The following piece discusses the topic of suicide, and it may be a trigger for some people. Please call the numbers below if you need help.
Thankfully, we now live in a society that accepts that mental illness is a real and genuine battle. For some people with mental illness, battling intrusive and intense suicidal thoughts is a constant feature of their illness. When an individual is seeking support, the way that people respond, can make a huge difference to the outcome of the episode.
I have battled suicidal thoughts since the age of eleven. No matter how hard I have tried to get better, or prayed that these thoughts would go away, these types of thoughts remain a part of my illness. The following is based on my experience in the hope it will provide you with some tools you can use to support your loved ones.
It is vital that people do not assume they have all the answers to help someone battling suicidal thoughts. Each person’s experience with mental illness is unique to them. In my experience, when someone asks me how they should support me during an episode, they are the ones that provide me with the best support. It is those that assume they have all the answers to help someone who is suicidal, that are the most negligent in their actions.
When supporting someone through suicidal thoughts, it’s important to remember that in most cases, you are dealing with someone who has an illness, and they can’t help the way they are thinking. They can implement strategies to control the temptations and urges that come with battling suicidal thoughts. They can try to challenge and diffuse the thoughts in their mind.
The person is not acting suicidal because they are trying to get attention, or they are just being naughty, or are deviant in some manner, but they are sick. The person is not behaving or thinking this way because they want to. They are not looking for ways to destroy relationships or sabotage a situation, they are sick. By thinking and saying things like this, you may be deterring the person from seeking help the next time they find themselves in this desperate situation.
It is not always helpful or necessary to send a person to hospital at the first sign of suicidal thoughts. The reality is they are probably battling thoughts like that by themselves most days. Sometimes though you can become weary of battling thoughts or the thoughts become too much to handle by yourself, and therefore you need a supporter to step in, so you don’t feel alone in the battle.
Here then are a few things I find helpful when I am battling intense suicidal thoughts. Your loved ones may or may not find this helpful, but the only way to know is by asking them.
Encourage the person to seek professional help – Most people with a severe mental illness have safety plans in place. Ask the person what level of risk they think they are at (low, moderate or imminent). Assess the situation yourself to determine whether the person needs to be taken to hospital, or an ambulance needs to be called. It is usually pretty obvious if you are at that point. If they are not at the point of needing hospitalisation, encourage them to reach out to their treating team. If a person doesn’t have a treating team, encourage them to see a GP to get connected with mental health professionals. Having a good psychiatrist and psychologist makes all the difference in a mental health episode.
Remain Calm – As much as possible, supporters should remain calm. The person in the episode is already agitated and distressed, and if the supporter is stressed too, it only makes the situation worse.
Assure them they are not alone – For some people, part of the reason why they want to end their life is because they feel all alone in the world.
Pray – If you both believe in the power of prayer, then pray. The person may not be in the position to pray for themselves, but pray for the person instead.
Ask questions and listen to the response – Ask what they are thinking and feeling. Ask them if they believe that it is true, and why they believe that it is true. The answer they give will probably not be accurate or a true description of the situation, but acknowledge to them all this seems real at that moment.
Validate their experience – Validate the thoughts that they are having may seem real to them, but remind them that thoughts are just thoughts and they cannot harm you.
Help them to challenge their own thoughts – Avoid telling the person their thoughts are wrong or giving them answers. Instead, help the person to challenge his or her own thoughts. If you don’t know how to do this, and the person is unable to challenge his or her own thoughts, then seek professional help. See if they can reach their own mental health team, the community mental health team, or call a mental health hotline.
Remember that the person is acutely unwell – Please know that if a person is in an episode, they are going to say things that they wouldn’t ordinarily say, such as nobody cares about me. Please know that they are sick, and they do in fact appreciate your care for them.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call any of the following phone numbers to talk to a trained counsellor:
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
Headspace 1800 0650 890
SANE Australia 1800 187 263
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467