Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Question That Could Save a Life

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It takes courage to ask for help. Sometimes it takes just as much courage to ask if someone needs it.

Everyone has their ups and downs but if someone you know is acting differently, he or she could be depressed.

The Warning Signs

The warning signs to watch out for are:

  • changes in weight or appetite,
  • change in mood,
  • sleeping more or less,
  • drinking more than usual,
  • mood changes,
  • anxiety,
  • acting more aggressively,
  • making passing comments (or more) about death and dying,
  • disengagement from people and activities that once were enjoyed,
  • no longer seem to enjoy the things they used to,
  • knowing someone who has tried suicide.

More than anything, trust that ‘feeling’ you have that things aren’t quite right. Always trust it.

If You Suspect Someone Is Thinking of Giving Up …

If you think someone might be suicidal, ask the question. And be direct. 

There’s a misconception that discussing suicide might plant the idea, but it just doesn’t work like this. If someone is contemplating suicide, the idea will already be there. If they aren’t, talking about it won’t put the idea into their mind. Suicide isn’t caused by asking the question. Never has been.

According to Dr Scott Poland, one of the major causes of suicide are feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. People who are suicidal are hurting. Knowing  that someone has cared enough to notice and ask the question can interrupt the path towards suicide enough for the person to seek help.

Be direct. To start with, try something like, ‘You seem a bit down lately. Can we talk about it?’ Then, if you suspect, even in the slightest, that the person might be suicidal ask the question directly. ‘People who feel like that sometimes think about suicide. Do you have any thoughts of suicide?’ or just, ‘Are you thinking that you don’t want to live anymore?’

Skirting around the issue by using words like ‘hurting yourself,’ instead of ‘suicide,’ can give the message that talking about suicide is unacceptable and might undermine the conversation. Suicidal people aren’t interesting in ‘hurting themselves’, they’re interested in killing themselves. In indirect question is less likely to bring about a direct response.

And If The Answer is ‘Yes’?

If the answer is ‘yes’, take it seriously and don’t minimise the situation with responses like, ‘plenty of people feel like this but they don’t kill themselves,’ or, ‘it’s not that bad’. If someone is thinking of killing themselves, it is that bad. It’s as bad as it gets. What other people in the same situation did will be completely irrelevant.

Tell them you’re there for them and you’ll get through this together, let them know depression is treatable and help them get help.

An important question in response to hearing someone is suicidal is to ask if the person has worked out how they would do it. If the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ let them know that you’re here for them and help them get help. If the response reveals a clear intention to suicide and a plan, ask about the plan. Dr Pollard suggests to ask questions as though you were asking about a trip the person was going on: – where, when, how. Most importantly, get help immediately (call a national suicide support line or crisis line, take the person to a doctor or hospital, or if they won’t go, call the doctor or hospital for help). Most importantly, don’t leave the person alone.

Sometimes, if somebody has made the decision to suicide, they may seem happier than they have for a long time. This can be mistaken for a sign that the person has worked their way through to the other side of their depression and is feeling genuinely happier. What’s more likely is that the happy change has come about because the person has found a way to end their hurt, and it will just be a matter  of time. In this situation, stay vigilant, stay close and get help.

Talking about suicide is the surest way to keep safe those whose pain feels unbearable. It doesn’t matter is the words you choose aren’t the perfect ones. It’s not about the words – it’s about the connection and anything said with compassion and a genuine intent will not do any harm.

See here for what to say – and what not to say – to someone who’s depressed.

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