Suicide: How To Help Someone At Risk

“We found him in our basement—two days after Christmas,” my neighbor explained. His words hung heavy in the evening air. “We knew my son was struggling,” he continued. “He had just lost his job, but he didn’t let anyone know how bad he really felt.”

Dead. Gone. Suicide.

People often ask, “What are the signs of suicide?” That’s the hard part. Usually there are no clear-cut signs pointing to such a level of desperation. Rarely does a person outwardly cry out for help.

The only “sign” may be that they grow quiet and withdraw.

Those who don’t want to live anymore often bear a striking resemblance to a drowning victim. Mario Vitton, a retired U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer noted, “Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event.” It is “not the violent, splashing call for help” that television and movies have conditioned most people to expect.

Why don’t drowning victims cry out or wave for assistance? It’s because of the automatic survival response in the nervous system that kicks in to keep the body afloat and breathing. Experts call it the “The Instinctive Drowning Response.”

“Drowning people are physiologically unable to reach or call out for help,” Vitton explained. The survival instinct forces victims to “extend their arms laterally and press down on the waters surface” in a desperate attempt to keep from sinking. He also added that “the respiratory system was designed for breathing.” In a drowning situation speech becomes “secondary,”and therefore unavailable.

In the same way, when people are drowning in a sea of emotional pain, their nervous system unconsciously swings into action.

Fight-Flight-Freeze. And when fight or flight seems impossible, the nervous system sees freeze as the only option.

Stop. Stiffen up. Go quiet. Shutdown—even while we feel the urge to move. It’s like stepping on the brake and the gas pedal at the same time, but we go nowhere—except to sink further down into toxic waters of despair. And stuck in that paralyzed state, our loved ones capacity to speak up, to signal for help, becomes seriously impaired.

Years of rescue swimming taught Vitton a way to be sure if someone in the water is okay. He advises asking them, “Are you alright?” He says, “If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.”

The same is often true for those who don’t want to go on anymore. Rarely do they look like they are the teetering on the edge of death. But if they become sullen; stop talking, pull away and become unusually evasive—then take that seriously. You may not have much time to get to them.

Stay calm. Try not to overreact, but move quickly and decisively. Go to them—even if it starts with a phone call. If you’re unable to go to where they are, or if you don’t know where they are, call a mutual friend to check in on them.

Share your concerns about their safety and tell them that they matter to you more they know. Assure them that there is no shame in struggling with depression or suicidal urges; that it’s part of how our broken world breaks us. Even one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament, Elijah, collapsed into a state where he lost his will to live (1 Kings 19:4).

Ask if and how you can help. Though they may not know how to answer or receive your help, asking shows they are loved.

If they open up to you, listen carefully and attentively to their pain—the kind that seems like it will never go away. Don’t offer pat answers. Leave religiosity out of it. Even if there are possible solutions that occur to you, refrain from sharing them. They won’t likely receive them well. They’re not trying to be difficult. They are simply not able to see possibilities or feel optimistic when they remain stuck in a state of freeze. And even if you explain what is happening to them, your caring analysis may sound like a rejection of their pain, and thus them.

Invite your desperate friend to make a commitment to you—one that says no matter how bad life seems to get that they will never take their life. Get them to promise to reach out for help next time.

If you think they are unable to keep from making an attempt on their own life, offer to drive them to someone or somewhere more qualified to help. Go with them to a hospital, or take them to a counselor, a pastor or another family member who can get them to the help they need.

Don’t become paranoid, but stay alert. Sometimes matters of life and death are not as they seem.

For further information on suicide loss and prevention check out Kay Warren’s website: Kay lost her son Matthew to suicide. Out of such a devastating loss arose a calling to help prevent suicides.

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