The Power of Listening: Recognizing and Responding to the Signs of Suicide
Suicide is a fact of life, a sad reality borne out by the annual suicide rate. In Canada, 11.3 per 100,000 people take their own lives, according to Statistics Canada, the central statistics source for the Canadian government. Approximately 60 percent of those deaths can be attributed to factors like mental illness and substance abuse. While it’s often not known what motivates people to take their own life, there are a number of warning signs. Learning to recognize these indicators and accepting that someone you know is capable of suicide are vital first steps in getting help. Yet many people are reluctant to get involved for fear that they’ll misinterpret the signs.
People struggling with drug addiction are at particular risk for suicide because they are prone to impulsive behavior. But help can come from many sources, including therapists, clergy, or health care providers. Intervention is often challenging, and those who intervene may be met with resistance or even anger, but the consequences of inaction can be catastrophic. The best approach is usually the direct one. Showing people you care might deter them from following through on their inclination by encouraging a dialogue and giving them an opportunity to open up.
Those who are suicidal exhibit changes in behavior. These may take different forms, but in general you’ll notice a tendency toward listlessness, a withdrawn, emotionally hollow demeanor. You may note a tendency to focus on death and dying, an overall attitude of hopelessness, an exhibition of self-destructive behavior, or an increased use of drugs or alcohol. If one or more of these signs is present, try to take a compassionate, understanding position and avoid lecturing or making them feel guilty. Try to be reassuring and acknowledge their thoughts and emotions. It’s often helpful to begin a conversation by saying something like, “I’m here to help; you’re not alone,” or “What can I do to help you right now?”
People sometimes say they “feel like dying,” or “I want to kill myself.” These are usually offhand expressions meant to communicate nothing more serious than anger or frustration. Or they may say there’s no reason to live, that they don’t want to be a burden, or they feel like there’s no other alternative. These are all very legitimate warning signs that should be taken very seriously.
Associated emotional states aren’t limited to depression and anxiety. Many fail to realize that emotional symptoms such as irritability or rage can be symptomatic of suicidal thoughts. Indeed, anger is often an indication that something is seriously wrong with an individual who’s usually of a temperate disposition. An individual may exhibit self-destructive behavior, actively seeking harm through irrational physical acts, including anything from drunk driving to unprotected sex.
What should you do?
It’s a desperate feeling, not knowing what to do or how to act around someone who’s threatening suicide. Many people feel uncomfortable or intimidated, not realizing how helpful just listening can be. But just allowing someone to share pent-up feelings can be powerfully therapeutic. Allow your friend or family member to vent emotions without passing judgment. Show patience, remain calm, and accept the validity of your friend’s feelings. Ask straightforward questions. If you’re worried your friend is considering suicide, ask him or her. Bear in mind that your tone and actions are very important. Communicate as you always have. In other words, be yourself.
A descent into suicidal thoughts can be an insidious process, and its symptoms are often easy to dismiss or overlook. The most important thing is to listen and convey that you care and are concerned. Many who act out in desperation do so because they believe no one understands or cares.
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