“Help, my friend is feeling suicidal, what should I do?”
I felt compelled to write this post, both as a resource and encouragement, because it’s been a question I’ve been hearing far too frequently. It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to encounter this question a little too frequently for comfort, but at the same time, it probably means that we should seek to equip ourselves to handle such situations that are not uncommon. So here goes the question: what should I do if my friend tells me that he/ she is feeling suicidal?
First and foremost, breathe. Take a few deep breaths and calm yourself down. A striking observation is that I often notice fear and fluster in the person asking the question. Trust me, the last thing that your friend wants to sense from you is fear, and to have it communicated across inadvertently he/ she is somewhat of a freak for having those thoughts. It’s okay, take some time to breathe— suicidal thoughts are really not that uncommon according to the literature. Before you go on to actively support such individuals, I’d highly encourage you to work out a solid conviction of the extent of your responsibility over their lives. Until you come to the realization that God and God alone holds their lives in His hands, chances are that you’re only going to be continually gripped by fear. The truth is this— you can do everything that you could have done, and they can still end their lives. His/ her life is not for you to bear. With that understanding, you can then go on to serve and do the best you can for this friend.
2. Clarify and Provide Resources
Feeling suicidal can mean many things. You need to understand what your friend means by that, and what your friend’s baseline is. Firstly, I believe having suicidal thoughts would mean different things for someone who has been struggling with fleeting suicidal thoughts for a prolonged period of time, versus someone who has never ever had it before and is experiencing it for the first time. Secondly, there is a significantly vast difference of danger between someone who tells you that he/ she feels like killing himself/ herself, and someone who tells you that he has a specific plan at a specific time to kill him/ herself in a specific way. If you encounter the latter, please raise it up to the highest level and as wide a network as you can that is relevant to the individual (i.e., pastors, inform the family members, if possible be there for your friend). In less crisis situations, seek to understand the inner dynamics of the individual (next section) that is partially being communicated by the feelings of suicide. In either cases, you should refer your friend to mental health resources such as SOS hotline (1800-221 4444), and you will do well to strongly recommend your friend to seek professional help. There are also recommendations of having a suicide-prevention pact with a friend. It’s basically a pact that your friend agrees to to not harm him/ herself until a set date/ time. There’s no super big consensus about this, but I’d say, if it’s a dire case, there’s totally no harm in doing so.
3. Understand and Normalise
Sometimes, people having suicidal thoughts may feel horrible and alienated just by virtue of the fact that the feel that they have an “unforgivable” thought. Find your ways in assuring the other individual that suicidal ideation is not that uncommon a thought, and that it doesn’t make him/ her a freak or condemned individual. Seek to communicate with your friend based on our common humanity— we are people who have feelings, struggles, and respond to them. Suicide can be viewed as a behaviour that serves a function of solving or escaping from deep pain. Acknowledge your friend’s pain, empathize with him/ her, appreciate why suicide may even have come up as an option even if you don’t agree with that. Frame suicidal feelings/ ideation as the individual’s means of communicating this extremely deep pain that cannot be expressed with words within him/ her, and frame it as a coping behavior that the individual perceives to help him/ her solve or escape the problem.
4. Come up with a Plan Collaboratively, Not Prescriptively
Once we see suicidal feelings as a means of (1)communication, and (2)coping, it makes things much less scary. Our job is no longer to eradicating suicidal ideations, but to talk about and explore different alternatives. When you validate the pain and feelings of the individual, the need to use suicide as a means of communication diminishes. Of course, the purpose of communication could be directed at a specific target that isn’t you, and with that you should explore alternative means of communicating. When it comes to coping, work with the other individual to find out means and resources to cope with the pain (i.e., things that the individual can do to make him/ herself feel better or less worse). This can be things like going for a short walk, drinking a nice cup of coffee, having a friend visit etc. This is where it will be most appropriate to work in the practical and the spiritual, because it’ll be a lot more hopeful to remember that we can cope not because of our own strength, but because of the One who promises to sustain in our weakness. Do work with the individual to come up with constructive plans, because coming up with a list of “Don’ts” (e.g., don’t hurt yourself) is not going to be terribly helpful. Come up also with an action plan to for what the individual can do when he/ she is actively suicidal (e.g., call SOS, call you/ another friend, tell family member).
5. Focus on strengths
I think a lot of times, myself included I confess, we fall into the trap of focusing on the negatives. We don’t look enough to the positives or strengths of the individual. Encourage the individual. And I don’t mean it in the superficial “be happy”, “feel better” encouragement that will probably get your friend rolling his/ her eyes. But actively look for strength, courage, and tenacity your friend is displaying through the trials and affirm your friend on that. For example, when your friend tells you that he/ she prays still even when his/ her heart doesn’t feel like it, affirm her courage and strength to wait for the Lord (Ps 27:14).
6. Journey with Others
So long you aren’t a mental health professional, I’d highly advise against supporting your friend single-handedly. Right from as early as possible, bring in mature individuals around you to work with you in supporting your friend on a journey that may potentially be long and tiring.
An ending disclaimer, I am not a mental health professional and this is not meant to be comprehensive, but a starting point for you. Please do explore and read up more on how to better equip yourselves on your own to handle such situations!