How to Save a Life

Suicide. It’s a difficult topic, and most people will go out of their way to avoid talking about it. All of us know it’s a terrible thing, but most people have no idea how to help beyond posting the suicide prevention lifeline number on social media once a year. And yet, it’s a very public problem. According to the Center of Disease Control, in 2013, over 494,000 people were treated for emergency self-inflicted injuries and 41,000 people succeeded in killing themselves. It’s a very serious and widespread problem, and knowing how to talk about it can go a long way in preventing it.

I have mental health struggles involving depression and, at times, suicidal ideation. I’m pretty open about this. Some people are really freaked out by this; others need this safe space to talk about their own pain. I continue to be open about my struggles for that second type of person; but I also realize that the first type is just one unfortunate life event away from being the second type. Even people who are freaked out by my raw honesty about pain could eventually grow to need that understanding.

I recently had a friend at work, whom I’ve had mental health conversations with, come to me with a personal issue: a family member of hers was suicidal. The family was concerned, but didn’t know how to deal with it, so they weren’t really doing anything. My friend asked me a very blunt question: how could she save his life?

She was in a very tough position. It’s one I’ve been in a few times in my life. Being open about our own pain and depression isn’t just something we do to be nice or feel better—it can legitimately save lives. Knowing how to talk to people who are going through the worst times of their lives can be a life-and-death matter. There are a few things we can do to get through these conversations to ease the pain of others and, maybe, save a life in the process.

Don’t panic

The worst thing you can do if someone comes to you about severe pain or suicidal ideation is to freak out. I get it—it can be terrifying—but reacting like that often makes the hurting person sorry they brought it up in the first place. And they’ll be less likely to bring it up again.

In the web industry, we have something we call a long-tail conversion. It’s where you don’t expect visitors on your website to buy something right away. The first visit is the start of a conversation—a relationship—and it will probably take some research and thought on the user’s part to finally turn into a customer.

Saving a life is often a long-tail conversion. The first conversation may be just that: a conversation, not a conversion. The other person has to know that it’s safe to have a second conversation. They have to know you’re safe and won’t make them regret trusting you with their very personal feelings. Oftentimes, you won’t even know someone is struggling unless they trust you with their pain.

If someone comes to you with talk of suicide, be calm and nonjudgmental. Don’t lecture them on the morality of suicide or the importance of life. You don’t want the other person to feel like you’re blaming them for the thoughts that they probably never wanted, but are nonetheless stuck with. They already have more than enough shame and guilt, and adding more will just make things worse.

Realize it’s alright to feel some pain and depression

Talking to someone about pain and depression often turns into an exercise in changing the subject. People will tell you not to think about it, or try to distract you, or try to convince you that you’re wrong—anything but actually take a good look at the pain and try to make sense of it. People are uncomfortable with depression and suicide and that’s wrecking conversations about them.

If someone is asking what the point of everything is, changing the subject does not make things better—it frequently makes them worse. As I said, being in pain when no one understands is extremely lonely and isolating. If someone is reaching out to you with this concern, that’s a huge risk on their part and you need to take that seriously—you need to talk openly and honestly about it with the person who’s bringing it to you rather than speak in generalities and euphemisms that distance you from their pain.

When dealing with this quandary, I think of the movie Lost in Translation. If you haven’t seen it, it deals with two people at completely different spots in their lives who meet each other in a foreign country. The only thing they really have in common is that they’re lost in life. At the end of the movie, they’re both still lost—but they realize that they’re lost together with someone else. They’re not alone. And that’s enough to get them through the pain.

When dealing with questions of why life matters, you don’t have to have an answer. Being present is more important than being clever. It’s very acceptable to say, “You know what, I don’t know, but your concern is important. Let’s talk about it.” In fact, sometimes it can actually be more damaging to try to solve the problem because, honestly, sometimes there isn’t an answer. If you’re willing to get lost with someone else, that may be the greatest hope you can offer them.

You may need to do a care intervention

It’s always a good thought that leaves a door open for someone to come to when they need help. “Call me if you need me.” It really is a caring thing to say, and I commend anyone who says it. But, truth be told, it’s not the most effective thing to say.

Something a lot of people don’t realize about suicide is that it’s not always about ending the pain. Oftentimes, suicidal people feel like a burden and honestly think the world will be better off without them. They can feel like a burden on everyone around them, and they can worry that they’re testing the patience of even the friends who are sticking by them. If someone’s in that situation, they will not reach out to you. In fact, them sharing anything is only the tip of the iceberg, and there’s usually much more going on than you know.

If someone is contemplating suicide, it’s not enough to tell them to call you if they need to talk. There’s a good chance they feel their problems can’t be solved. If someone is truly at a point where they’re considering or planning suicide, you need to say, “I’m coming over now.” (Or just call them if you don’t live near them.) If they refuse, that’s fine—give them their space. For people going through the worst parts of their lives, I rarely see people turn this away. Most are relieved.

If this depression goes on for a length of more than a day or two, obviously staying with them may not be sustainable. That’s fine. Just check in frequently. Offer to bring them dinner. Don’t say, “Do you need anything?”; say, “What do you need right now?” Make sure they know you are not abandoning them even when you have to leave for a while.

Don’t do it alone

If all of this sounds very scary, it is. But you are never alone in trying to save a life. Even if no other friends or family will stand with you, there are professional services that can be there when you’re not, and they have training and experience that you do not to handle these sorts of things. Even if you can be there all the time, it’s a good idea to make use of these professional (free) resources.

The national suicide lifeline is the #1 resource for this. In America, it’s 1-800-273-8255, and they’re available pretty much any time of the day or night. Most people know this exists, but are unaware of some of their other features: they also have texting services and online chat for people who don’t feel like they can carry on a real-life conversation. These additional options can be a life-saver—literally—for people in the depths of overwhelming depression. They also have options for Spanish speakers and those hard of hearing. Read about options on their website.

If worse comes to worst and someone is definitely going to attempt suicide, the police can intervene—that is something you can call 911 about. If you’ve ever wondered how the word “commit” got attached to the word “suicide,” it’s because suicide is technically a crime in the United States. It’s not one you’ll go to jail or get fined for, but this gives police the power to prevent someone from committing suicide and keep them safe if they’re at a severe risk. They can detain the person under medical care until doctors determine that they’re no longer at risk. This is a last-ditch effort, but that option is available to you if all other avenues have failed.

If you’re looking for additional resources on how you can help prevent suicide, is the place to go. They’ve got detailed information on warning signs, prevention plans, additional resources, and more to help just about anyone who is helping friends through terrible times.

Just care

The biggest thing you can do to prevent suicide is to simply care about other people’s pain, honestly and genuinely. That one thing right there is half the battle, and finding someone who cares is sadly a hurdle that many suicidal people will never get over. If you can get into that habit, the rest of this stuff becomes much more natural.

Be on the lookout for people in your life who need help. It could make all the difference in the world for them.

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