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Suicide: Recognising The Warning Signs

Mal Fletcher
Added 21 October 1999
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Suicide is a perennial problem in today's society – especially among the young.

It's heartbreaking. Many young adults feel that their lives have no point; that the world would, in fact, be a better place if they weren't in it.

The size of the problem shouldn't make us feel overwhelmed, though, or helpless to respond. When we talk about suicide as a social problem, it's easy to talk in terms of numbers and statistics. Yet these are just abstractions for individual human beings.

Suicide affects one person at a time -- and nobody is beyond help.


RECOGNISING THE WARNING SIGNS

Perhaps you're concerned about a friend right now. They've started acting strangely or saying things that sound self-destructive.

They've had their problems and you're concerned that they may be contemplating a drastic course of action.

The good news is this: you can bring someone back from the brink of disaster. The process starts with recognizing the warning signs and treating them seriously.

Here are some of the signs that suggest a person may be contemplating suicide. None of these taken alone necessarily represents a threat, but if you're seeing several of them all at once, you might need to pay special attention.

1. Major changes in normal behaviour
When normally outgoing people suddenly become sullen and uncommunicative, for example, or when a very good student suddenly starts failing in school, alarm bells might need to ring.

2. Sleeping problems
When people start sleeping at odd times, becoming tired during the day and overactive or restless at night, there may be deep psychological factors at work.

3. Changed eating patterns
Excessive dieting or overeating may mask real emotional problems and self-rejection. The person may feel powerless to change their situation.

4. Apathy and lack of energy
If a friend suddenly seems to lose interest in life, tiring of things that they used to find stimulating and interesting, you should take note.

5. Unexpected cheerfulness after long depression
This may mean that your friend has given up on his/her problems and may already have decided on a more drastic solution.

6. Aggression
If a friend starts throwing temper tantrums, lashing out at others with physical violence or verbal abuse at the slightest provocation, keep a close eye on them.

7. Risk-taking behaviour
When someone you care about suddenly and uncharacteristically starts getting into fights or taking unusual risks, take note. Sometimes, a sudden taste for playing 'chicken' on train tracks, or 'surfing' on from moving trains is a sign of deep disturbance.

8. Promiscuity
For many people, especially the young, sexual promiscuity is a way of saying, 'I need affection and a reason to live.'

9. Truanting and use of drugs
Sometimes, a person who is skipping school or abusing drugs is saying, 'If you care, you will stop me.' Many people who try to commit suicide have mixed feelings about it. They're actually looking to see if others think they're worth saving.

10. Neglect of appearance
This may reflect a low self-esteem, especially when the person lets his/her appearance degenerate in a short space of time.

11. Frequent crying
This may show that a person is no longer able to cope with their situation.

12. Self-destructive talk
Always treat it seriously if you hear a friend saying things like: 'Well, you won't miss me when I'm gone!', 'I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up!', or 'They'll be sorry when I'm gone.' This may very well be a desperate last cry for help – even if it sounds flippant at the time.


HOW FRIENDS AND FAMILY CAN HELP

The signs above should always be taken seriously -- especially, as I've said, when several of them occur together.

How can you as a friend or family member help someone who is in trouble and potentially suicidal?

1. Be observant
Take note of major changes in behaviour. Young people are especially vulnerable to major depression during times of upheaval in their circumstances. A death in the family or among friends, or fights in the home, or the break-up of a close boy/girl relationship, all of these can trigger depression.

Trust your instincts: if you see sudden changes in behaviour, recognize that there could be a much deeper problem.

2. Be a good listener
Try to get your friend or family member talking about their problem. It's not always easy, especially if the person has withdrawn into themselves.

Try to open up a path of communication. Perhaps say something like this: 'I've noticed you haven't been quite yourself lately. Can I help?'

Don't trivialize the problem. Never say, 'Oh, things aren't as bad as all that!' and don't act in judgemental way or sound shocked (even if you are!).

Try to be constructive: 'Have you thought about suicide before? What stopped you? What was it that made you want to live on?'

As your friend starts to respond, rephrase their statements and feed back to them what you think they've said. This allows them to fill in gaps in your understanding and it demonstrates that you're really listening and you really care.

This kind of empathic listening also helps your friend to order their thinking, following their thoughts and plans through to logical conclusions. If they open up to you, thank them for trusting you.

3. Try to help them take a more positive approach
It's important to try to help your friend solve the simpler aspects of their problem first – without treating the situation as simplistic.

