“What Stops You from Killing Yourself?”

I advise my students to ask their suicidal clients, “What stops you? What stops you from killing yourself?”

Some are horrified. They see this almost as a dare, as if they are saying to a hurting, suicidal person, If you really wanted to kill yourself, you would have done it already. What stops you?

To the contrary, asking the question “What stops you?” merely involves saying aloud what many suicidal individuals ask themselves constantly. And if they don’t consider the question already, they should. Otherwise, they might not recognize hopes and fears that are reasons to keep fighting for their life.

Something has indeed stopped a living and breathing suicidal person from acting on their suicidal thoughts. If nothing deterred them, they would not still be alive.

So, if you are working with a client who has thoughts of suicide, it can be helpful to ask these questions. 

“What stops you from killing yourself now?”

“What has stopped you thus far?”

A related question to ask, as I discuss in this post, is:

“What are your reasons for staying alive?”

And if you are reading this post because you yourself have suicidal thoughts, please ask yourself these questions, too. The answers might fortify you, or even surprise you.

Reasons to Stay Alive vs. Reasons Not to Attempt Suicide

With my therapy clients and in my readings of research studies, I have observed two types of reasons people give for not killing themselves: life-affirming reasons, and fear-based reasons.

The life-affirming reasons center on the good things that can still happen for the person if they stay alive: the things to do, the people to love, the sights to see, the hopes to realize. These are the reasons the person has to stay alive.

Unfortunately, many people who struggle with suicidal thoughts are bereft of hope or pleasure, so there may be no life-affirming or hopeful reasons to keep going. In these cases, fear-based reasons tend to dominate. 

The fear-based reasons for not attempting suicide center on the bad things that can happen:

Their suicide attempt might not be fatal, and they might suffer lifelong injuries. Many people have shot themselves, overdosed, tried to hang themselves, and cut themselves only to suffer blindness, paralysis, brain damage, or disfigurement.

They believe they might go to hell. I hear this often. Many of my clients fear what might await them after death.

They worry they will be reincarnated into a life of more pain. This is another fear that has stopped some of my clients from killing themselves. They fear that escaping their pain in this life will consign them to more pain, and more lessons to learn, in the next.

They do not want to hurt others. Some parents are deterred because they know that their suicide would make it more likely that their child would die by suicide. Others simply don’t want others to hurt.

They fear what would happen to their pets. As an animal lover, I get this. Many people don’t have family who could care for their pets, and the thought of the pets going to a shelter – or even worse, being killed – horrifies them. It would horrify me, too.

By Dese’Rae L. Stage

Generally speaking, I do not try to persuade the suicidal person with all the reasons not to end one’s life. To do so would invite a power struggle, one in which we are on opposite sides: the persuader, and the one resisting persuasion.

Instead, I elicit from the suicidal person what their reasons are for still being alive. I assess how strong these deterrents to suicide are, and I look for opportunities to reinforce them. But it’s best if the reasons come from the individual, not from me. The person’s answer is the only one that matters, because it is what has kept them alive thus far.

Beyond Fear of Suicide

Fear of what would come after a suicide attempt is a powerful deterrent. Ideally, though, people will have more than that. They also need hope. And they need a life worth living.

In my book Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals, I discuss many ways to help someone discover reasons for living, grow hope, find meaning, and improve their quality of life. (Sorry for the blatant plug, but there are too many tips to go into here.)

The more reasons a person has to stay alive, the more answers the person has when asked, “What stops you?”

Copyright 2017 Stacey Freedenthal. Written for SpeakingOfSuicide.com. All Rights Reserved.

Photos purchased from Fotolia.

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  1. John says:

    So the author has no human connections, and lists what would happen to my animals as a serious excuse why they would not self exit. Interesting, a shut in with anti-social traits and severe isolation traits, wants to lecture social humans about life and suicide.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      John,

      For many people, what would happen to their pets is a strong deterrent against suicide. I have known some of them. I say, whatever works! That is, whatever stops people from dying by suicide, no matter how seemingly small, is huge in my book. This poem, “Don’t Kill Yourself” today by Hannah Dains, captures well the value of embracing whatever reasons for living are available: https://youtu.be/-Ktdf2KQ58c.

