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22 January 2007 @ 01:45 pm
How not to talk to suicidal friends (if you want to keep them alive)  
I occasionally encounter posts by a former friend through other friend's f-lists. Enough time has passed that I feel more neutral about this person and mildly curious how their circle is doing, since I used to be a part of it over a decade ago.

But I was shocked to read this person's take on how to respond when a friend expresses suicidal thoughts and feelings, based on my perspective as a trained suicide crisis line counselor and a person who has been suicidal. Rather than involve their identity, here is the content:

I believe that suicide is the ultimate violation of the social contract we make when we love others. While I am not doing anything to stop you. I am telling you what I feel and what I believe. I always tell my friends the truth of what I think and believe. I will not lie to you. I do not think suicide is acceptable except under extreme circumstances. Your circumstances are able to improve. They are not without possibilities. You have other options.

(Omitted: account of four people in their life that died from suicide and what a painful betrayal that was.)

Suicide is a violation of the love and time people give you. A violation of their trust. You make your choices, but know that if you kill yourself, I will not forgive you. I will feel it is a violation of the trust I have shown you. I don't usually talk about this stuff. Especially in writing. It sounds cruel here rather than showing my pain.

I am already loosing someone this month. Things are hard enough. My friend and mother-in-law is dying of cancer. She has fought hard. I feel angry that you would throw away what she fights to hard for.: I live with chronic pain higher than most people will ever understand. I have lost a lot of people I have loved in my life. I have been assaulted by the woman I loved. I have had my child literally ripped from my arms. I found a way to keep going and find a better way. You can too.

It is a choice. You would be choosing to throw away the people who love you. It is a rejection of us. I will tell you what I have told my son. Life is worth fighting for, to keep fighting to keep and to make better. As long as one is alive, there is a possibility of things getting better. You kill yourself -- you kill all love, all hope. And if your parents are alive, it is, as far as I am concerned, a violation of their love of you. It is wrong, very wrong for a parent to ever have to bury their child. It makes me sick.

Suicide is still murder. Your life is not just about you. Your life is about the connections you have made with other people. Humans do not live outside the social fabric. Your life is intertwined with everyone else. Murder, in all forms, especially suicide, rips the social fabric. You demonstrate that you do not care about others if you do this. It is not self care to murder yourself. It is self destruction.

I am someone you said you care about. If you do not want me as a friend, that is something you can revoke. You make your choice. But I still have the right to tell you how I feel about that choice. The choice of murder is not something I can condone or accept.

I care about you. I have let you know how I feel. If you value me as a friend you will think about this. I am not telling you this because I don't care. It is my opinion that friends tell you the truth about what they think about your actions. I have done the best to do that. If you want to talk, I am here. If not, that is also your choice.

My first problem with this response is that there is so much shame and judgment about suicide already in our society, that this friend took a huge risk to even mention it to this person. It is vital that suicidal people be encouraged to feel emotionally safe to open the subject so that they can receive the help they need to remain alive. If they sit alone with such thoughts and feelings from fear of judgment and shaming, they are more likely to act on those feelings. Enhancing their feeling of being loved and connected to others, without guilt-tripping, is an important element in helping them believe that they can survive and that they have the support available to help them do so.

My second problem with this response is that under the guise of honesty, this person is using the suicidal person to help them work on their own feelings about past suicides in their life. If this were your past history, it would be better to simply say, "In the past people I love have committed suicide and I have strong feelings about this. I want to help you find someone who may be able to talk with you about this without bringing those feelings into it."

It is also important to express how and why you value this friend, reminding them of their many positive qualities at a time that they feel inadequate and their self esteem is at a low ebb. In that way many of these same feelings about violation of the social contract and friendship can be expressed in a more positive light without shaming the suicidal friend or appearing to be victimized by their suicidal thoughts. I notice that it is only at the end of this long recitation of why this suicidal person is wrong and inconsiderate is there any mention that the writer cares about them. That needs to be the first sentence!

While accusing the suicidal person of thinking only about him or her self, the author appears to be doing the same thing. The focus is on what the suicidal friend might potentially do to her, rather than on assisting that friend to find other options for their situation. One of the features of suicidal thinking is that it's difficult to see options. The suicidal person is simply not thinking clearly. It's easy to say, "You can do it, you can live, you can solve your problems, don't give up." To the suicidal person it seems impossible and no amount of lecturing or cheer leading in this vein is going to change that.