Help them to see that there are solutions; that taking their lives is not a solution at all. In fact, it leaves behind a long trail of new problems for others, and it wastes a precious life!

Point out that problems are temporary – they can be worked out, or at least managed. Suicide, on the other hand, is final.

4. Remove all lethal weapons and potentially lethal drugs from the house
Suicide can seem a much more attractive option when the means are within easy reach.

So, don't give a severely depressed person the benefit of the doubt when it comes to sleeping pills or other drugs. Don't leave such things within their reach and be sure to remove all weapons, or articles that could be turned into weapons.

5. Don't leave them alone too much
Don't leave a distressed friend with too much unoccupied time on their hands. Try to involve them in outside activities or constructive pastimes, even simple ones such as cleaning the car, or cooking a meal.

Constructive activity, where a clear goal is achieved, can help alleviate feelings of despair.

You can't be hanging around every hour of every day, but try as much as possible to ensure that your friend has someone around them most of time. Be creative in ensuring that help remains within easy reach.

6. Seek outside help
Encourage a hurting friend to seek professional help. No matter how gifted you may feel as a 'counsellor', don't ever feel ashamed to refer your friend to someone who is more qualified to help.

Ask your friend if there is someone they already feel they can talk to. If there's not, or that person isn't able to take them any further, seek help or advice on their behalf.

A professional counsellor, a pastor or even a trusted teacher can take the process to the next level.


WHY HELP AT ALL?

I've heard and read the words of some people who respond to the suicide issue like this: 'Hey, if someone wants to end their life, who are we to stop them? It's their life after all.'

This response is tragic. There are two reasons why we should never abandon someone to suicide.

1. Many thousands of people who've tried suicide and failed are now very grateful
Problems that once seemed insurmountable to them are now quite manageable, with the help of others.

2. Hell on earth is not hell at all
The Bible has been a great comfort to troubled hearts and minds for thousands of years. Many people of all walks of life, and all races, have found the courage to go on after consulting this amazing book and discovering what it says about them.

According to the Bible, the greatest rights in the universe are God's rights.

For one thing, he has the right to be honoured as God in our lives. What the Bible calls 'sin' is really a refusal to give God his rights, to allow him to lead me into his good plan for my life. Sin is a refusal to trust God with my needs and problems.

Allowing anything to take God's rightful place in my life is idolatry. According to the Bible, idolatry leads to thinking which is 'futile', or wasted, empty, meaningless and good for nothing.

When something else (especially me!) is my 'god', I am wasting my life and setting myself up for futility. Ultimately, a soul that refuses the love of God ends up in hell, which is the ultimate expression of futility. One person said that 'hell is the place where wasted lives go.'

That may sound harsh to our postmodern, politically correct ears, but it's not far from the teaching of Jesus himself. When Jesus referred to hell – and he talked about it as much as heaven – he most often used the word Gehenna. This was the name of a garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem, where waste products were thrown to be burned.

Jesus spoke of hell as being like a rubbish dump, the destination of lives that can no longer serve the purpose for which God made them.

There is a literal hell. Whilst only God can ultimately judge where a person spends eternity, we cannot afford to believe that he will accept us if we waste what he's given us. His most precious gift to us is life itself.

The real hell is much worse than any 'hell' we think we're experiencing here and now. But thank God, he has made a way for us to avoid that place forever – and to live this life to the max, too.

God gave us life not to be endured but to be celebrated and enjoyed.

God gave his own Son to die, to remove the pain from our hearts, to lift the load of guild, despair and rejection that might otherwise have crushed us. Jesus was crushed for us on the cross.

The one who was born incredibly blessed became a curse, so that you and I, who sometimes feel like we were born cursed, might live blessed lives.

True enjoyment, fulfilment and happiness come not by serving our own purposes, or by struggling to solve our problems all alone. No, Jesus offers us his life for ours – a miracle life, lived under an open heaven, for a life of misery and anguish, lived under a shadow.

If you, or a friend, are considering suicide, do them a favour: pray for them! And, when you have discovered God's love, gently share it with them. Don't wait, though: they need to hear about it now, while there's still time for them to accept God's help.


Some helpful links on the subject of suicide

www.save.org: a useful site with FAQs and resource materials about suicide prevention. US emergency number also listed.

www.samaritans.org.uk: emergency help. UK emergency phone numbers also listed.

www.metanoia.org/suicide: if you are considering suicide or self harm in any way - please read this page!

© Mal Fletcher 1991-1995

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