.
- “You don’t mean that. You don’t really want to die.” Often said out of anxiety or fear, this message is invalidating and dismissive. Presume that the person really does mean that they want to die. It does more harm to dismiss someone who is truly suicidal than it does to take someone seriously who is not suicidal, so why not just take everyone seriously?
- “You have so much to live for.” In some contexts, this kind of statement might be a soothing reminder of abundance and hope. But for many people who think of suicide and do not at all feel they have much to live for, this remark can convey a profound lack of understanding.
- “Things could be worse.” Yes, things could be worse, but that knowledge does not inspire joy or hope. I compare it to two people who are stabbed, one in the chest, one in the leg. It is far worse to be stabbed in the chest, but that does not make the pain go away for the person stabbed in the leg. It still hurts. A lot. So even if people who think of suicide have many good things going for them, even if their lives could be far worse, they still experience a seemingly intolerable situation that makes them want to die.
- “Other people have problems worse than you and they don’t want to die.” True, and your loved one may well have already considered this with shame. People who want to die often compare themselves to others and come up wanting. They may even feel defective or broken. Comparing them to others who cope better may only worsen their self-condemnation.
- “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I do know people, especially teens, for whom this statement was tremendously helpful. It spoke to them. But it also communicates that the person’s problems are temporary, when they might be anything but. In such a situation, a realistic goal for the person might be to learn to cope with problems and to live a meaningful life in spite of them. The other problem with this statement is it conveys that suicide is a solution – permanent, yes, and a solution. At a minimum, I recommend changing the word “solution” to “act” or “action,” simply to avoid reinforcing that suicide does indeed solve problems.
- “You will go to hell if you die by suicide.” Your loved one has likely already thought of this possibility. Maybe they do not believe in hell. Maybe they believe the god they believe in will forgive their suicide. Regardless, their wish to die remains. Telling them they will go to hell can exacerbate feelings of alienation.
Again, any or all of the thoughts and emotions above may come to you. It doesn’t mean you are wrong or bad to have such reactions.
After all, you are human. You may feel angry, hurt, betrayed. You cannot control the thoughts and feelings that come to you. You can only control what you say or do in response to your thoughts and feelings.
When someone discloses suicidal thoughts to you, your words and actions can help the suicidal person to feel less alone and, as a result, hopeful. Good questions to ask yourself are, “How can what I want to say help this person? How can it do harm?”
Your answer may mean the difference between the person feeling judged and even more alone – or accepted and understood.
What If You’ve Already Spoken?
I suspect that if I stopped this post here, I would receive frantic emails from people who already reacted in ways that were not especially helpful or understanding. Their fear and anxiety may have spilled out when they heard their friend or family member express a desire to die.
That fear and anxiety are understandable. So are the reactions above. But what to do when what has been said cannot be unsaid?
My advice? Try again. Go back to the person and say that you realize you did not respond helpfully, that you are frightened by the possibility of their dying by suicide, but you want to set aside your fears and understand better their wish to die so that you can be a listening ear, a partner in their struggle, an ally who helps them feel less alone and hopeless.
And then it can be helpful to ask some of the most important words of all, “How can I help?”
© Copyright 2015 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com