There is nothing as dreadful, as scary, as heart-wrenching as hearing someone say the words,
“I want to kill myself”
These are words you do not want to hear, at all. What do you do from that point? How do you help? What do you say, and more importantly, what shouldn’t you say? As scary as this scenario is, hearing this words is a subtle gift that a friend who is struggling gives. It is their way of crying for help, it is their way of giving you an opportunity to help in their journey, as hard as it is. Your response is critical as it could either be an doorway to healing, or it could be the end as they know it. Granted, it is an emotional moment and you may not be sure how to respond. Below are 10 common (cliché, need I add?) responses that only make it harder for suicidal people to speak up and ask for help.
NOTE: While these responses/questions are generally deemed to cast judgement on the affected, a number of people may respond in the positive. Secondly, in as much as you can help by been present, it is important to get medical attention immediately. Do not hesitate to do so. Check out this page that has suicide crisis helplines in Kenya.
- “Suicide is for weaklings”
The truth of the matter is, by the time someone is getting to the point of struggling with suicidal thoughts, they have already gone through so much. By the time one is searching on how to die by suicide, all rationality is gone and that statement is a cry for help. Saying suicide is for weaklings invalidates their feelings and only causes one who is struggling to keep to themselves – with dire consequences.
Instead: You can let them know you care instead. Assure them of your love and compassion. Be present. Stay with them. Offer a hug – it creates a safe space for someone who is suicidal
- “It is all in your head – snap out of it”
This is another common response given from an ignorant point of view. Depression and suicide are conditions that affect the mind. The mind does get sick, just as the physical body does. Do we tell people suffering from diabetes to snap out of it? There you have it. Additionally, people who are not aware of mental health illnesses have the warped view that suicidal people are doing it for ‘attention’ – which is absolutely wrong.
Instead: It is better to admit that you may not understand what they are going through, but that you will offer to be present and seek help for them.
Read More: Support Group Therapy for moms with PPD
- “You should be grateful. There are people who have it worse”
I hate to burst the bubble, but someone who is suicidal has likely thought about that already – and it feels like they can never measure up. This only adds to their brokenness because, while they are well aware they ought to be grateful, their mind just cant reconcile that with the utter hopelessness and emptiness that they feel.
Instead: Show empathy. You may not understand, but that doesn’t give you permission to be insensitive.
- “Suicide is selfish. Think about your family/kids/loved ones”
Suicide is NOT selfish.
Suicide is NOT selfish.
And there’s a reason why. Suicidal people genuinely feel worthless and absolutely hopeless. They feel like there’s nothing to leave for, and worst of all, feel like a burden to the very people you are asking them to think about. The mind convinces them the world would be a better place without them. Telling them suicide is selfish not only invalidates their struggle, it also makes it less likely to ask for help again.
Instead: Ask how to help, find out what they need and check up on them constantly.
- “But your life is not that bad, how can you think of suicide?”
Truth is that there are invisible scars that suicidal people carry which you may never ever get to see. The pain is underneath – whether it is getting molested by an uncle, getting raped by a work colleague, losing one’s family or even a still birth. On the outside, it may seem all okay, but the pains and ache remain etched in their minds forever. Asking how someone can think of suicide speaks of disbelief and judgement, not empathy.
Instead: sometimes, all you can do is listen and be present.
Read More: 5 celebrities who have struggled with PPD
- “You are not praying enough”
I can’t stop saying it, but, this is simply belittling someone’s struggles. It is likely that the depression/ mental health condition that has gotten them to the point of been suicidal has not allowed them to be able to pray in the first place. Telling someone they have not prayed enough/ do not have faith is just judgemental.
Instead: Consider affirming your love and support to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. Taking a minute can save a life.
- “You will go to hell”
Regardless of one’s religion, telling someone they will go to hell when they are suicidal only enhances the feeling of isolation and loneliness (which in many cases, only pushes them over the edge). In any case, the judgemental attitude does not show any compassion or empathy.
Instead: It helps to assure a suicidal person that their thoughts are not permanent (even if the person believes that they are), and then to offer a listening ear without any judgement. This offers hope and communicates empathy.
- “ Don’t do anything stupid”
This is a very dismissive response for the simple reason that it takes away from the importance and the urgency of someone’s struggles. Often, such a statement only alienates a person even more. You may be worried/ concerned – rightly so, but whatever you do, don’t dismiss it as simply stupidity.
Instead: You may ask, “I have heard you mention suicide, and I am concerned about you. Are you safe? I want to reach out to you, know I am here for you”
- “How’d you want to hurt me like that?”
First, this is not about you. Secondly, it is likely that someone who is suicidal knows that their absence is going to hurt you and their loved ones. It already makes them feel terrible. Getting them on a guilt trip is counterproductive, and often exacerbates the alienation.
Instead: You could say, I am sorry that you are struggling and hurting. But I will be here for you. You matter. You mean a lot (to me)
- Aaaand finally, one of the most cliché statements: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
At face value, this statement ‘sounds’ right, but a closer look reveals it is a fallacy, a popular one at that. First, the statement seems to suggest that suicide is a ‘solution’, and also belittles one’s problem as merely temporary. What of chronic mental health disorders, lifetime diseases and emotional scars?
The bottomline: When someone opens up to you about suicide ideation, it means that they have found a safe space in you. Responding harshly not only makes it harder to speak up, it also alienates them further. Granted, you may feel disappointed, hurt, embarrassed, even betrayed – but how you respond can make a big difference.
PS: This article was inspired by my last post which you can read here. I am, by no means, a health expert, but I struggled with suicide ideation and thoughts of harming my baby when I had Postpartum Depression. Some of the above statements are things I was told when I shared about my thoughts – and I switched off. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel alienated in their struggle with depression, so I put up this list with insight from the following websites: