How to help save a life

At 14, a boy, so distressed by incessant bullying, took his own life. He left a note for his family and friends, reminding people how important it is to reach beyond labeling and intolerance.

At 14, a girl hanged herself; she looked for all intents and purposes to be a normal teen, active, involved, successful in school, but quietly feeling alone and hopeless.

At 13, another girl attempted suicide numerous times and then grew determined and leapt to her death; although she often seemed happy, in private she fought her own demons.

These youths, whose stories have been changed to protect families, came from different regions, but in many respects they all are “our children”—and we need to learn from their acts of desperation.

I talk with kids and their families all the time; it’s what I do in my work.

Young people usually talk about all kinds of stuff, from their favorite color to their sadness about parental fights. Sometimes, the conversations are funny, sometimes profound, but most often the children are pretty open.

Then they grow older and enter adolescence. They still want to talk, but they’re more cautious now—cautious to gauge trust when they are feeling vulnerable; cautious because they are learning to assess what is okay to say in a given situation; cautious because the teenage code of loyalty to friends makes sharing even important information with an adult uncomfortable.

But suicide …. How do we begin to talk about it? It’s uncomfortable; it’s sinful and selfish, some people say, but what can we possibly do?

Well, I will tell you that we can arm ourselves with understanding. If you’re never faced with irrational thoughts of depression, anxiety or other mental illness, it’s probably hard to understand how someone can believe, even for a moment, that it makes sense to step in front of speeding traffic or overdose on medication or jump from a moving car.

It’s not that it seems like a good idea, it’s just that there seems to be no way out—no end to feeling worthless, alone, or surrounded by darkness.

Most people who struggle with thoughts of suicide don’t really want to die; they just want the pain to stop.

No one is oblivious to pain, but not all distress is equal. Mental health problems add complications to a person’s ability to deal with overwhelming situations—and it makes it harder to understand what underlies decisions.

We know that 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from some type of mental illness, often undiagnosed and untreated. Sometimes we can help, sometimes not, but learning to recognize what might be clues to a person’s intent and knowing what to do next are important steps in trying to minister to those living in quiet desperation.

Nearly everyone who attempts suicide has given some sort of clue. Here are some signs that someone may be at risk.

•    Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
•    Being preoccupied with death
•    Talking about feeling hopeless, defeated or without any reason for living
•    Sleeping too little or too much
•    Behaving recklessly; increasing use of drugs and alcohol
•    Withdrawing from friends and family
•    Loss of interest in things that have been important
•    Giving away prized possessions
•    Saying goodbye to people about whom they care.

The more warning signs you see, the greater the risk for suicide. In addition, the risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss or change.

If you recognize that someone may be at risk, you need to respond. Be careful not to dismiss what you are seeing—you may be wrong, but then again you may be right.

It’s okay to ask if someone is considering hurting themselves. Studies show that people don’t start thinking about suicide because someone asks. This question demonstrates that you care and that the person is not alone.

If someone is willing to talk, listen to his or her feelings. Sometimes people who are considering suicide won’t tell you, but if you’re concerned don’t be afraid to alert someone who can help.

If you are really worried, don’t leave them alone. Talk with them about the steps you can take together to keep them safe. Don’t promise to keep this a secret; you shouldn’t be the only person supporting them. Even if they are angry with you, remember having an angry friend beats having no friend at all.

Get help by talking with an appropriate adult, a parent or someone skilled in handling crises. That person will help you contact a crisis line or emergency services, a doctor, a counselor or the local hospital emergency room.

However, lest we forget, although youth suicide is a great tragedy, adults between the ages of 45 and 60 and older adults take their own lives at higher rates than teens.

In the right circumstances, any of us can face depression and despair.

What we’ve learned from those who have gone before is that life is precious. In whatever way we are able, we need to be vigilant and to reach out to one another.

You never know when simple compassion may save a life.

Patricia Peltier Russell “Ms. Pat”

Outreach Counselor
Diakon Family Life Services

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