      Whatever reasons you have, I hope you will embrace them.

      p.s. I wonder what I’ve written that gave you the impression that I’m a shut-in with all the other characteristics you listed? I actually am neither isolated nor a shut-in (and I don’t think I have antisocial traits), but I have great compassion for those who are. The anxiety or other health problems that create such a situation inflict a very painful state of existence on many people.

  2. Beth says:

    Right now, I feel like the very thing that causes me to be suicidal is what is preventing my suicide.

    I’ve had social anxiety since my early teens. I made a suicide “attempt” (I really don’t know if it’s fair to call it that, I started out with the intention to die, and changed my mind halfway through because I was too scared. Nothing really happened other than a few hours of discomfort and no one else found out about it) when I was 17 because I felt like my inability to communicate/interact with people would make it impossible for me to live as an adult. Obviously that didn’t work, and I lived. But things haven’t changed at all. I’m in my mid 30s now, and I’ve structured my life to avoid people. I have no friends, no job. I turned down every opportunity I ever had to accommodate the social anxiety and now of there are no more opportunities. Even if there were more, I’d turn them down again, even if I really want to say yes. I feel hopeless, worthless, trapped, and lonely.

    I’ve planned my suicide with meticulous detail, and I have more knowledge than I did when I was 17. I often really want to just do it, but I’ve convinced myself that only one method is acceptable because 1) I think it’s the one that gives me the most confidence that I’d actually die, quickly and 2) I can arrange things so that only law enforcement/other professionals would have to deal with the body (this feels more ethical, I have no desire to traumatize anyone). The problem is that I do not have the means, and obtaining the means requires way more social interaction that I am able to do. Once again, the social anxiety is stronger than any desire I’ve ever had, including the desire to die.

    I’ve often thought that if I was able to seek help for my social anxiety (and the social anxiety itself makes this impossible), maybe I’d be able to do things I’ve always wanted to do and find some contentment and happiness. But now I feel like it’s much too late. Even if it were fixed, I’d still be left with this life that I created to accommodate my fears, and I don’t want it. So if the social anxiety were fixed or even got just a little better, I feel like I’d immediately go out and acquire the means to kill myself and then do so.

    I feel like this is a conundrum.

    • Mike H. says:

      Beth, I feel similar to you. When asked why I would want to commit suicide, I’ve told therapists that my desire is due to fear. When asked why I haven’t committed or succeeded in committing suicide, I have the same answer – fear.

      Fear has driven my life up to this point. I’m simply tired of dealing with that, and I don’t know how to find another way. Living without fear is like living without oxygen to me – I don’t know how to do either.

  3. pulse says:

    My therapist asked this. My answer is still and always, “Because I am too weak to end it.” There’s no real reason to existing, besides that it would hurt family, which could perhaps be overcome in the right moment.

    It is baffling to me that there could be any other answer for myself. I get that it’s about pointing someone to some reason, no matter how small, such as enjoying food or looking forward to a concert. Trust me, I’ve heard so many times that one should put it off for a day, death isn’t going anywhere, but then the next day comes and it’s the same…

  4. Pattie H says:

    I want to make one last comment on this question. I think therapists absolutely should ask this. Its the only thing that gets a person from simply ‘hanging on’ for some unknown duty, to actually contemplating their own truths.
    Unfortunately, I moved to New Mexico a year and a half ago, and found a world back in time, that was not competent to trust having any opinions on suicide. I was totally misdiagnosed, therefore assumed to be ‘noncompliant’ with their ‘inappropriate meds’, and they haven’t got a clue about suicide, and they recklessly use their power to involuntarily force you to be hospitalized, and medicated without regard for patient rights that require court authorization. I see someone now, who meets minimal standards for the help I need with PTSD and depression, but I will never subject myself to their incompetence again by EVER discussing anything I’ve mentioned here. The mental health system here has only re-traumatized me each time I tell them what traumatizes me! Like others have said here: they really don’t care anywhere. And in NM, they are frighteningly unqualified and incompetent.

