A guest post by blogger and campaigner Jodie Goodacre.
**Twigger warning. The focus of this piece is suicide.**
Things to / not to say to a person who feels suicidal
Don’t say: You’re not thinking of doing something stupid/silly are you?
This was a phrase that I was frequently asked in sixth form. Whilst, most of the time this came from a place of genuine concern, the way in which it was worded left me feeling incredibly invalidated. It caused me to shut down, and suppress how I was feeling, because being called ‘silly’ made me feel childish, and this made me believe that I was only experiencing such distressing thoughts because I was not mature enough. Having experienced suicidal thoughts as an adult too, I now know that maturity has nothing to do with it, and it was simply my own self-stigma that resulted from negative reactions when I was younger.
Instead you could say: Are you feeling suicidal / Are you having thoughts of suicide?
If you have noticed a love one is acting differently be direct and ask the question. Don’t be afraid of saying the word suicide. By asking directly you show the individual that you are open to talking about suicidal thoughts and are taking their feelings seriously. This can help the individual to reach out to you, it might not be straight away, but it allows them to know you would be there should they want to talk.
Don’t say: Let’s just talk about something else
When someone has expressed they are experiencing suicidal thoughts, do not underestimate just how much inner strength it took to open up to you. The individual clearly trusts you enough to talk about how they are feeling so its very important not to shut them down.
Late last year I found myself feeling suicidal and scared for my own safety, yet I struggled to talk openly with the partner I had at the time. I eventually got the courage to speak to him about how I was feeling and he unfortunately told me that he just didn’t want to hear it. I felt like I had been shut down, censored to what I should say and feel, which only led to me feeling worse.
Instead you could say: Thank you for feeling able to talk to me
Acknowledge and appreciate that what they have told you would have been difficult for them to talk about and that they have trusted you in something personal to them. It may be distressing to hear that a loved one is in a lot of emotional pain, it is important that you give them the space to talk if they feel able to and you are non-judgemental when they do.
Don’t say: Just think of your family and friends
Chances are the individual has thought about their friends and family, over and over and over.
Whilst I was in a lot of emotional distress there was many days that all that kept me going was the thought of my family and friends. But there were also days in which I was totally convinced that all my family and friends would be better off without me, that I was becoming draining on them, a burden, and causing pain wherever I went. One quote from a John Green novel constantly came to mind, “I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up.”
Instead you could say: I am here for you
My friends made sure to remind me that I was not a burden, and that they were always at the other end of the phone and to call them, even if it was 11 o’clock at night, and whilst I was pretty sure I’d not call, it made me feel safer knowing that I could. Out of every conversation that I had during a depressive episode in which I was experiencing suicidal thoughts, the one line that was most powerful and left a lasting impact was “We will win this, together”, five words was all it took to make me feel much less isolated and that I wasn’t fighting this alone. It meant the world.
Don’t say: Things could be worse
This can make the individual feel invalidated. We should not put suffering on any kind of scale, we all experience emotions in different ways. A ‘bad day’ some might be the worst day imaginable for another. The same with good days, what one person might see as their ideal day and the best experience of their life, another might see it as just another standard Tuesday. It’s a cliché saying, but just as though you wouldn’t question someones happiness because someone might appear to have it ‘better’, don’t question another’s sadness. It can lead to the individual feeling worthless and though they are not entitled to having their own emotions, without them being judged against someone else’s. Sure, compare your favourite novels, but try to avoid bringing individuals emotions into a comparison game of ‘top trumps’.
Instead you could say: How can I help?
Ask directly. Sometimes we can get caught up in wanting to help an individual so desperately that we forget to actually check what it is they need from us. We try to ‘fix’ because we care, but everyone has very individual needs, so a simple ‘How can I help?’ can open up different options for supporting the person.
Don’t say: At least it’s not…
Finally, one of my least favourite sayings. Sure, I may say it sarcastically or during a joke with a friend, but during a serious conversation about how something is making another person feel try to avoid using ‘at least’. This goes back to the above point of ‘things could be worse’, it’s invalidating and can lead to a dangerous ‘comparison game’.
Instead you could say: That must be really difficult
You don’t always need to offer advice or suggest things, but simply acknowledging what the person is going through and taking it seriously can make a huge difference. It allows the individual to feel heard, and understood and that means an awful lot.
Finally, remember that it is okay not to have all the answers, you do not need to be the individuals therapist, just their friend, family member, colleague etc. Sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is to be silent, whilst you truly listen to what they have to say.