I’ve been suicidal several times in the last few years. I’ve also lived with a suicidal then-partner for a year. Oh, and an ex of mine killed herself. Umm… those are my credentials I guess.
This article is not about how to save someone’s life. I don’t feel I’m ready to comment on that. But in both my case and the case of my surviving ex partner, I don’t think either of us got that close to dying. Despite that, how we were treated definitely made a big difference to our wellbeing.
So yeah: suicidality IS a life-threatening illness, but it doesn’t always kill. For me it’s always manifested as a strong craving to die, sometimes an intense craving. Mostly, I’ve kept an awareness about me that this was a temporary state, and that another part of me wanted to keep on living. I feel that despite the intensity of my feelings, things would have had to have gone quite a bit further for me to actually die. In particular, suicide takes some planning, which is hard to do in an intensely negative state, and in my case I believe the state would have passed before I had the chance to complete any plans, even if I had begun them*.
*For this reason I am very wary of anything that can be used for a spontaneous suicide: medication and guns, for example. Luckily I live in a country where guns are hard to get a hold of, but I would be very careful not to allow myself to have too much of a medicine that can be overdosed on in my house.
I suppose suicidality must always be taken seriously. When you’re with someone who is suicidal, obviously you have to make sure that they don’t harm themselves. But that’s often not the hard part.
The hard part is this: giving the sufferer space to feel. Not burdening them with your feelings. Respecting them.
Too often, when someone expresses suicidal feelings, the other person freaks out. This gives the other person something more to deal with on top of their immense pain, and also discourages them from speaking up again. This is bad. People need to be able to speak about their feelings, especially such dangerous and painful feelings as these.
As with most expression of emotion, try your best to give the other person space. Don’t immediately jump in trying to “fix” them. While practical solutions are sometimes helpful, more often than not in these contexts they are a sort of defensive move from someone who is scared of emotions, scared of not having control.
So don’t reel out a list of things they could have tried. ESPECIALLY don’t imply they haven’t tried hard enough. They have.
Instead, listen. Stay mostly silent, and listen. Give comfort. Give company. Be there to prevent any self harm, but most of all be there for them.
I think it’s helpful to remember that most suicidal states don’t end in actual suicide. That is not intended to make you complacent; you should be appropriately watchful for any signs of it going further than just talk. It just means you can focus a bit more on being there for them, and a bit less on trying to control them.