Tuesday 10 September was World Suicide Prevention Day. You might wonder why there is a day? Are we having some sort of celebration? No. It’s a day for reflection on the fact that many people are stopping their own precious lives. If you go around the cities on September 10, you will see candles in people’s windows. Candles to commemorate the lives lost, and a symbol to light the darkness to help show us the way in this.
The statistics are horrifying. Chances are we all know someone who has taken their own life or someone who knows someone. The grief left behind is compounded and layered with guilt and regret and despair, and that awful question of ‘Why?’ and wondering ‘If only I’d known’.
People I speak to seem to think it can happen to anyone at any time. Let’s have a closer look at it. Does a person, your son or daughter, or husband, for instance, just wake up one day and decide to kill themselves? No. You actually have to get to a tipping point to get a suicide. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
Edwin Shneidman, a great American Thanatoligist/suicidologist, wrote a book called Suicide as Psychache. He says most suicide is psychache. What is psychache? Apart from being a neologism, it’s unbearable pain. It is unbearable psychological distress, hurt, anguish, soreness, emotional pain. When the person has so much psychological pain and unmet psychological needs, they get to what’s known as the tipping point — when the mind/cognition actually restricts and the person can no longer think rationally. Their thinking gets very black and white. We refer to it as tunnel vision.
They can no longer think outside and around. Thinking has constricted. Whilst people who suicide are not necessarily mentally ill, it is most likely that at that very moment they are in fact experiencing this kind of tunnel vision. It’s either, ‘I live with his hideous pain, or I kill myself to stop it’. All the other options that you or I might entertain when things get a bit rough are simply not available to a person whose thinking is restricted. That would make them very unwell at that time. A dangerous and serious place.
If you are afraid someone might be suicidal, ask them. You can’t make it happen by talking about it. You might be able to stop it happening by talking about it. You don’t need to fix it all then and there. You just need to relieve a little bit of the pain to get it away from the tipping point.
If you imagine a glass of water filled right to the very top but just not going over, that’s tipping point. You can see now that the tiniest bit more will tip this over. That’s when you can get a suicide. You can also see that it doesn’t take much to just get it off tipping point.
Say to the person ‘What do you need right now that would mean you would not need to end your life today?’ Be bold. Be courageous.
Encourage them to tell you what they need and then tell them you will help them find a way to do that. Shneidman says people at this point, when their thinking has become restricted, also regress, so they’re much younger than their years at this point. He says to give in to the infantile wishes. Mollify the psychache. Then hand over to a professional for addressing that glass full of unmet needs and psychological pain.
You can keep track of someone’s unmet needs by asking them to fill a glass of water to show how much pain they are carrying. The idea is to keep this down pretty low so there is room for bad things to happen and the person still has the resources to deal with it without thinking the only way to stop the pain is to stop living.
In the room we have a water cooler. I get people to go and fill a glass to show me the level of their pain. I find people are able to do this, albeit we end up with water everywhere! Most times people can show this when they can’t find language to describe it.
The thing is, anyone can help someone who is in this place by asking them what they need right now. What would make the difference right now so they could live? Then, when they get off tipping point, they can get professional help, they can start to address more and more of the pain so the glass is reduced, and reduced. You can do something to help .You might make the difference and be a lifesaver that day.
Tipping point is a very dangerous place. If someone tells you that’s where they are, then you must not leave that person alone. You can call an ambulance or the police to help you. Get this person to a hospital. Handover. If you are a young person and your best friend confides this in you and begs you to keep it a secret between you — no. We don’t keep those kinds of secrets. Being a friend right then, means calling it and telling an adult immediately. Remember the person in this place has faulty thinking so being a friend would mean you take over and think for them for a little while until you get them to a safe place.
If you’re worried that you might be misreading it and over reacting, and you’ve made a mistake and taken it too seriously, well that’s just the best case scenario.