When your co-worker or teammate approaches you and hints that they’re thinking of suicide, what can you do? How should you respond? Can talking about suicide plant the thought in their head?
We'll cover all the essentials in this blog – keep reading.
A few things need to be kept in mind when somebody shares that they’re feeling suicidal. It’s better to start off with what not to do.
Whenever somebody shares that they’re feeling depressed, low or suicidal, generally the approach people take is to use the language of fear, shame or guilt. Fear by saying, "If you talk about things like this, I’ll go and talk to your family about it." or, "I’ll go and tell so-and-so about it." So, people feel this may not the right place for them to share something.
When we talk about guilt, we are implying, "What has happened in your life that you’re coming to feel this way?" The person starts feeling that they are wrong to feel that way, or wrong to share it with someone else.
The worst of the three is shame, "How can you even say something like this?" "How can you be so weak? Are you that immature, are you that inconsiderate?" "Do you not care about your family? Do you not care about the impact this will have on everybody else?"
Shame makes them feel that not only are they doing something wrong, but there's also something wrong with them. And they think that all that's going wrong with their life is because there’s something wrong with them, and the world will be a better place without them.
How can you talk to them in a sensitive manner?
What to do comes from what you should avoid.
Avoid the language of fear, shame, and guilt. Talk with sensitivity and ask the person:
How they have been feeling
How long they have been feeling this way
What has helped them
What has not helped
Ask them what kind of help they want from you. Don’t assume they want you to solve their problem.
Sometimes, they may want you to just listen to them. They may just want somebody to assure them, for the time being, that there are ways out of it. So you don't have to take the responsibility of solving somebody's problem or giving them the answers; because quite often there aren't any answers, and somebody's just looking at companionship through that difficult time.
So being a good listener and being a good friend is what you need to do.
If you ask someone whether they’re thinking of suicide, will you be putting the thought in their head?
That's a very common myth — that if you talk directly about suicide, you can introduce the idea in the person's head. Now, you can influence the preventive side of things, but influencing the causative side of things is very unlikely unless you are actively aggravating the thought by making somebody feel ashamed or making somebody feel guilty about sharing this thought with you.
It is a burden in the sense that it's not easy to listen to somebody's stories. As a mental health professional myself, it's not easy to listen to somebody's story of how they're having thoughts of suicide.
But we need to understand that there are limitations to what we can do, and we need to only take on that much. We don't have to take on the responsibility of solving the issue. The responsibility at that time is to listen and understand how long they have been feeling this way if they have just been feeling this way, if they've actively been thinking or planning about acting on these thoughts, or if there's already been an attempt made.
That's the level of work you need to do. You just need to understand how intense, how frequent, and how actionable these thoughts have become for the person, and based on that it's your job to connect them to the appropriate resource.
It's not your job to be that one-stop for everybody. So while it feels like there is a lot of burden, you need to realize your own limitations and be upfront and honest about that.
If someone you know is considering suicide, can you share the information with someone who you think can help?
I think the law is very clear on this right now. We have a Mental Healthcare Act that clearly talks about what is confidential information, what is not confidential information, what can you share, and what can't you share.
So whether it's counseling ethics or the Mental Healthcare Act, it's pretty clear that when somebody talks about harm to self or potential harm to others, it's okay to disclose as much information as is needed to save the person's life. The first person that the Mental Healthcare Rct recommends that one should talk to is a nominated representative.
A nominated representative — as mentioned in the Act— is a legal definition. But ethically, it would be advisable to tell the other person that you won't be able to keep the information just between the two of you and ask them to nominate someone you can speak to.
If the person does not agree to nominate a representative, then a trusted family member or a trusted colleague in the organization can be told about it.
You can only disclose as much as is needed to save the person's life. So if somebody is telling you that they are feeling this way, that and only that is what you are supposed to share. You are not supposed to share the entire background of what you know, or your conjecture about why they must be feeling this way; all of that goes into the domain of confidential knowledge.
But you can say you have reason to believe that the person is feeling this way, and you're just bringing it to notice so that something unfortunate does not happen ahead. That much is okay.
What is the involvement of the person who is having thoughts of suicide in the gatekeeping process?
It's ideally supposed to be a joint process. The person is supposed to tell you who they are comfortable sharing with. The choice of whether or not someone should be informed is not there. But whom to tell — that is a completely choice-based decision, you know.
The person can decide to nominate a friend and not a family member. They can decide to nominate a family member and not their spouse. They can nominate a colleague and nobody else. Or they can tell family but not an organization. Who this information is shared with depends on the person's wish. As far as possible, it should be collaborative.
If there is no other option, you can go ahead and share it with somebody who will be able to prevent this from happening. So if it's at the workplace, somebody senior at the workplace who can intervene and have a conversation; if it's somebody who's saying this when they're at home, somebody in the family can be told about it. If nothing else, contact an emergency service, a helpline, or if needed, a legal authority like the police can also be informed — but then again, as the very last resort.
Take an informed approach to suicide prevention by becoming a gatekeeper, who knows how to identify distress signs in others, offer emotional first-aid, and refer them to a psychologist for long-term support.
Manah Wellness, in collaboration with the world-renowned QPR Institute, offers an expert-led program on suicide prevention gatekeeping, wherein you'll learn all there is to learn about it.
Contact us to save a spot right now.