Responding to the Crisis of Suicide

music“If you don’t know at least three people in crisis right now, you need to have more coffee dates.” This was a line from the best sermon I’ve heard all year, preached at a lovely Presbyterian church in Yakima this past weekend. It turns out, I may need to have more coffee dates. But even more importantly, I need to know how to respond to those in crisis. We collectively need to know, and, at least for one crisis in particular, we seem to be especially non-informed.

As I’ve said before, 40,000 people take their lives every year in America. One of the most disturbing things about this is the attitude toward this absolutely dire moral crisis. Some call it stigma. That’s become a buzz word; what it ends up amounting to is what I’ll call the “go-ahead-and-jump” mentality. Or the idea that it’s acceptable to tell someone on social media to kill themselves. I can’t understand the emptiness and depravity it takes to think those kinds of things, let alone say/type them publicly. But it seems we have another us/them divide – those somehow less-than-human creatures who really are worthless if they’re “crazy” enough to want to die and those who have not experienced that darkness.

It’s a dangerous myth that we “aren’t talking about suicide.” For one the fiction and poetry that’s currently getting published (and by currently, I mean since at least the last 20 years) very often contains suicide. TED Talks, podcasts, blogs, Facebook pages and groups related to suicide, suicide prevention, awareness and care are proliferating. But a lot of the literature (literally: fiction, poetry, even nonfiction) I’m reading still seems to employ suicide for shock value, or to make some other point, which directly stems from this idea that we “aren’t talking about” the fact that more people die by suicide than in traffic accidents every year in this country. The myth that suicide is this hush-hush topic positions it to seem controversial or innovative to talk about…always at the expense of its victims, those it victimizes and those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. ***

The problem is that you can’t just start talking about something and think you’re solving a problem; the way you talk about it matters. And we are talking about suicide in very damaging ways. It’s not just the go-ahead-and-jump view. Sometimes, it’s worse. Like suggesting that “overreacting is better than under-reacting.” If “over-reacting” involves hospitals or calling the police, this nearly always makes it worse. If over-reacting means freaking out, all you’re doing is further pathologizing very real, very intense pain. But the reason we think the only two options are not taking it seriously when we do recognize the warning signs or involving authorities who are either completely untrained or largely condescending and dismissive is because no alternative, concrete solutions are offered. Despite the fact that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America, we are not training the general public to effectively and compassionately respond to a suicidal crisis. Vague suggestions like “listen,” “be there” and “don’t judge” are not bad but necessarily helpful by themselves and often backfire or make things worse, not because you should not be showing up for the people in your life who are struggling, but because how you do so matters.

Specifically, how long you do so matters. It’s exhausting and scary to walk with a loved one through a suicidal crisis. It’s also exhausting for the person experiencing the ideation. Suicide is perhaps the most stigmatized of human behaviors, which leads to externally-enforced isolation during an already dangerous time. Showing up – again and again – for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts is one way to say no to that stigma, especially if you are showing up of your own accord. We put the tremendous burden of “reaching out” on those already struggling, which is why the death-by-suicide toll keeps climbing, perhaps; people experiencing the terror of suicidal thoughts often feel they must hide and not burden their friends. If you love someone who is struggling in this way, one of the ways to respond to the warning signs you might see is to periodically check in and not make them do all the reaching out. It’s hard to believe “you are not alone” if you’re always the one reminding people of your existence.

Another surprisingly helpful thing can be to ask something of that person. This is obviously situational, but it’s worth mentioning here because it’s so counterintuitive. It may be empowering and affirming to ask your struggling friend to use their gifts and skills to help you with something. Often, people struggling with suicidal thoughts have lost sight of their purpose; asking them for help that you truly do need can be a gentle reminder that they, contrary to all they are probably feeling, do add value to others’ lives. Saying this is important – and in the personal way, like “I love you” as opposed to “you are loved” – but it can have even more power to prove it. Or have the person prove it to themselves, as it were. Relatedly, sharing your own gifts may not feel like enough, but your job is not to be “enough.” Your job is to show up for the person you care about; offering something of yourself can be another way to show your loved one that they are valuable to you and that they matter. Maybe write them a song, paint them a picture, cook them a meal. Often, when you ask someone if they need anything, they’ll say no, they’re fine. But if you bring them a casserole, they’ll take it. This is not about forcing yourself on someone else; it is, again, about easing the burden by being – and staying – with.

None of this is prescriptive – there is no formula. What works and helps for each person is for those that love them to figure out. This takes time, pain and persistence, even without the abyss of suicidal thoughts. Add that struggle – which is affecting more and more people – and you’ve got your work cut out for you. You are not responsible for the lives of your loved ones but one thing love means is being responsive to them.

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