  5. Pattie H says:

    I have very definite reasons for staying alive/not killing myself.
    First, let me say I’ve never found this life very interesting, and since a teenager and throughout my many years, I can’t wait to pass on from this life to whatever comes next. But, starting as a young adult, I was on a quest for ‘the meaning of life’. I wanted to explore the possible regrets of ending my own life, and if I concluded that it was a valid choice, I’m sure I would have already done so. But, there was something that nagged at me, that made me feel like it would not be a choice without consequences. To simplify, let’s just say I believe that “nothing worth having comes that easily”. I believe this life has lessons to be learned, and that choosing to skip this lifetime is like skipping part of my very big education. It will leave gaps in my understanding that can be filled no other way than living it out. So, yes, karma in a way. But, more like “we can’t learn lessons we skip. Whatever comes after this life, I believe that lesson will always be right there waiting for me, so I may as well get it over with here. I do believe there is a spiritual purpose to this life– I just can’t wait for it to be over, lol.

  6. deb says:

    is there any way to ask a question through private message ? how can i contact

  7. Tandy says:

    I appreciate your posts–and have barely started reading them. Thank you for making this resource available.

    The question, “What stops you?” was a bit disturbing. (I’m a little sensitive to that kind of wording because I have had a close family member challenge me to–his words–commit suicide. Yet another family member–struggled with the spiritual implications of my battle with suicidal ideation and–came to the conclusion that, even if God had destined for me to “commit suicide, my family member would still be able to praise His glory for His love, justice and mercy to me.”) So…I know I have a heightened sensitivity to this discussion.

    However, after reading your full post, I can see how there would be a strong protective value to exploring this question in therapy. It would be very protective to brainstorm and pull together those “last defense” safety reasons and beneficial, I think, to put them in writing. It needs to be done in a safe and supportive environment because just remembering those reasons takes the suicidal person back to a very traumatic and scary place. However, going back to that scary place to pull out and pull together the “successful defenses” of the past is a pretty cool technique. Nice work…thank you for sharing!

    I do recommend an addition (or qualifier) to your initial question. Perhaps you could ask, “[Patient’s name], when you think about the past, what has been important enough to stop you thus far? What were your best–even most desperate–reasons that kept you safe? What–people, activities, ideas, even fears–gave you the strength to reach out for help?”

    • Suze says:

      Saw GP today, hoped she would be in a receptive mood as I’ve had a good relationship with her in the past, felt she was helpful and on my side… She wasn’t…! Her comments were very invalidating; when I said about not expecting to be told about LP results by letter, she said they haven’t got time to see everyone, that’s how it is, and that MS wasn’t a death sentence (like I shouldn’t be upset about getting such news).

      She asked about my mood and when I said I was very low, she said “I didn’t seem depressed”; she said I keep saying I’m suicidal, but was I really? That (because I didn’t admit to a plan to her) I couldn’t be. I didn’t see any point in telling her that I am just about holding on.
      She made it sound as though I was just saying it for effect.

      Is that what people think, that it’s nothing but attention seeking? I came out wishing I hadn’t bothered to see her.

      For all the recent ‘positive publicity’ about mental health issues, at the end of the day it’s just media hype and empty words. Why would a person share how they’re feeling when they are not believed, and get accused of being manipulative. You certainly don’t expect your own GP to make you feel like a fraud.

  8. mic says:

    In my case, my reason for not doing it is fear that I will not succeed. And unfortunately, most ‘pro-lifers’ are content just to make suicide unavailable, and there isn’t any real parallel effort to try and improve lives to the extent that people no longer see suicide as an option. So if these anti-suicide measures actually achieved success, then all they would be successful in doing would be trapping people in a miserable existence. Take this piece on the supposedly liberal Guardian, for example. It talks about the zero suicide target, but seems content to tackle the symptom of the problem (i.e. suicide) whilst not doing anything to help people with the problem that leads to suicide:

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/aug/01/zero-suicide-the-bold-new-fight-to-eradicate-suicide

    And of course, they disabled comments on that article so that nobody could raise the ethical implications with the fact that they are advocating for the entrapment of some of the most unfortunate people in society.

    • pulse says:

      I can’t stand the pro-lifers. I listened to a podcast recently that mentioned that girl with the terminal brain cancer… it was astounding how pro-lifers failed not only to grasp the the issue, but to make it so much about them that they were willing to let someone die slowly in agony.

      And all of society is like this, still, unless you’re lucky enough to be in one of the rare places like Belgium. There’s such an intense paranoia not only around death, but mental illness has a whole. So there’s no getting better, since you can’t die and you can’t even dare mention something’s wrong. There’s no discussion, only an echo chamber for pro-lifers and even self-important “normal” people who are both incapable and unwilling to deal with serious issues.

