I do not want to be here anymore.
That heartbreaking phrase is something no one wants to hear. Even more so, that is a feeling no one desires to experience. So, what do we do when someone feels hopeless? Do we engage in a conversation and provide support, or do we ignore it to protect ourselves? The answer to this simple question is a key component to suicide prevention.
Let us explore 4 scenarios.
Fran feels hopeless. Fran grew up in a world where everyone told her to “grow up”, “suck it up”, “build a bridge and get over it”, “stop being a baby”, etc. thus, Fran suppresses all of her feelings. Anytime she has reached out for support in the past, Fran felt like she was gaslighted and invalidated. As a result, Fran is afraid to feel, and even more terrified to speak up about it. Fran’s mind is now in control of her every thought. She thinks about dying all of the time, when she is walking, when she is eating, when she is driving, and when she is sleeping. Fran wants to give in to her hopeless thoughts, but she chooses to reach out for support one last time, in hopes that someone extends a hand back to her. Fran decides to open up about her hopeless thoughts. She shares with a confidant that she is profoundly struggling and having thoughts of suicide.
In scenario 1, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts out of fear. Instead of listening and holding a safe space, the loved one immediately says, “Do not say that! Do you know what that would do to me?” Fran immediately shuts down and feels like no one understands her. Fran interprets the response as the loved one does not care about Fran but only about themselves. As a result, Fran decides suicide is the only answer, because no one truly cares about her to provide the support she was begging for.
In scenario 2, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by blowing her off. Instead of listening and holding a safe space, the loved one immediately says, “You are being dramatic, stop trying to get attention.” Fran interprets the gaslighting as confirmation that suicide is the only answer because in the moment she needed it most, no one cared to truly listen and understand, instead they chose to belittle her feelings.
In scenario 3, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by listening and providing a shoulder to cry on. For the first time, Fran feels like maybe her life is worth living, maybe she is loved and needed more than she realized, maybe she is not the burden she felt like she was. Fran appreciates the support and views it as a sign to keep going. However, when the loved one does not follow up again, Fran starts to question if she has a support system, and the thoughts begin to worsen.
In scenario 4, when Fran opens up, desperately hoping for empathy and support, Fran’s loved one reacts by actively listening, repeating validating statements, asking non-judgmental open-ended questions when appropriate, and providing support. The loved one even offers to help Fran find resources that are available, if Fran is comfortable with the hands-on support. A few days after the conversation, Fran’s loved one follows up by checking in and reassuring Fran that they are there if and when she needs support, someone to talk to, or help in finding resources. Fran feels loved, safe, and not alone for the first time in a long time.
I understand it can be extremely difficult to engage in conversations about suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts); however, as these 4 scenarios show, our reaction when someone reaches out is an essential part of prevention. I understand that in the moment, it can be hard to know the proper way to react and respond. I understand that no one may have educated you on mental health conditions, depression, or suicidal ideation so you are uncomfortable around the topic. I understand that it can be terrifying to hear a loved one feels hopeless, and you did not know. I understand that there is a stigma on all thing’s mental health, and you were never provided the tools and resources you needed to learn the right way to approach the conversation. However, we have to start doing better.
That heartbreaking phrase that no one wants to hear is something many people around you are thinking and feeling daily. In fact, there are people who are so close to the edge that they can only think about how much they do not want to be here. If they reach out, if they find the strength and courage within themselves to speak up, I ask of you, please do not gaslight them and please do not invalidate them. Take them seriously at their word, actively listen to them, show them you care, and support them in a way that makes you both feel comfortable and safe. You do not have to act as their therapist, but you can connect them to a Crisis Hotline or to a therapist. You do not have to sit with them all day everyday to “watch” them, but you can sit with them now and follow up. You do not have to “save” them, but you can assure them that they are not alone in this.
You cannot save someone, they can only save themselves, BUT you can let them know that they ae not in this alone. You can be a source of love and comfort. You can be a reminder that everything eventually will be okay. Even in scenario 4, you cannot save Fran, but because you offered the support she needed, you made her feel like there was a reason to keep going. The thoughts did not suddenly disappear, and Fran was not healed immediately, which is why scenario 3 did not work. Following up is a key part of prevention and support.
So, what do we do when someone feels hopeless? We listen. We validate. We support. We show empathy. We follow up. We provide a safe space. We let them know that although they have every single right to feel what they are feeling, they are seen, they are heard, they are loved, they are worthy of this life, and they are more than enough. Even more than that, we make sure they know that they are not alone. When someone’s life is hanging on by a thread, our response can save their life or push them over the edge.
And remember, not everyone will feel comfortable opening up and reaching out for support, especially if they were gaslighted and invalidated in the past. Do not be scared to reach out and check in with your loved ones frequently. Be a consistent reminder in their life that they are not alone, and that you are there for them.
I will leave you with this, when someone is drowning and they reach their hand out for support, are you going to push them down, ignore them as they drown, throw a life raft and walk away, or reach out your hand and pull them back into safety?