Recently someone asked me what I would do to respond to someone who was dealing with self-harm issues or suicidal thoughts/ideations.
At first I wasn’t sure why they were asking me personally, and then we started talking about some of my experiences, and it started to make a bit more sense.
You see, I spent many, many months dealing with suicidal thoughts myself.
And I have also had the honour and the privilege of walking beside some incredible people as they have done the courageous, brave work of honestly walking through the experiences of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
The first time someone told me about their suicidal thoughts I was thirteen years old. I had been out of school sick for a number of months, and someone from my class came by to visit me at home. I must have asked them how they were doing, because before long they were telling me about an older sibling finding them unconscious on their bed beside an empty bottle of pills; about a trip by ambulance to the hospital; about their stomach being pumped; about a new journey of figuring out what happened next.
I was only thirteen. I had no professional training. I had not mastered any special skills or learned any of the proper words. But although I’m sure I’ve grown over the years in my capacity to respond, many of the basic ideas I want to share today are things that I first started discovering that day.
1. I believe the person when they tell me this is how they feel.
There is a tendency in our culture sometimes to want to make big emotions small. To put walls and containers and limits around our extreme emotions. And conversations about suicide and self-harm are no different. As the person hearing this disclosure, we often want to contain the enormity of these feelings and ideas into something more manageable, but often in our efforts to do this we try to tell the person that’s not how they feel.
Or we see it as attention-seeking behaviour and try to ignore the disclosure, hoping that if it doesn’t get them any attention then they’ll see that it is a “silly” thing to say.
These responses can prove incredibly dangerous for the person at risk.
That’s because self-harm and suicidality – at their heart – are about feelings of worthlessness.
As one person said to me recently,
“The world that I live in has decided that the person I am is not worth having around. And so if I actually care about the people around me, the best thing I can do is to remove myself from the equation.”
By dismissing or minimizing the individual’s feelings we run the risk of simply confirming their worst suspicions!
Instead, I believe we need to hold this disclosure with gentleness and grace, and recognize that regardless of our perspective on the situation, they get the final say on what they are experiencing.
2. I lean into connection with the person.
Because of the role that worthlessness and disconnection play in self-harm and suicidality, if someone is courageous enough to tell me about what’s going on, I do my best to respond immediately with deeper connection.
I might take them out for coffee, for a walk in the woods or by the water; I might invite them back to my place for dinner and some chill hang out time, or even invite them to spend a night or two with us.
I know that this response is not going to fix all of the underlying reasons for why this person is where they are. That’s not my goal.
My goal is to create an immediate, felt sensation of increased connection for the person – like first-aid for the soul.
3. I willingly surrender any power I might have in the relationship.
I know that this is not a battle – it’s not something I can win simply by my powers of persuasion.
I cannot fight violence with violence, or destroy destructive thoughts in destructive ways. It simply doesn’t work.
And so I find ways to level the playing field. I become vulnerable – admitting my own weaknesses and needs for community.
One person I’ve worked with recently lifts my wheelchair in and out of the car and pushes me while we go for our long walks, because I can’t do it on my own.
Another person has become my hairdresser – even though they’re still a student – and I look so much better for it!
Yet another person appointed herself “dish-doer” whenever she came over for dinner – and rather than micro-manage the process to the way “I” might have wanted them done, she was encouraged to do the dishes however it worked best for her.
By sacrificing my power in the situation – by becoming humble – I earn the right to be listened to and for another person to accept that I mean what I say when I offer them the unthinkable gift of unconditional love.
3. I respond to fear with love and compassion.
We talk about this dichotomy between fear and love a lot here, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide are often fuelled by fear – fear of not being good enough; fear of being a burden; fear of unending pain; fear of never being able to be the person that we are deep down inside; fear that our very existence is causing pain to those around us.
The original question I was given that sparked this post was,
“What reasons would you give a person to talk them out of committing suicide?”
But to me the question is actually somewhat flawed. You see, I don’t think it’s possible to talk someone out of fear. But I do believe it’s possible to love people in such a way that it becomes possible for them to see themselves and the world in which they live in a new way.
I am convinced, in fact, that actions are far harder to argue with then words, and so I like to put bones and muscle and skin on my love – especially when dealing with these types of situations – so that people can experience love that values them exactly as they are – at their very worst!
4. If I do use words, I try to use them in the form of questions, not statements.
I operate under the assumption that everyone is uniquely created and has something to offer this world.
But I also know that we don’t always treat ourselves or each other like that is true, and when we lose sight of this, it can be difficult to remember what we’re here for, or why we should keep doing the hard work of being ourselves (especially if there are people in our lives actively telling us that “ourselves” is wrong).
So I use questions to try to help uncover that unique individual. And then I listen intently to their answers, taking them time to see and hold and gently respond to the hurt and pain and brokenness that comes through in their answers.
Like a gem hidden deep inside a cave, once they see the beauty of the person they are again – and see that I can see that beauty as well – they are often willing to at least wait to make their decision.
5. I connect them to a broader support structure.
There can be no “saviour” complex with suicidality.
Loneliness and disconnection and worthlessness can only be healed in community, and community requires more than just two people.
Community needs friends, colleagues and acquittances. It probably will need a good counsellor or support group.
But one of the biggest things I’ve found that can make a difference for someone is a community of caring folks who are committed to them and would notice and care and lose out on something if anything were to happen to them.
6. I commit to walking with them for as long as they need me to be there.
Over the years that’s happened through texts or coffees, breakfast dates and late-night sobbing phone calls.
It’s come through creating space in our home for the person and in our community of friends.
For people to have come to a point of self-harm or suicidality took time.
For the shattered pieces of self to be made whole again will take time as well.
Which can only happen if we go back to the beginning and go through the cycle again and again and again for as long as it takes.
If anything in this post resonates with you, please do feel free to get in touch today!