      It is so wrong to trap someone like this. And I’ve been through it to a degree, when one professional threatened to have me incarcerated despite me never saying a word on the subject. I’ve had the police at my door. At any moment, they could have taken me away. Why, because someone in a white coat suggested they do so? Or an anonymous face on the other side of the phone? Current therapist has asked about plans and intent anytime the subject comes up, and I’m all too aware of the implications. It’s a massive hindrance to discussion and a crime to clients.

  9. Maree Dee says:

    This post was very helpful yet at the same time a little scary. I support families that have loved ones with mental health challenges. Suicide also hits close to home. Would your book help parents or just professionals? How do we as parents encourage our loved ones to create a life worth living?

  10. Cassidy says:

    Some people don’t kill themselves because there scared they won’t succeed…

  11. Dragon says:

    Stacey, I’m amazed that any response would be to see it as a dare. It might be daring if the person is so depressed that at the moment they can’t see a reason to keep on trying but it can also help each of us to see that maybe we do have something to live for – even if it’s just for a little while longer.

    I wonder how much cross traffic we have between your blog and my forum, again. I’ll make a note of an interesting article that’s well worth reading.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Dragon,

      Thanks for your comment. I think some students’ (and professionals’!) dread of asking such a question reflects their deeper fears about suicide itself. You know, the old “if I ask about suicide, then they’ll go kill themselves” fear. Which, of course, is a myth.

      Thanks, too, for recommending the article! I appreciate and respect the work that you do.

  12. Tore Nielsen says:

    Three things stop me when it comes up (in order of importance):

    1: My family and a couple of other people would be devastated and traumatized if I killed myself. I can’t do that to them. Seven years ago I was convinced that they’d be better off. That line of thinking is shut off to me now.
    2: I’m afraid that I might just end up crippling myself, or otherwise make my life worse.
    3: Curiosity. I’ve postponed my suicide (I ‘only’ attempted once) because I needed to know what happens next. Would there be a black president? What would Walter and Jesse get up to on Breaking Bad? If I get bad enough this impulse falls away and I don’t care about anything.

  13. Suze says:

    Just because a person hasn’t killed themselves, doesn’t mean they don’t still want to, or indeed that they won’t eventually succeed.

  14. Lucy says:

    For approximately 5 years I was thinking of ways to end my life. It dominated my thoughts. At the time I kept myself from doing so because I was trying to find a way that would look like an accident, be complete; and I was sensitive about what I would look like physically to my children. I did not realize that I put myself under so much stress that I wanted to die before my children died before me. My parents died too young, my health was bad, and I thought that my life would end soon also. My love for my children gave me the fear that I would have a broken heart if anything happened to them before me. I was also depressed. The turning point for me was when I decided to tell them, thinking I was preparing them, about my intentions. I spent the summer visiting them all in order to let them know how much I loved them and I wanted them to have recently been with me before such an act. My first awakening was the response of some of my children. I was in so much heart pain that I could feel their pain. I badly wanted to go home (heaven) but my thoughts turned to their pain. Getting out of bed to go see them was actually a good thing for me, it was loosening the hold my depression had on me. Whenever I thought of taking my life, I cut myself instead to help the pain I was in. Eventually, knowing I was causing pain to the loves of my heart, it made me believe that I would sacrifice my going home and staying in my pain to be a good mother to them. I remember a change in my thinking when I prayed and stated that if my children went before me then it was my destiny to be at their side to help them instead of being selfish enough to help myself. Don’t get me wrong, I was still ready to quit and die; it took a good year of visitations and talking it out with them, to make my love for them into them saving me. I was fearful that it would be hard, but I had always sacrificed as a mother for their sake. Eventually my wanting to end my life right now turned into a quest to stay alive long enough to give them and my grand children happy memories with me. I have since then made decisions to reduce my stress and anxiety and had a gastric bypass to make me healthier. This also helped move me from my depression. The real action that saved me from wanting to end it all came from being honest with my grown children and them being honest with me. And the statement that my 7 year old grand son made to me still keeps me on track. I had never told him about wanting to die, he knew of my health, and said he would pray to Jesus to keep his mamaw safe. Such pure love from my children and my grandchildren, pushed the selfishness out of me. Yes, I still have moments when the demons slip back in, but it is easier now to push them back out. I had found your site when I was searching for information on suicide a couple years back. And I am now hoping to give back by letting you peek into my mind and heart.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Lucy,

      Thank you so much for sharing your powerful story. Your sharing will help others, I’m sure.

