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How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal

My best effort to share how to help someone suicidal:

When someone plummets into dark, hopeless thinking, it appears like a deep hole, not a tunnel, to them. No light at the end, just blind darkness. And in those moments, people see the drastic act of suicide as an obvious escape. They are lost in their own misery.

What is missing is any realization that the whole experience is a chimera. Or that all thought is transitory and will disappear in the blink of a distraction. Or that everyone who lives into adulthood has seen that dark place, but not stayed there.

In those bleak moments, the innate spiritual strength, the natural wellbeing, we all have and can never lose is still flickering, the pilot light of our life on earth, but we have temporarily lost remembrance of how to turn on the burner. Desperately despairing thoughts throw a heavy pall over wisdom.

Because of recent celebrity suicides, the airwaves, the press and social media have been filled with links to suicide hot lines and with people offering advice for those who suspect a friend or loved one may be suicidal. For me, as a person who has worked with the Principles for more than 30 years, a lot of the current advice, well-meaning and heartfelt as it is, misses the mark.

If someone is overwhelmed with self-destructive thinking, talking with them about what is on their minds, or trying to talk them out of what is on their minds. is counterproductive. It keeps their negative thoughts churning in the foreground. If my tormented thinking is roiling my mind, it will not help me to get past it to try to express it or explain it. I would have to hold it in place to do that. As long as it is on my mind, it remains my reality, and the more I talk about it, the more it intensifies.

If, on the other hand, other thoughts come to my mind, the dark thoughts start to fade and pass on. With an understanding of how human psychological functioning works, anyone who intervenes with a person on the verge of suicide will create a distraction first thing. It only takes one thought for the person to start to move into a different reality. It doesn’t have to be a happy thought; it doesn’t have to be an optimistic thought. It just has to be a different thought. But it has to be that person’s thought.

Once the person moves out of the dark hole, even if it’s only into a shadowy place with just a little light, THEN a meaningful intervention can begin. But the first step is to elicit something totally different from the sadness in which they are absorbed, and to see the person’s mind turn even a little bit outside of themselves.

Our own common sense tells us, in the moment, what that might be. Maybe ask a question? Maybe point out something interesting outside and elicit an opinion about it? Maybe bring up the person’s family and inquire how someone is doing? Maybe spill something and ask for help cleaning it up? There are infinite things that could come into anyone’s mind who has the intent to change the subject and engage the person in a different kind of thinking and conversation.

So that’s the first thing I want to share. With the certainty that everyone actually is only one thought away from experiencing a different reality, we can confidently talk to anyone and know that as soon as we engage them, their thoughts will shift and their mind will move away from their torment.

But the most important immediate next thing is love and reassurance. In an effort to stay calm and rational, I know that sometimes we feel we have to keep cool, keep talking, and keep the talk neutral. But really, extremely insecure thinking is painfully lonely and alienating. A human connection can do more than a lot of reasonable talk to draw someone back to life. Do not be afraid to touch someone’s arm, hold their hand, give them a hug if you know them well. Be with them. Listen to them. Silence, in a loving feeling, is often healing. But if it makes sense to talk, talk to the health in them, not to the temporary dysfunction.

Wisdom is like our circulation; it is an essential fact of life. We don’t feel it or even think much about it. But it is keeping us going. Wisdom is a life force. As soon as a person’s a mind quiets, their heart settles and their own wisdom arises. We don’t have to cheer them up; their spirits lift naturally.

Love, just pure unconditional love, is the balm that helps the heart to settle and the spirits to lift. Wisdom is the light that shines from within all of us.

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