Helping The Suicidal

HELPING THE SUICIDAL
     Suicide.  An ugly word for a desperate act.  Most people have been touched by the pain of someone giving up on life.  Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America (Rings Of Fire, Leonard Sweet, 97).  Statistics tell us an American takes their life at least every twenty-two minutes! (Rings of Fire, Leonard Sweet, 98)  That means you could easily find yourself talking to a person who is right on the edge of ending it all.  What do you do?  How can you offer this struggling person the gift of a life-saving conversation?  As a former crisis line worker and long-time pastor I have had hundreds of these intense encounters.  Here is some of what I've learned:  
      First, TRUST GOD.  If someone calls or approaches you and says, "I want to end my life," you will probably experience shock, and possibly fear.  It may feel like they have taken their emotional burden and placed it firmly on your shoulders.  Try to remember that God is sovereign and this person came to you because YOU CAN actually help them.   There is something about your abilities, personality, connection with the hurting person and experience that makes you uniquely qualified to help in some way.    God has allowed this moment and you can make a difference! 
     Second, ACTIVELY LISTEN AND OFFER UNDERSTANDING.  You do not have to say much.  Just simply, actively LISTEN.  The Bible says, ". . .be quick to listen, slow to speak . . ." (James 1:19).  Mirror back to them the emotion you are hearing.  For example, say, "So what I hear you saying is that you feel deeply rejected" or whatever emotion they are radiating towards you.    People want to be heard.  If this is an in person conversation take out your phone and turn it off in front of them.  Look them in the eye.  Say with your words, actions and body language that they matter; they are important to you.   
     Third, SEEK AND REMIND THEM OF CONNECTION.  Maybe this is your good friend.  Tell them how much they mean to you.  Look for their other connections.  Often the suicidal person feels completely alone.  They need to be reminded of those who care about them:  their mom, their friends.  Their connections are literally life lines at this moment.  Perceived isolation is a huge driver in the desire to kill oneself. Human connection saves lives.   
      Fourth, ASSESS THE LETHALITY OF THE SITUATION.  I literally had an individual say they were going to kill themselves with a rubber spatula.  Clearly this was not a high-risk situation. In contrast,  many times men have called me with a loaded pistol on the table in front of them; that is incredibly dangerous.  Is there a plan?  Do they have the means to carry out the plan?  Honestly, the hardest people to walk back from the edge are those who suffer chronic, physical pain.  They simply want the pain to stop.  If you are not with them, this assessment helps you decide if being with them physically is a good idea or not. 
      Fifth, OFFER HOPE.  When I worked for a secular crisis line this was more difficult as I had to look for various, individual sources of hope.  One simple, yet powerful approach is to offer to pray with the person.  I have seen prayer de-escalate many dark situations.  As a Christian minister, I am allowed and expected to point people to the hope found in Jesus Christ.  If a person can understand that God loves them passionately and paid the highest price through the cross of Christ to be able to have a relationship with them it can fill some of their emotional holes and offer a glimmer of hope.  Make sure to offer this hope in a respectful way.  I simply begin with "In my life I find hope in Jesus Christ. Would you like to hear how He has helped me when I struggle with deep sadness?"   Obviously if they say no, follow another direction. 
      Sixth, SEEK HELP.  You are not the end all for this person.  Particularly if this individual's problems are deep and chronic.  Point them to counselors, psychiatrists, pastors, and suicide prevention resources.  In our community the CARELINE is a wonderful resource.  They can be reached 24/7 at 877-266-4357.  They are trained to talk to those who are wrestling with suicidal thoughts.   Another valuable, local resource is the Arctic Resource Center for Suicide Prevention.  They do not have a 24/7 line but can still be helpful. Call them at 907-987-6829. 
      Seven, FOLLOW UP.  Remember that this person called or approached you because deep down they want to live, otherwise they would not have reached out.  So most likely they just want a nudge in the right direction.  I typically make a “deal” with the person that we will talk again the next day at a certain time.  Most people care about keeping their word and this helps them if their spirits sink after your conversation.  Always keep that appointment and check on them periodically after that.  This shows the person you really do care about them. 
     Life is truly precious.  I hope these suggestions begin to equip you if you find yourself in a scary conversation where life and death hang in the balance.    COVID-19 is the not the only epidemic, hopelessness is an emotional pandemic as well.  Offer hope!

Pastor Derek Dickinson
Journey Christian Church