      I’m grateful that you came back to this website to describe your process – both the heart wrenching pain, and how you moved through it, even with dark episodes, still. May your love and concern for your family – and, judging from how you’re taking better care of yourself, for yourself, too – sustain you and continue to give meaning to your life.

  15. Mike H. says:

    Very interesting perspective, thank you.

  16. Nikky44 says:

    It feels weird to read this post now. I don’t mean weird in a bad way but like there is a message in here for me. I have been suicidal many times in my life and have survived an attempt but usually I can identify a particular situation or trigger. This time I feel I have no reason to feel this way. However it is so strong. The reason I say it is weird is that I wrote a message to my friend asking her: please give me reasons not to do it. Tell me why I should’t and why I must stay alive. I also felt the need to ask her if she loves me even when I feel this way. I wrote the message and didn’t send it. I am scared. I also feel it is kind of humiliating. I so need to hear her reassuring words.

  17. Lei says:

    People who have not battled depression to the depths of suicidal thoughts can’t really grasp it. The fact that I know at any time I can stop this, and have an exit plan helps me go on. When it was really bad I had a kit already to go…but I got rid of that years ago. Now just the knowledge is enough. Then when times get really rough I do the same thing anyone in a 12 step program does. I can hang on for 5 minutes. I can do this for 15 minutes. I break it down to doable increments. Then the urge and the need gets smaller and smaller. The best thing is that something always happens that makes you say “I am glad I didn’t then.”

  18. Michael Hutton says:

    The only thing that stops me is leaving my wife and daughter behind being left to deal with my selfish act ,but to me I feel I am a burden to them and every one else. I get so fed up with being told there is help out there crap every time I phone places that say we care don’t they just say we cannot help you but here is another number for you to call ,they will help it’s like a never ending circle of numbers. I have been assessed by four different mental health teams ,and all they have told me is I have a cluster B ,and sign me off. I also have depression and anxiety, and stress ,and I am told I am fit to work ,I struggle to even get up and push myself to go out ,I try hard to want to go out ,to work I used to love working ,but years I have been fighting a lonely battle where I hear voices see people who are not there and still no one wants to help so ending my life seems like a good idea and one I am fighting even now to keep my sanity ,I want out and I do not want to do it but it seems endless .

    • Dragon says:

      Michael, I’d bet that if you ask them whether you’re a burden to them the response would be something like: “Well, there are times I’d gladly kill you myself – – but then most of the time I know I love you and I know that you love us so it’s all worthwhile.”

      Maybe it’s hokey, but I take the approach of “Hang in there for an hour, if not an hour, try for 15 minutes, if not try for 5, if not try for just one more minute.” Look at your family and know how much they mean to you and just try! If you don’t think you’re worth it, you are – – to them!

  19. Jean Esplin says:

    Nothing stops me in particular. I can’t say, “I am alive because…” I don’t have any real reason. I’ve attempted suicide and died and been brought back. There isn’t anything there. Nothing to be afraid of. There is just nothing and that’s what I want after this life. Nothing. To cease to exist. I do believe I will eventually die by suicide. It’s okay. I’m not going to kill myself today or tomorrow. Probably not next month. I’m still busy living, but I’m not afraid to die.

    • Kalla says:

      If only I could be assured that there really is nothing there! NOTHING!!

    • Pattie H says:

      Jean, I hear you. i, too, would love to just be asleep in nothingness. I actually do believe there is more life than this one, but either way, I kind of resent having to be here. I’m just glad that there is a finite number of years here. Sooner or later, it will be over.
      And, I’d like to add my opinion about people who say they don’t understand. When I ask people why they actually stay alive, they will claim to “love life”, but I think it’s really more that they fear death. I remember a friend who was miserable, and she surprised me when she said she loved life. I said “Then why do you live such a sh#tty one?!” Seriously! I make a conscious effort to make my life the best it can be BECAUSE I don’t love it. If I didnt, it would be intolerable. I don’t believe that people who are sabotaging themselves ‘love life’. That’s not love. Also, She admits she does fear death, something I also do not understand.
      To me, a miserable life is much worse than death.

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