The suicide deaths of 17 teenagers in and around Bridgend, Wales, since January 2007 has put the ugly subject of suicide back in the headlines across the UK and Europe as a whole.
It’s an ugly and heartbreaking subject because of the tragedy of wasted young lives, and the mess of shame, anger and recrimination suicide leaves with families and friends.
Psychologists and others in the region are looking for reasons as to why this spate of suicides is happening. Theories abound; including the idea – as yet unproven – that they are somehow directly linked via the Internet.
There may be sociological and even economic factors involved in suicide cases, but the bottom line is that nobody commits suicide who feels they have sufficient reason to live.
In the end, as one writer put it, suicide is the ‘ultimate disconnection’; the ultimate expression of pointlessness.
For some, it is also an expression of self-loathing and the feeling that the world would, in fact, be a better place if they weren’t in it.
Reading of the recent Welsh suicides is shocking, but this shouldn’t make us feel overwhelmed, or helpless to respond. When we talk about suicide as a social problem, it easy to talk in terms of numbers and statistics; yet these are just abstractions for individual human beings.
Suicide affects one person at a time - and nobody is beyond help.
Perhaps you’re concerned about a friend right now. Perhaps they’ve started acting strangely or saying things that sound self-destructive.
They’ve had their problems and you’re concerned that they may be contemplating a drastic course of action.
The good news is this: you can bring someone back from the brink of disaster. The process starts with recognizing the warning signs and treating them seriously.
What Are The Warning Signs?
Here are some of the signs that suggest a person may be contemplating suicide. None of these taken alone necessarily represents a threat, but if you’re seeing several of them all at once, you might need to pay special attention.
1. Major changes Normal Behaviour:
When normally outgoing people suddenly become sullen and uncommunicative, for example, or when a very good student suddenly starts failing in school, alarm bells might need to ring.
2. Sleeping Problems:
When people start sleeping at odd times, becoming tired during the day and overactive or restless at night, there may be deep psychological factors at work.
3. Changed Eating Patterns:
Excessive dieting or overeating may mask real emotional problems and self-rejection. The person may feel powerless to change their situation.
4. Apathy & Lack of Energy:
If a friend suddenly seems to lose interest in life, tiring of things that they used to find stimulating and interesting, you should take note.
5. Unexpected Cheerfulness after Long Depression:
This may mean that your friend has given up on his/her problems and may already have decided on a more drastic solution.
If a friend starts throwing temper tantrums, lashing out at others with physical violence or verbal abuse at the slightest provocation, keep a close eye on them.
7. Risk-Taking Behaviour:
When someone you care about suddenly and uncharacteristically starts getting into fights or taking unusual risks, take note. Sometimes, a sudden taste for playing ‘chicken’ on train tracks, or ‘surfing’ on from moving trains is a sign of deep disturbance.
For many people, especially the young, sexual promiscuity is a way of saying, ‘I need affection and a reason to live.’
9. Truanting and Use of Drugs:
Sometimes, a person who is skipping school or abusing drugs is saying, ‘If you care, you will stop me.’ Many people who try to commit suicide have mixed feelings about it. They’re actually looking to see if others think they're worth saving.
10. Neglect of Appearance:
This may reflect a low self-esteem, especially when the person lets his/her appearance degenerate in a short space of time.
11. Frequent Crying:
This may show that a person is no longer able to cope with their situation.
12. Self-Destructive Talk:
Always treat it seriously if you hear a friend saying things like: ‘Well, you won't miss me when I'm gone!’, ‘I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up!’, or ‘They'll be sorry when I'm gone.’ This may very well be a desperate last cry for help – even if it sounds flippant at the time.
How Can You Help?
The signs above should always be taken seriously -- especially, as I’ve said, when several of them occur together.
How can you as a friend or family member help someone who is in trouble and potentially suicidal?
1. Be Observant:
Take note of major changes in behaviour. Young people are especially vulnerable to major depression during times of upheaval in their circumstances. A death in the family or among friends, or fights in the home, or the break-up of a close boy/girl relationship, all of these can trigger depression.
Trust your instincts: if you see sudden changes in behaviour, recognize that there could be a much deeper problem.
2. Be a Good Listener:
Try to get your friend or family member talking about their problem. It’s not always easy, especially if the person has withdrawn into themselves.
Try to open up a path of communication. Perhaps say something like this: ‘I've noticed you haven't been quite yourself lately. Can I help?’
Don't trivialize the problem. Never say, ‘Oh, things aren't as bad as all that!’ and don't act in judgemental way or sound shocked (even if you are!).
Try to be constructive: ‘Have you thought about suicide before? What stopped you? What was it that made you want to live on?’
As your friend starts to respond, rephrase their statements and feed back to them what you think they’ve said. This allows them to fill in gaps in your understanding and it demonstrates that you're really listening and you really care.
This kind of empathic listening also helps your friend to order their thinking, following their thoughts and plans through to logical conclusions. If they open up to you, thank them for trusting you.
3. Try to Help Them Take More Positive Approach:
It’s important to try to help your friend solve the simpler aspects of their problem first – without treating the situation as simplistic.
Help them to see that there are solutions; that taking their lives is not a solution at all. In fact, it leaves behind a long trail of new problems for others, and it wastes a precious life!
Point out that problems are temporary – they can be worked out, or at least managed. Suicide, on the other hand, is final.
4. Remove all Lethal Weapons and Potentially Lethal Drugs from House:
Suicide can seem a much more attractive option when the means are within easy reach.
So, don't give a severely depressed person the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sleeping pills or other drugs. Don’t leave such things within their reach and be sure to remove all weapons, or articles that could be turned into weapons.
5. Don't Leave Them Alone Too Much:
Don't leave a distressed friend with too much unoccupied time on their hands. Try to involve them in outside activities or constructive pastimes, even simple ones such as cleaning the car, or cooking a meal.
Constructive activity, where a clear goal is achieved, can help alleviate feelings of despair.
You can’t be hanging around every hour of every day, but try as much as possible to ensure that your friend has someone around them most of time. Be creative in ensuring that help remains within easy reach.
6. Seek Outside Help:
Encourage a hurting friend to seek professional help. No matter how gifted you may feel as a ‘counsellor’, don’t ever feel ashamed to refer your friend to someone who is more qualified to help.
Ask your friend if there is someone they already feel they can talk to. If there’s not, or that person isn’t able to take them any further, seek help or advice on their behalf.
A professional counsellor, a trained pastor or even a trusted teacher can take the process to the next level.
© Mal Fletcher 1991 & 2008