Lighting the Way: Being There for Your Suicidal Friend

May 08, 2003 |Jenny Schroedel

Sometimes you can't see suicide coming. Sometimes you can -- and sometimes you can stop it.

Sometimes you can't see it coming.

In the cold, dark early morning hours of Dec. 12, an 18-year-old University of Chicago student jumped from the roof of his dormitory, meeting his death on the pavement below. With more than 600 students living in his tight-knit dorm, this introverted young man had slipped through the cracks. "None of us had really gotten to know him well," Kellie, a second-year student, said.

But his passing made an impact on Kellie. It moved her to form a suicide-prevention and awareness group called Tunnel Lights. "Had we known him better and listened more, things might have been different," she said.

This young man's death wasn't the only compelling factor for Kellie: She herself had attempted suicide three times as a teenager, and she knew there are a lot of people who've been through the same ordeal. "There are times in everybody's life when they don't have it together and they don't feel they ever will," she said.

The name Tunnel Lights came to her as she remembered what it was like to be a severely depressed person who becomes suicidal. "You don't feel like there are any other options . . . but there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

But when one friend is groping in the darkness, how can another point them toward the light? Here's what experts say.

Stay calm. Suicidal thoughts are scary, and not only for the person who has them. You can expect to experience a heavy dose of fear yourself if a friend threatens suicide. "You want to be the calm in the midst of the storm, but it does feel very chaotic," University of Chicago Pastor Daphne Burt said.

You also need to know when to be concerned. The popular conception that people who talk about suicide won't actually do it is simplistic. While it's true that many people who talk about it never follow through, of those who do, eight out of 10 expressed their intentions first, according to material published by Brown University Psychological Services in June 1994. And a lot of people follow through: more than 29,000 killed themselves in 2000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For every death, it's been estimated, there are between eight and 25 attempted suicides.Moscicki, E.K. Epidemiology of completed and attempted suicide: toward a framework for prevention. Clinical Neuroscience Research, 2001; 1: 310-23.

Robert Randolph, dean of students at MIT, has faced an average of one suicide each year in his 25 years there. Invariably after a suicide, students tell him that their former classmate expressed suicidal desires, but they thought it wasn't serious.

Talking is exactly what you want a depressed person to do. Don't be afraid to ask questions like, "Have you seriously been contemplating how you want to die?" If the person shares their plan with you, get specific. Ask them if they have a gun or pills on hand. The more thought-out a suicidal person's plans are, the more critical their need, Burt said.

Don't assume that getting a person to talk about their plans increases the likelihood he'll follow through with them, Burt added. In fact, more often the opposite is true. Letting the suicidal person share their secret with you may decrease their sense of isolation and may help you gage the urgency of the situation.

Be firm. When you hear that a friend is suicidal, do all that you can to get him into counseling. You may need to make an appointment for him with the university health center, and you may have to accompany him there — even if it makes your friend mad, Burt said.

Randolph urges students not to make promises they can't keep, a sentiment echoed by Burt. "It is very important for college students to know their limits," she said. "If a student says 'I need to tell you something and I want you to promise not to tell anyone' the answer is, 'I don't know if I can do that.' " Promising confidentiality in this circumstance could endanger your friend's life.

Be smart. Three years ago, Shannon O'Neill lost her 21-year-old sister to suicide. Her sister had struggled with bipolar and manic depressive disorders for years. Although she was an active Christian, her problems were deep and there was no quick fix.

Shannon's learned a lot from the experience. For one thing, she's learned that people struggling with suicidal thoughts often also suffer from some form of mental illness. "Mental illness is real," she said. "And if a person doesn't have it, they won't understand what it's like. It is a daily psychological disturbance."

Thus, if you're hoping to help a depressed friend, it's important to get educated about mental illness, Shannon said. It's also important to avoid ignorant remarks like, "Why can't you just be happy?"

Daphne Burt also struggles with chronic depression, and medication helps her function. Recently a depressed student told her that she couldn't understand why her faith did not cure her. "Depression makes you think weird," Burt responded. "It distances you from your real self. All these messages of happiness and joy don't get through." It doesn't work to simply try to force depression to go away by sheer force of will, she knows. "It's not a matter of will [power]."

Burt said that medication can help restore the chemical balance in a depressed person's brain. Sometimes it takes several different courses of medication to find the right fit. Some people only need short-term medication to jump-start their system, and then function normally without medication.

Pray hard. Prayer is critical for a person struggling with suicidal thoughts. O'Neill believes that these struggles have multiple dimensions. "The chemical imbalance in their brains is very real, but so are the lies and misconstrued notions that Satan feeds them," she said.

Our prayers reach out on behalf of the depressed person, even if we can not always be with them physically. "Nobody knows the depths of other people's pain. Nobody ever does. All we can do is hold onto each other and pray," Burt said.

Let go. As much as we seek to carry each other's burdens — as we should — there's also a point at which we must let go, and accept that the person we love ultimately will make their own choice.

Shannon O'Neill has a friend who struggles with suicidal thoughts. Her friend once told her, "There was no way you could have stopped your sister. If you had pulled the gun away from her, she would have found another way."

When a friend or family member ultimately decides to take their own life, it's hard for those left behind to avoid feeling overwhelming guilt. But Shannon learned early on to let go, especially of unanswerable questions, like "What if I had been there — could I have stopped her?" Those questions, she knows, don't help the grieving process. "We all possibly could have done better had we known the depth of her pain, but I don't even seek to ask those questions, let alone answer them."

When all is said and done you may not be able to rescue someone bent on suicide. But you can try to walk beside your friend who's journeying through a dark tunnel of pain. You can let him hear your footsteps alongside him, so he knows he's not alone. And you can look up to meet the light that comes from the unwavering gaze of God.

* * *

Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling, and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.

Copyright 2003 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.

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