Helping a Suicidal Friend

Some 25 years, or more, ago, I met and got to know a presentable, and considerably younger, man. As we got to know each other it became fairly obvious that Ken – not his real name – had his problems. Despite that I enjoyed his company for the most part. Eventually he moved into my spare room and it became very apparent that he was suicidal – and there were times when he acted on these thoughts and feelings.

He stayed with me for quite a while and I encouraged him to get help from a variety of counsellors. However, most of these he found unsatisfactory for one reason or another. For my part, I concentrated on trying to provide a stable environment for him to spend his time in when he wasn’t working.

Eventually, he went overseas and some years later hanged himself one night in a public park.

Because of that background I developed quite an interest in suicide and when the opportunity came to participate in a three day seminar facilitated by Professor George Thomson, from UCLA, I took it.

It turned out to be a very good move. George was not only a Professor but also conducted a private counselling service specialising in suicidal clients - and he well knew how to facilitate a very worth while seminar.

I still have my notes from that time, and what I remember most clearly is the fact that George had come to the conclusion that the tendency to commit suicide can develop at an early age, even as young as four. As he explained it, young children can very easily blame themselves for things which go wrong in their family which leads to the thought that “if I go away everything will be all right again”. George suggested that at that young age children do not have their concept of time fully developed and for that reason they could not foresee that, while their parents’ problems might be resolved if they had “gone away”, they would not be there to benefit, which is what they wanted. Furthermore, as George explained, at that young age “going away” is seldom a practical option. However, the seed of the thought that “going away” could solve a problem has been sown, and in later life, when crises occur, it can come to the fore again. George elaborated on this with his explanation that many of his clients reverted to the child-like logic of children around the age of seven. He quoted a number of examples of this, and the one which is clearest in my memory is that of one of his colleagues, one of whose clients rang him (the colleague) in a considerably agitated state late on a Friday afternoon. After a fairly long discussion on the phone they agreed to meet on the Monday morning. The agreement was kept by the client, but not as George’s colleague had expected – the client had committed suicide in such a way (place, time and method) that he knew his corpse would be in the morgue of the hospital, where the therapist had his rooms, on the Monday morning.

There are at least two important lessons which can be learned from that example.

  • The first is the fundamental importance of language when working or spending time with some one who is thought of as likely to commit suicide. In the above example, the client had kept to the agreement – no one had specified that he (the client was a “he”) should be alive when they met, and he had taken considerable to care to keep to the specific terms of the agreement.
     
  • The second is the fact that successful treatment of some one who is talking about committing suicide is not necessarily a permanent cure – another crisis in that person’s life can again trigger the thought that suicide is an option. For this reason the treatment of some one who is considered to be likely to commit suicide has to take into account the need to identify, and then help them to deal with, the initial trigger, as well as the current one, and also any others which have occurred in between.

George also made the point that people do need to be alive if they are to be helped, and if respecting someone else’s wishes might lead to their suicide, any help will have failed and any further help will be impossible.

I am not a therapist nor am I a counsellor, so I’m not going to suggest any specific approaches to the treatment of those who have shown a tendency towards suicide.

However, from the point of view of “first aid” for some one who you think might be likely to commit suicide, an important first step is to reach agreement (or establish a ‘contract’) on the basis that that person will not physically harm her/himself or anyone else until an agreed meeting between that person, and a specified other person, has taken place at an agreed time and place. Needless to say, such a meeting should be arranged with as little delay as possible so that a professionally trained person can start helping.

It is also important for you to keep in touch with the “possibly suicidal person”. This web page has been written on the basis that you, the reader, may want to help a friend. A good strong friendship is an excellent basis for establishing a “no suicide contract” which is agreed between you and your friend. It is also important that your friend and the therapist he/she is put in touch with get along well with each other. However, the reality is that we all react differently to different people and there is always the chance that someone you refer to a counsellor may not get on well with that counsellor. If that happens you can give further very useful help by finding other counsellors your friend can be referred to. Hopefully, your friend will get on well with one of them.

From the above you will realise that working with someone who has suicidal tendencies is not always a quick and easy process. If you do become involved with a person who has such a problem it is important to do everything you can to make sure that they receive professional therapy or counselling as soon as possible. If you wish to explore the issue of suicide further, it should be obvious that you’ll need to find a good source of professional teaching, and these days there are a number of established options. And always remember that if a friend does end up committing suicide in spite of your efforts to help, it is a decision that person made and it is not your fault.

Finally, If you do know someone who is threatening to commit suicide, always take any such threats seriously and if, on the other hand, you are feeling the least bit suicidal yourself, don’t waste any time getting to a reputable counsellor or therapist.


References

Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand

 

thelowdown

Targeting the 13-24 year age group, thelowdown website provides information that will allow users to identify depression in themselves and others, better understand it and get help for it through a variety of interactive online tools.


SPINZ

SPINZ is a New Zealand wide suicide prevention information service assisting communities and services to prevent suicide by providing them with best practice information.

SPINZ is a part of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.


Campaign for Action on Family Violence

The website for the national Campaign for Action on Family Violence


Please take a moment and watch this video of Mel White, our founder, speaking to young people about bullying. It is so powerful and I think you'll agree when I say what an amazing gift Mel has been in all of our lives and continues to be through the work of the young adults he had mentored.

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Hi,I am a bellydance tahecer and would love to offer classes to survivors of abuse who may benefit from increased body awareness, body control and a little sparkle in their lives. I am studying a psychology degree but would like further training and advise. Could you give me any suggestions please'? Thank you
john.g's picture

Hi there

Felt so hopeless looking for answers to my qu.iesons..tuntil now.

this is bad i am going to neck my self thanks for nothing i am a bisexual queer and i cry every time i like this guy at my school and he doesnt like me i want the D

Hi Ollie, It is heart breaking to love someone and not to have your love returned, I know how that feels as I had that experience in the past. It was all the more difficult because I was sure that I was the only gay of all the people I knew. Then I came to read of a poem by W.H.Auden (one of the many gay poets I came to love) - The More Loving One. 2 lines were etched into my heart and provided me solace throughout my life whenever I was love sick or heart broken: "If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me". As I know how bad it feels to love and love not in return, if we really love that person so much, then let me be the one who suffers such pain and not my loved one. Every line of the poem resonated in my love sicked heart but as the poem indicated, over time, you wouldn't miss him any more, time will heal. The following is the whole poem: Looking up at the stars, I know quite well That, for all they care, I can go to hell, But on earth indifference is the least We have to dread from man or beast. How should we like it were stars to burn With a passion for us we could not return? If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me. Admirer as I think I am Of stars that do not give a damn, I cannot, now I see them, say I missed one terribly all day. Were all stars to disappear or die, I should learn to look at an empty sky And feel its total dark sublime, Though this might take me a little time. Please use the Contact us link below to chat if you wish to chat in more details or in private.

Living in Aus. The same sex plebiscite just makes my depression worse

You have a life and kids

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