Intervening to save the life of a suicidal youth means conveying a sense of hope: you must be warm and very, very human in your approach. A spirit of simplicity and humility on your part is absolutely necessary. Without humility in your heart, you’ll never find the right way to approach a distressed person. You want to convey, from the heart, why life is worthwhile, and what can be done to alleviate the sufferer’s emotional burdens.
The following advice is the product of trial and error, of years of efforts by many, many suicide prevention workers, including Raymond Viger. Here, then, is how you should approach a suicidal teen, youth, or anyone in such deep distress, for that matter:
From the moment you suspect that someone might be thinking suicidal thoughts, be direct. Talk like an adult. By raising the topic of suicide, you are in no way increasing the risk that someone might attempt suicide. And you can’t make someone suicidal who hasn’t considered the option just by raising the subject in conversation. This is the time to be frank.
If you have any doubts or suspicions at all, just ask: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” If the answer is yes, determine if any planning has taken place (where, when and how).
Offer help and understanding. By asking these questions and listening carefully and patiently to every answer, the real risk level can be evaluated. How far ahead is the planning process? How much time do you have to intervene? Can you deal with this yourself with the resources at your disposal, or do you have to call in emergency intervention?
Being frank also means openly admitting how this situation makes you yourself feel. You may thank the sufferer for taking you into their confidence. It’s appropriate to express your shock and distress over the sufferer’s depression. The sufferer at this point feels a sense of powerlessness and paralysis.
When the person shares with you their suicide plans, don’t agree in any way to keep what you hear secret. If the person tries to impose that condition, try to discover why they want you to respect their confidentiality. Then, explain clearly and firmly, yet as diplomatically as possible in the circumstances, that you can’t do that.
Keeping such a secret would make you an accomplice. You wouldn’t be able to continue to offer support and help. It would deprive the sufferer of a whole range of options, of ways to dig themselves out of the abyss they find themselves in. Stress that you, as a counselor wouldn’t be able to continue to share the sufferer’s sense of grief and powerlessness if they insist on maintaining confidentiality.
Talking about suicide may be very disturbing. It’s common among suicide prevention counselors. That’s why you shouldn’t remain alone after an intervention. You yourself will need human contact, warmth, support, and many external resources to draw upon. It’s never a good idea to work completely alone. Know your own emotional limitations. After all, you are as human as the people you are helping.
Book excerpt from Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook (2014), Éditions TNT
Suicide Prevention Hotlines:
Québec: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553). CLSCs can also help you.
Canada: Canada Suicide Prevention Service 833-456-4566
U.S.: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).