When A Friend Talks About Suicide
Before I say anything else, here’s a phone number you should have: 1-800-273-TALK. That’s 1-800-273-8255. It’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
OK. Got it? Those who don’t need it can ignore it. Those who do, well, keep it handy.
Let’s talk about suicide.
I know you don’t want to. Let’s talk anyway.
Recently, I had no choice but to talk about it with a person who could help me figure some things out. Like, how to react when someone you know says he or she is thinking about ending it all.
Dr. Martin Johnson, founder of Hawaii Center for Psychology, told me what not to do.
“Ignoring it,” he said, “is the worst thing.”
Don’t get scared, or hostile or angry. Don’t say things like, “Don’t be silly.” That tells the person you don’t want to talk about it.
And you should talk about it. Martin said one response could be, “It sounds like you are really hurting. Are you afraid you might really hurt yourself?”
And he’d ask more about the person’s feelings: “What makes you say that? What thoughts are you having?”
Also, try to find out if the person actually has a plan.
“It’s one thing to have a thought,” Martin said, “another to have a plan, and another thing to have the means or have acquired the means.”
Listen first. Then gently, but firmly, recommend they call a professional. Or the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (see what I did there? Write down that number!)
According to Martin, there’s no one thing that triggers the urge to take one’s life, or to put the thought in one’s head.
“Heartbreak, financial loss, loss of loved one, suicide of friend or family member,” he says, “usually some degree of depression involved.”
And what if you think a person is just trying to get attention? It happens.
“Some folks get off on the attention that a suicide threat creates,” Martin said, “but we need to take it seriously. Give her the info. Tell her you care and hope she takes advantage of the services provided. Things do get better, and suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Then tell her you will check back in on her.”
And then he told me a startling fact: Many suicides are “accidental.”
People often do things to themselves as a cry for help, he said, not really meaning to actually kill themselves. For example, they’ll take pills, but not enough, they think, to kill themselves.
“Those suicidal gestures sometimes are fatal. Even if you didn’t mean to kill yourself, you’re still dead.”
That is scary. To think someone might die because their loved ones or friends thought they were bluffing, or irritating, or crying wolf. So what if they were? They’re still dead.
You can’t force someone into treatment. But you can make sure they know their options and that you’re there for them. Even volunteer to go with them if that’s what it takes.
If they don’t have insurance, look into Quest.
“Psychotherapy is effective at reducing risk,” said Martin. “The average private practice psychologist loses one patient to suicide every 20 years. In general, when a person has thoughts of suicide (much more common than attempts at suicide), talking about those thoughts reduces the likelihood of attempt.”
And what if the threat is imminent?
“If it seems like she or he is in immediate danger (he has a gun and intends to use it; she is taking an overdose), you can call the police and ask that they go out to check on her.”
Just don’t ignore. “I’ll take someone being mad at me,” said Martin.
Better mad than dead. Martin said, “You don’t want to think later, shoulda, woulda, coulda.”
Shoulda listened. Woulda done something. Coulda tried.
But also know this: You are not responsible for her actions.
That’s so important, I’ll repeat it. You are not responsible for her actions.
The number for Oahu’s Suicide Prevention Hotline is 808-832-3100. For Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Maui and Hawaii, it’s 1-800-753-6879.
But I’ll tell you a secret: If you call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-8255 — your call will be routed to our local hotlines. And someone is there 24/7.
If you get a recorded message, don’t give up, it just means they’re on other calls. Leave a message or call back, or both. You will talk to someone as soon as they can get to you.
Just call. And talk about it.