It’s World Suicide Prevention Day today: September 10 2015.
It might seem like a morbid subject, but there’s a happy ending. I promise.
A few years ago on a beautiful spring morning, I got the call no one wants. Through her tears, my best friend’s wife told me that my lifelong buddy was dead…he had set himself on fire. She witnessed it, as did his parents and two of his three kids.
I didn’t know then that I might have been the one to save him.
I want to be very honest and direct: I’ve chosen not to take my own life – it’s a choice I make often.
Just last week I was mountain biking on the rim of the Rio Grande Canyon near Taos New Mexico. It’s spectacular: flat mesa with this huge rift cut through it. The drop-off to the river is several hundred feet in many places. I chose not to jump. I’d rather continue to live – to see what happens the next moment, and the next. Breathing, for me, is better than not breathing.
There are people alive in the world that I love, and who love me. I feel confident that not jumping was – and is – still my best choice.
Thanks to two long-term studies, researchers have learned that social connectedness – not necessarily “relationship” but simply having a robust network of friends – can significantly reduce the risk of suicide for both men and women.
Life’s hard – no question about that. Friends – not the digital kind, but real, live, in-person friends – can make it seem less difficult. Those studies show that those friendships can literally be lifelines.
Here’s how I might have helped my buddy choose to keep breathing.
Ask about risk for suicide or harm
Sure, it’s a hard question: “Are you feeling suicidal?” Or: “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” I wish I’d known to ask my friend how he was feeling and what he was thinking. It’s such a simple question, but it might have saved his life. Role play that question with friends who care for you…it will seem more natural if you ever need to ask it for real.
Listen – and don’t be judgmental
To listen and not judge is hard. It’s even harder to bite your tongue and NOT try to intervene in a crisis. Just don’t; it’s more effective to listen. Look into your friend’s eyes and LISTEN. The next step is about what you CAN do…but only after your friend or acquaintance stops talking.
This is when you can talk. What you say right then is ONLY about being supportive and empathetic. If you know your friend well, give them love and support – a hug even. If you are barely acquainted, offer your friendship: “I’m here for you, whatever that might mean. I would miss you if you were gone.” You aren’t going to fix anything, but you can offer encouragement and information: “It’s fairly common to consider suicide, but it’s much less common to actually do it, and I want you to keep breathing. I enjoy our friendship.” If you want other ideas about what to say, email me!
Encourage appropriate professional help
There are lots of qualified professionals who deal with suicide every day. You don’t have to be one to effectively and confidently encourage your friend to connect with any of them. Calling 9-1-1 is a great first step. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is another: 1-800-273-TALK. You could suggest that your friend call 2-1-1 and ask for a referral to a qualified suicide therapist.
Encourage self-help or other support strategies
Again, in spite of what many people believe, suicide isn’t always a mental illness. Your friend’s well being is important to you – if you make sure they feel and know that, your encouragement will be genuine and received that way, too. There are many ways to give self-care and tons of resources for doing so, from yoga and mindfulness practices to self-care using music. Religious folks appreciate the fellowship of church, and although that may not be working for them at the moment, perhaps a change of venue would be welcome – maybe invite them to your church with you. Be creative when you offer options!
This simple five-step process is something you can learn and do. It’s not hard – remember to role-play! – and it’s effective. Want to know more? You can take a free short course, taught by Mental Health First Aid, in many places in the United States.
So here’s the good news I promised.
Yeah: I’m still alive. But it gets better.
While the suicide statistics are dire, as you and I work to build authentic connections with people that we love, we lower the potential for those peoples’ desire to take their own lives. As the message of how to do that spreads, all of us become more connected and more capable to offer empathy to each other – and to others we don’t know.
Isn’t that good news? It’s the kind of awareness that feels good to me. If you do this even once, I guarantee it will feel good for you, too. Tell me your story! The world is listening.