Straight Talk About Suicide: Resources for a Supportive Conversation

Suicide in the public safety field is a very real issue. With the increased emotional toll and risk of trauma for first responders, the likelihood that a co-worker is struggling is high. And few public safety professionals are specifically trained or coached on what to do if a co-worker reaches out about their mental health.

In Envisage Technologies’ Suicide Intervention webinar, Amy Morgan, mental health professional and director of Academy Hour, offers important guidelines for individuals trying to help someone choose life over suicide.

In addition to the guidelines that follow, you might find these three resources helpful:

People hide their struggles

It may seem to you that a co-worker has everything going for them. But especially in public safety fields where strength and toughness are seen as job requirements, vulnerability may be seen as a weakness. Someone may be working very hard to hide their feelings of depression and anxiety.

As a consequence, they may feel very alone, believing that others won’t understand, can’t be trusted, or don’t want to help. They may have tentatively reached out, only to be told “Don’t feel that way,” or “Snap out of it.” These kinds of negative messages reinforce their feelings of alienation and isolation. Those feelings are then added to the long list of emotions they are hiding, and the cycle intensifies.

Accept where they are

Looking at them from the outside, you might wonder, “Why don’t they just solve their problems?” Put simply: You don’t know what’s going on inside their head.

Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Chemicals decide almost everything for us and are very powerful.

Anxiety and stress create hormones that hamper the decision-making part of the brain. These can overtake your ability to think and use good judgment. People feel overwhelmed and cannot see options for helping things improve.

When talking with someone who is struggling, first acknowledge that their feelings are real.

They are not being selfish

Often, people considering suicide are accused of being selfish, as though they are not thinking about the hurt and grief they will leave behind. Actually, they often feel like a burden and might believe they are doing their loved ones a favor by getting out of the way.

Show them you are willing to listen, and remind them that other resources are available, so they can get help without feeling like a burden to their friends and family.

Don’t beat around the bush

Most of us are reluctant to talk about death, especially suicide. That taboo makes things even more difficult for people having suicidal thoughts.

Ask directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. Don’t soften the question. Don’t ask, “Are you thinking about doing something crazy?” Their thoughts make perfect sense to them, and they won’t respond to the implied judgment. A more appropriate approach is, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” If they are thinking about ending their life—possibly by violence—they need to know you understand where they are, and are not afraid to talk about it. You then become a safe place for them to share.

You need to say the words, take the lead, and ask the direct question without being afraid of the answer. If they already feel like a burden, they are not going to trust you with their problems unless you ask plainly, and let them know you can handle it.

Communicate that it’s OK and even normal to have feelings of hopelessness. You might say, “I understand why you feel this way. Things have been really tough. But I don’t want you to die, so can we talk about it?”

Just listen, without offering solutions

Listen genuinely, completely, and with no judgment.

Don’t offer solutions. Just acknowledge that they are going through something very difficult or painful. Listen, and let them relieve themselves of that heavy load they are carrying.

This is the hard part. Many of us are compulsive problem-solvers. But a troubled person can’t hear your solutions when they are in pain. It’s unlikely you have the solution for all their problems, anyway. Instead, listen openly, with compassion, showing them you are someone they can trust.

You don’t have to think of the right words to say. You just have to listen and acknowledge what they are going through. “That really is hard. I can see why you are stressed out. Oh, my gosh, I’m sorry that happened. That is a lot to deal with.”

It can take hours. It doesn’t matter if a problem is their own fault or if they could have prevented it. They don’t want advice. They feel alone and need to be heard.

After you listen, it’s time to talk about solutions. Get them connected to resources. They can’t be receptive unless they’ve been relieved of some of the pain.

Don’t hesitate to get extra help

Not everyone has the time or temperament to handle an intervention. If you are not in a place where you can help on your own, call a resource for your co-worker. They might be feeling overwhelmed and lack the energy and clarity of thought required to call a hotline. Your being there can give them enough support to talk to someone who can help.

Above all, don’t leave them alone if you think they are in danger. Call a family member. Get them to the ER. Call 911 if necessary. They might be angry, but it could save their life.

FirstForward courses on mental health and suicide prevention

The following courses are available on FirstForward. See course pages for pricing, certifications, and online availability.

Posted on Dec 3, 2020