Reach Out and Be a Lifeline
By Tabitha Aditi
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” – Archilochus
Suicide is an everyone problem. With every suicide comes a heartfelt exhortation to reach out, call the crisis line, and tell someone if you’re thinking about hurting yourself. We shy away from using direct, plausibly shocking or taboo words about death. It feels safer to cloak ourselves in language that doesn’t address the harsh reality of the endings of lives. We might feel a sense of awkwardness, vulnerability or embarrassment in case we’re wrong. We don’t want to impose ourselves on others.
Asking whether someone has thoughts of killing themself feels frightening. It’s a risk we need to take. The reality is that asking for help is incredibly difficult. It takes courage and strength. We compare our struggle with the people we see around us, and assume we’re doing okay. Maybe ours isn’t such a big deal; someone else has it worse, and we don’t wish to burden them.
Comparison is certainly true with service members and Veterans. Historically, stigma stalks military mental health in a number of ways: If they seek help, will they lose their job or their clearance? Will they be belittled? Are they up against “toxic masculinity”? Were they trained to compartmentalize their trauma? Do they self-medicate to cope with their pain? (See PsychArmor’s new course about this.)
Men, particularly, are taught that they’re weak if they show emotions other than anger, and are shamed for expressing themselves when they do. All of this leads to uncertainties that serve to feed feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
The impetus, then, is on us to ask first. This is why it’s important to break down the stigma before it becomes a matter of life and death. The more we’re able to get comfortable being uncomfortable and normalize these difficult conversations, the better our chances are of helping each other.
If we are to collectively bring suicide numbers down, we need to be better at addressing painful issues head on, despite feeling vulnerable when we do so. How do we do that? We get into the habit of talking with and actively listening to each other on a regular basis. It seems as though that would be simple, but it isn’t.
Listening is hard. It’s an art; a learned skill. To listen well, we take ourselves out of the equation. Now is not the time to make it about us. It is not the time for opinion or advice giving. Instead, we concentrate on what is said, rather than on how we plan to reply.
Focus on the feelings, not the “why.” It feels counterintuitive, but it helps.
Reflect back to the person what you think you heard (e.g. “I’m hearing you’re feeling overwhelmed,”) this helps make sure you’re both on the same page. If the speaker isn’t feeling overwhelmed, they’ll tell you.
You can use a strong word to emphasize the feeling they’re experiencing: (“It sounds like you’re in pain”). You can ask the person an open ended question to encourage sharing: (“How long have you been feeling this way?”).
You can validate their feelings, which gives them permission to talk, (“It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when you’re a freshman,”) and helps them not to feel as alone. It is better to validate positive feelings and behaviors, than to reinforce negative ones. All of these serve to build the foundation for a conversation in which the speaker feels heard. If the person is in crisis, it can be useful to commend them on their bravery or strength for being open to talking.
If you suspect there’s suicidal intent, ask. It can be scary to ask the question, but it’s better to ask than not to ask. It can be as simple as “Have you had thoughts about ending your life?”.
Talking openly about suicidal intent can be a relief to a person who is contemplating suicide. It may be a secret they’ve been keeping. Suicidal thoughts may have been dream-like or insistent, but being asked directly can help a person feel grounded and bring them back to reality.
At the bottom line, asking if someone is thinking about killing themselves helps that person feel seen. When we feel alienated from people we love, we can feel invisible, and as if no one will notice or care if we are dead.
There are programs which teach the appropriate steps to take in the conversation if the answer is “Yes”, but the basic premise of each is to risk assess by identifying suicidal thoughts, whether there is a plan, whether there’s access to means to carry out the plan, and to identify whether there is an imminent time frame.
You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line (741741) to request assistance if you feel unsure about progressing through a risk assessment on your own. In the end it comes down to letting your friend talk about what is going on and helping them find a way to stay safe that day. Where possible, ask them how to help themselves, rather than make the decisions for them.
It doesn’t take a trained professional to have hard conversations. It takes open-hearted humans with time to listen. As much as we’d like to believe we’re all different, our shared humanity is that we long to be acknowledged by one another. It is not true that once a person is intent upon suicide that they can’t be stopped. One conversation can save a life.
It takes practice.
The Veterans Crisis Line connects service members and Veterans in crisis, as well as their family and friends, with qualified, caring VA responders, through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text-messaging service. Dial 800-273-8255 and “Press 1” to talk with someone.
About the author
Tabitha Aditi is a volunteer with PsychArmor. She is also a volunteer Crisis Counselor with the Crisis Text Line and holds a BA in Psychology. She believes in the power of finding ways to tell our stories.