I recommend the site http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/ for more information, and these pages for talking to a suicidal person:

by phone: http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/sphone.htm


in general: http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/whattodo.htm

Once upon a time a good friend helped me decide to live and brought up the same point about being intertwined and interconnected. I am very fortunate that she did so in a way that made me feel valued and cared for rather than judged or shamed.

At some point in the future I will amend this post to remove this person's material, but it is essential to my discussion of it and, I feel, useful to illustrate why support and acceptance are so important in this situation.
Current Location: confidential
labrys6 on January 23rd, 2007 12:22 am (UTC)
So Don't Forgive Me, and BTW? F*** Off!
Yep, that would be my reply to that person if that is what she said to me when I was suicidal. And yes, I have been there. And yes, I have had people close to me commit suicide. I find all her arguments singularly selfish---I don't consider ANY committment to any loved one in my life such that I would give a rat's ass if they forgave me or not if my own pain was so engulfing that I literally couldn't live with it anymore.

You were FAR nicer about her preachy little fit than I would have been. And personally, just for the record? I do not consider every suicidal person irrational or incapable of thinking clearly. But I have to say, even if I WAS perfectly crystal clear before getting that little ass-scented lecture? I would have made rapid progress at getting unclear!
Sheesh, what a dummy.
Tapatitapati on January 23rd, 2007 04:00 pm (UTC)
Re: So Don't Forgive Me, and BTW? F*** Off!
I was endeavoring not to be too incendiary in case our mutual friends report back to her, I don't really want to start a flame war over it, I was just so shocked that anyone could respond to a suicidal person in that manner I felt I had to address it. She has commenting blocked or I'd do so directly, because her f-list supported her little rant with one exception. I was also amazed she did this in an instant message where intonation is completely missing and no one can hear concern in your voice (assuming it's there).

I ended our friendship over her self-absorption, and this just makes me glad I did so before I was suicidal.
labrys6 on January 23rd, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
Re: So Don't Forgive Me, and BTW? F*** Off!
Oh, I understand that---it was quite clear other factors were involved. But gee, as you said---self absorbtion on an Olympic gold level here. Its pretty rich she dares invoke social contracts with that attitude. I'm glad you ended your friendship, too.
cindy_dutracindy_dutra on January 23rd, 2007 12:28 am (UTC)
I think I disagree with that reaction to suicide about as thoroughly as anything I've ever read.

First, it seems like guilt-tripping someone who's feeling suicidal does nothing but increase the level of pressure in their life. Which is counterproductive, to say the least.

Second, sorry, unless at the beginning of our relationship you provide me with a written copy of this social contract you're talking about, the agreement is wholly one-sided and non-binding. Furthermore, if someone is suicidal, they're not in a rational enough place to process obscure 18th century philosophical constructs.

Mostly, I object to the Me Me Me attitude. This shows little concern for anyone who's suffering, and a whole lot of concern about how this suffering might impact the author.

I lost a good friend to suicide three summers ago. Towards the end she was screaming about the demons who'd possessed her soul. Maybe this author sees this differently than he/she sees the withering cancer patient looking for release. I don't.

I'm angry at the shrinks and hospitals who let my friend go home after several failed attempts - and while I was angry at her at first, now I see that's about as fair as getting mad at someone for getting hit by a car.
Tapatitapati on January 23rd, 2007 04:07 pm (UTC)
I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. I know losing someone to suicide is the most complicated and painful form of grief there is--the major factor in my continuing to resist whenever I feel that way myself. It's also very true that our mental health system leaves a lot to be desired. These limited hospitalizations don't tend to work very well--they don't last long enough to do any good and the person leaves in a volatile state that could result in tragedy depending on what happens when they leave.

Your remarks about the social contract bit got me thinking. I suppose one could just as easily respond with, "Well, in my social contract with you as a friend, you're supposed to be compassionate and supportive when I'm in so much pain that I feel like killing myself, and help me find an alternative rather than preach at me in an instant message."

It's good to clear up these little expectations in one's relationships.

Reading this also made me very relieved that I am no longer a part of this woman's life and that I wasn't when I was suicidal. Way to verbally push someone off a cliff!