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.
Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand
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 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.